Animal Protection > Activist Interviews

The Karen Davis Interview giving a voice and dignity to the Battery Hen

Karen Davis is a campaigner/animal activist who's organisation, United Poultry Concerns, is a voice in America that actively promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. If you've never heard Karen speak before all I'll say is, if you were in a fight you'd want her on your side. Here Karen shares her views with us on a number of issues ranging from forced moulting practices in the States to looking at the darker underbelly of so-called 'humanity" in its relentless pursuit of cruelty to factory "farm" animals.

Interview by Claudette Vaughan.

First published in Vegan Voice, December 2000.

CLAUDETTE: It's been said before that love and anger drive feminists to achieve goals of non-violence, reproductive freedom, creature rights for all and rigorous ecology-based action. Is this what drives you Karen?

KAREN: It is true that I am driven by love and anger love, certainly, for chickens and, in a sense, for all creatures who are deliberately and unjustly made to suffer. And I am angry at the abusers. In general, I am not fond of the way the human race behaves in the world. More than violence, I hate cruelty and injustice. If I or my chickens or my mother were attacked, I wouldn't hesitate to use violence to get rid of the attacker if necessary. I think violence, like "reproductive rights", is a complicated issue. Cruelty, however, is not morally complicated. Blanche Dubois tells Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee William's play), "Deliberate cruelty is unforgivable." I completely agree with that.

CLAUDETTE: Why do you think people are so invested/infested in being violent towards non-human beings?

KAREN: I think, in part, people are so violent (cruel, abusive, and unfeeling) towards non-human animals because they resent the fact of being animals mortal, contingent, woundable. Human cultures (myths, fairytales, religion, legends) in which despite all appearances, they have a "divine" origin and a "divine" destiny, a status that elevates them above the rest of existence.

Humans behave with cruelty and violence on a large scale, also, because we have no accountability. There is nothing stopping us. No God comes out of the sky and says "enough." No God protects battery hens, for example. People can rationalise anything they want to do. I do not agree with those who say that humans hate violence. I think that in some fundamental and pervasive way, the need to exert power and control are driving forces of human existence.

CLAUDETTE: Have the Egg and Dairy Industries targeted you for criticism?

KAREN: The US egg industry has targeted United Poultry Concerns in response to our campaign to eliminate the economic practice of staving hens for days and weeks at a time, known as "forced moulting". The industry cited our campaign as a reason for creating a "welfare advisory committee" in 1999 to deal with forced moulting, debeaking, and battery cages. Actually, it is we who have targeted them, and they who are burdened with responding to our accusations.

CLAUDETTE: How have you targeted them?

KAREN: We have responded to the egg (and poultry) industry's effort to justify their practices by continuing to educate the public. We use the Internet, letters to the editor and op-eds, advertising campaigns, public protest demos, radio talk-shows, and other opportunities to publicise the facts and urge people to stop eating animal products and "Go Vegan!"

CLAUDETTE: How did your own awakening to non-human suffering affect your personal and professional life?

KAREN: My own awakening to animal ABUSE (that is the animal suffering that concerns me politically and professionally), led me, ultimately, to stop teaching English and start United Poultry Concerns in 1990. My personal life was given a specific direction, a specific objective. At a deeper level, there is no way to cope. There is contemplation and a recognition that these terrible things are happening, which I do not accept.

CLAUDETTE: At this point in your life, what do you feel is your role in the animal rights struggle?

KAREN: My role is to insist on the value of each individual animal's life and to show that value by representing the life of chickens, as individuals and as social creatures, so that people will begin to see them for who they are and thus care about them and want to help them and stop hurting them. Examples are my essays including "Animals and the Feminine Connection", "Muffie", "Thinking like a Chicken", and "Memories inside a Boiler Chicken House". I think the emphasis in the animal advocacy movement on "suffering" as opposed to "abuse" has the potential to overlook responsibility for the specific suffering which it is our business to eliminate: the suffering imposed on non-human animals by our species.

I don't share the idea that as long as an animal doesn't "suffer", killing isn't so bad. To "suffer" means to bear an injury or harm, whether or not the injured party experiences the wound as pain or other discomfort. If you wound an animal in a laboratory experiment or stun an animal in a slaughterhouse, you are causing the animal to suffer because you are inflicting injuries, wounds. Anaesthetisation doesn't change that.

In addition, the emphasis on "animal suffering" blots out identity, individuality, and the value of animals. It implies that non-human creatures are containers of suffering and bundles of nerve endings with no distinctive contribution to life or preciousness in themselves. If they are killed it doesn't matter as long as they don't "suffer". I think this is the final injustice to them.

I support Animal Rights. I believe creatures have a right to express and experience their nature as they choose, and that to violate that right is wrong. ( I am not talking about the "rights" of fascists and serial murderers nor disputing the need for boundaries.) Chickens, for example might spend their day outdoors in a stimulating environment (stimulating with respect to chickens' interests), to take sunbaths and dustbaths and to socialise with one another in ways that define them as chickens. As experiencing fellow mortals, they have claims on us. I draw the line at "reproductive rights" for domesticated animals (including humans), under the circumstances. If it were up to me, there would be no "domestic" animals, by which I mean there would be no slavery, no animal property, no "pets". Other creatures would live their lives, raising their families, having their own projects.

CLAUDETTE: What is your opinion of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) using sexism in their ads? Is it possible that they have misunderstood the fundamental premise that all oppressions are interlinked or are you of the opinion "By whatever means necessary....?" Also do you see sexism in their ads as a betrayal of those woman who already work on behalf of the animals?

KAREN: I am ambivalent about some of PETA's ads. I have no problem with the "Go naked" campaign men and women are featured, and the models consent to being naked or whatever. If PETA resorted to images of sadism and cruelty in order to promote animal rights, I would object to that (unless it was designed to show an analogy and had been well researched to reach a particular audience), but this isn't what PETA is doing. I do not believe that pornography is strictly about male domination and that women are always "victims of oppression," I think that womens' psychology is more entangled with mens' psychology, that there is more complicity, than this suggests.

The "Got Beer" campaign aroused a lot of feelings in the animal community. It's a clever approach to the cow's milk issue, but probably too clever for the American mainstream public it was aimed at. Whether such campaigns are necessary shock tactics to wake people up and whether they promote or retard animal liberation, I am not prepared to say.

I think we are obliged to be self-critical within our movement with respect to tactics and strategies that, in our opinion, do and do not advance the goal of animal liberation, but I do not think people in our movement should waste precious time on radio interviews, for example, talking about (distancing and downgrading themselves) PETA. We should be forging our own strategies that we believe work, and not let ourselves be diverted from the opportunity to put the plight of animals before the public and get that message out there. That, plus what people can do about it.

CLAUDETTE: Thankfully we don't have forced moulting over here. What does it entail and is it close to being banned in the States?

KAREN: The US egg industry force moults intentionally starves for 5 to 14 or more days entire flocks of hens to manipulate their metabolism, forcing exhausted hens (hens subjected to 17 hour days for 10 months or more) to lay eggs for a few miserable months before going to slaughter. And the reason for forced moulting is that it is cheaper to "recycle" the survivors of a forced moult than it is to raise and feed flocks of pullets (young hens) for each new egg-laying cycle. "Moulting" refers to the replacement of old feathers by new ones. It is a process that all birds go through over the course of a year in order to maintain good plumage at all times. Forced moulting is different. When food is withdrawn, the lack of nutrients causes the hens' feathers to fall out and they stop laying eggs after a few days. Eggs can't be formed without nutrition.

Forced moulting is a complex matter. Those desiring a fuller understanding should visit our website (www.upc-online.org) which has an entire section on forced moulting. But to summarise: During the forced moult, starving hens peak desperately at empty metal food troughs and are driven to pluck and eat each others feathers to obtain nutrients; feathers are mainly protein. Meanwhile, the hens lose up to 35 percent of their body weight. Countless hens die during and after the moult, including choking to death from impacted crops when their food is restored.

Forced moulting is so stressful it increases bone breakage and impairs the hen's immune system, predisposing the birds and their eggs to Salmonella infection.

Fortunately and amazingly, the United Egg Producer's own welfare advisory committee, while opposing a California bill that would have banned forced moulting in California earlier this year, stated in it's letter of opposition to the bill (AB 2141) that "Behavioural and immune system measures indicate that the welfare of the hen is compromised when feed withdrawal or restriction is used to induce a moult," and therefore, "We do not believe that feed restriction or withdrawal to induce a moult should be continued."

The fact that forced moulting is illegal in the United Kingdom and the European Union, and in Australia and New Zealand; the fact that US government scientists have shown the link between forced moulting and Salmonella enteritidis as a result of immune system breakdown in forced moulted hens; and the fact that the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association recently issued a policy statement opposing forced moulting on welfare grounds all of this has strengthened our campaign. But the thing is, it was our campaign that got things moving at all. The US Department of Agriculture and the egg industry had the information but weren't doing anything with it until United Poultry Concerns started publicising their findings. I urged a journalist at The Washington Post (Marc Kaufman) from November 1999 until April 2000 to do an investigative story about forced moulting, sending him the material I had accumulated and keeping him posted on the California bill. The result was a front page article on Sunday, April 30, "Cracks in the Egg Industry: Criticism Mounts to End Forced Moulting Practice." This was a major breakthrough, a major accomplishment on behalf of chickens in this country.

CLAUDETTE: The Animal Rights Movement is predominantly female and yet there can be a kind of emphasis placed upon male-defined liberation where emotions run secondary or are dismissed as "unprofessional". What are your insights here Karen?

KAREN: It isn't "emotion" per se that is dismissed as "unprofessional" by some (or many) men in our movement, but the display of emotions of distress and pain, I think. Emotions of pride and achievement are not frowned on particularly by the men in our movement as far as I can see that among both men and women in the animal movement there is a lot of self-doubt and anxious desire to please society, to seem 'normal' and 'not offend'. Over the years I have heard animal rights speakers, men and women, hasten to reassure their audience that they are not "anti-science" or "anti-human", "not crazy". They are not trying to "make everyone become vegetarian overnight".

The animal rights movement has a huge built-in disadvantage, which is the inability of the victims to participate in it. People in our movement often make it a point of pride that they are "not angry", I do not consider not being angry at an abuser a cause for pride. To me that kind of tolerance is flaccid and apathetic. How to structure legitimate anger along with other elements in order to wake people up and free the animals is the question. I believe in passion, and one must hold a position. I think rational argument is important and so is arguing fiercely from the heart. I don't see incompatibility among these things. If there is no passion in one's advocacy, no charisma, it's going to be hard to get and sustain people's attention. But one has to be very firm, hold that position, stay on track, not fold when the radio guys try to getcha. We need more self-assurance, more tough-mindedness, more sass perhaps. I would like to see our movement stop telling people to take only little steps and encourage them to take BIG steps. There has to be a meaningful correlation between the problem and the solution.

CLAUDETTE: You have said previously that men have traditionally admired and even sought to emulate certain kinds of animals but they have never sought to emulate either women or minorities certainly not the battery hen. Can you expand this thought for our readers please?

KAREN: I have criticised the environmental movement in particular for it's machismo, specifically for Romantic male identification with Mountains and Wild Animals and corresponding disparagement of "domesticated" animals, most of all "farm" animals. I consider this aspect of environmentalism to be puerile, caddish, and no more than a way for the male ego to find a mystique whereby to continue acting out aggression in the guise of "communion with nature." If people really care about wild animals, they cannot forsake and blame them for having "allowed" themselves to be domesticated (dependency, "softness" etc) is something to be feared. If you are living a soft comfortable life you can still go out and kill animals and "Think like a Mountain". It is one of the forms human self-idolatry takes, an illusion that your play-acting is like the life of a Tiger or a Wolf.

CLAUDETTE: It reminds me of the times I've petitioned for the Battery Hen and Broiler Hens and in the vast majority of cases it is the women who rush to sign. The men, many men (not the exception to the rule) are indifferent or hostile. What do you think is going on here? Is it some form of patriarchal self-protection that they feel threatened by any change to their lifestyle or do you think it's something else?

KAREN: I am not convinced that women are more compassionate and just than men. Being a women in the feminist movement doesn't count that's self interest, like protecting one's children. I do not scoff at this at all. But I have heard women say, for example, that while they "care" about animals, when it comes to "my baby or a dog", let the dog be damned. I think that when it comes to the rest of the living world, humans, both men and women, are inclined to be patriarchal, cruel, and unfeeling. In Thomas Hardy's novel Jude the Obscure, it is not Jude but Arabella who is callous and brutal when it comes to killing the pig. I think that there is a human problem that needs to be addressed.

CLAUDETTE: Out of all the qualities available what are the ones you think that represents the best hope for creating a huge, unified political campaign?

KAREN: I think confidence, persistence, and focus are critical.

United Poultry Concerns can be contacted at:
P O Box 150,
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
USA
or visit their website: http://www.upc-online.org/