My interview with Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns, at the Taking Action for Animals conference turned into a fascinating look at Davis’s experiences during the early days of the modern animal rights movement, leading up to her founding UPC in 1990. UPC advocates for domestic fowl, including chickens, ducks and turkeys, and also operates a sanctuary.
On growing up with hunters: I come from Pennsylvania. All the males in my family were hunters. My uncles, my cousins, everybody. When I was 13, 14 years old, I would be sitting at the dinner table with my father and my mother and my brothers, and I had learned about hunting at that point. My father would go down to the basement and he’d be plucking the pheasants and by that time, I knew that pheasants were pen-raised and then they were set free just to be shot. That’s what pheasant hunting is. They’re stocked, and then they’re set free and they’re bewildered, and they’re being shot all over the place, so we would be having these arguments. My father’s a lawyer, so you could yell and scream in our house. You could fight out ideas and that was sort of a plus. You didn’t have to sit there and shut up.
On eating eggs: There was a time when I used to eat a lot of eggs. I’d hard-boil them in college and eat six at a time. And I hardly even thought at that time about eggs coming from a chicken. I was so removed from, like, “Where does an egg come from? I don’t know.” They were eggs, and I liked to eat them hard-boiled. And I didn’t even have any knowledge at that time. It was the 60s. I didn’t know anything. I never thought about where food came from. I was a meat eater. Again, I never made those connections.
On her first experience with institutional animal cruelty: In the 1970s, I learned about the seal hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the slaughter of harp seals. That was my first real introduction into widespread, institutionalized animal abuse. I’d seen animal abuse growing up, in personal situations, community situations. But that was my real introduction to huge institutionalized cruelty to animals.
I actually went to see the seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1974, and I thought I was going to a protected area, where the seals were protected, because the idea was to try to encourage the islanders to turn the seals into a tourist attraction. So, I went under the false impression, as it turned out, that these seals were protected and when I got there, it turned out not to be the case. The seals were actually being slaughtered by the local people. It was so traumatizing to me, what I witnessed there, that I went back to Montreal. I spent three days holed up in a hotel room, so distressed I couldn’t even get on a plane home, and I was so distressed, for really, ten years after that, that I couldn’t face any more.
On becoming vegetarian: I became a vegetarian in the early 1970s. I didn’t really give up dairy milk because for some bizarre reason, I wasn’t really aware of the fact that cows had to be kept pregnant in order to produce milk and I didn’t know anything about the really squalid and miserable conditions that so-called dairy cows are forced to live in. But I definitely ate no more meat at all.
I had read an essay around 1974 by Leo Tolstoy, the great writer of War and Peace, in which he talked about the first step toward a non-violent life, and the title of the essay is “The First Step.” And what he described in his essay as the first step was you stop committing the violence against animals for your dinner plate. That essay was very, very pivotal for me.
1974 was a very important year for me. I read the Tolstoy essay, and I went to see the seals at the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I had to stand back for a while and absorb that very agonizing experience of the seals at the Gulf of St. Lawrence. So for ten years, I stayed a distance from animal issues, although I did maintain my vegetarian diet.
Background Note: In 1981, authorities seized 17 monkeys from the labs of Edward Taub, a researcher at the Institute for Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, MD. The whistle-blower was Alex Pacheco, co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who was working undercover in Taub’s lab. Although Taub was convicted of animal cruelty, the conviction was overturned on appeal because Taub’s research had been federally funded and therefore not subject to state anti-cruelty laws. The monkeys became known as the Silver Spring Monkeys.
On vivisection, Edward Taub and the Silver Spring Monkeys: I was teaching an English class at the University of Maryland, and a student wrote this paper in which she pretty much exonerated Edward Taub, who became famous in the mid-1980s as the Silver Spring Monkey experimenter, which was People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ real big case. And this was around 1983. He burned monkeys with cigarettes, and he cut their limbs and he forced them to live in their own feces and to self-mutilate. So I told her she would have to re-write her paper based on more research and re-submit it.