A Chicken Named Viva Changed My Life
A Plea for Compassion on International Respect for Chickens Day and Every Day
By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns
Viva. Photo by Karen Davis, June 1985
If you had told me a year before I met her that a crippled chicken in a wooden shed would change my life forever, I would not have believed you. Yet this is
what happened one summer day thirty years ago when my husband and I rented a little house on a dirt road in Maryland outside Washington, DC. Unbeknown to
us, our landlady was raising a flock of chickens. Discovering them on an afternoon walk, I visited them every day until, one day, they were gone –
all but one.
We named the survivor Viva because she alone of her flock had been left alive. Like her companions, she had the deformed feet and heavy breast of
“broiler” chickens – the kind who have been bred since the 1940s for abnormal growth rates and weight gain. Reading the poultry
literature I learned about the disabilities bred into these birds including the fact that their bones are too weak for their bodies and their bodies are
wracked with bizarre diseases. Like so many, Viva could only stand and walk by balancing herself on her wings.
Despite her condition, Viva was a very affectionate chicken who purred and chirped contentedly in the comfort of our kitchen where we made her a bed by the
stove. On nice days, we liked to sit with her outside in the grass where she would take great pains to steady herself and run through the yard on her wing
tips before collapsing, resting, and starting over.
Already by the 1980s, broiler chickens weighed four pounds at eight weeks old – more than 40 times their original hatching weight. The U.S.
Department of Agriculture bragged that if human beings grew that fast, “an 8-week-old baby would weigh 349 pounds.” A study published in 2008
said that the growth rate of chickens had increased “by over 300 percent” in the past fifty years, resulting in “impaired locomotion and
poor leg health.” (Toby Knowles, et al. 2008. “Leg Disorders in Broiler Chickens.” PLoS ONE 6 February: e1545)
It isn’t only their legs. Poultry scientists in the 1990s warned that chickens “now grow so rapidly that the heart and lungs are not developed
well enough to support the remainder of the body, resulting in congestive heart failure.” (David Martin. 1997. “Researcher studying
growth-induced diseases in broilers.” Feedstuffs 26 May: 6)
Uncaringly, the poultry industry continues to increase the size and growth rate of these deeply troubled birds. At a meeting in 2014, a company executive
raved that over the past year, “average big bird weights have averaged 8.2 to 8.6 pounds, with nearly a dozen companies producing birds over 9
pounds.” (Rita Jane Gabbett. 2014. “Poultry Executives Predict More, Bigger Birds.” MeatingPlace, 31October)
Ethically, there is nothing to crow about. These are baby chicks who in nature weigh barely a pound at that age. The effects of the “human controlled
evolution” of chickens are described in the poultry science literature. An article in International Hatchery Practice (“Trends in
developmental anomalies in contemporary broiler chickens”) states that chickens with extra legs and wings, missing eyes and beak deformities
“can be found in practically every broiler flock,” where “a variety of health problems involving muscular, digestive, cardiovascular,
integumentary, skeletal, and immune systems” form a complex of debilitating diseases. Dr. Andrew A. Olkowski, DVM and his colleagues say poultry
personnel provide “solid evidence that anatomical anomalies have become deep-rooted in the phenotype of contemporary broiler chickens.”
The breeding pathologies of chickens are compounded by the unsanitary conditions in which they are raised. The combination of infirmity and filth
overwhelms their immune systems with salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli and other pathogens that sicken and kill people in the United States and worldwide.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show more deaths from poultry than from any other food product. (Consumer Reports Magazine,
Currently, an epidemic of deadly avian influenza (H5N2) in chickens and turkeys on farms around the country dominate the agribusiness news media. Concerned
that people might not want to eat these sick birds, the poultry industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture reassure the public that the virus does not
sicken humans and that poultry and eggs are “safe.” They blame wild birds for the epidemic, but as a UN News Centre release said in 2005,
“We are wasting valuable time pointing fingers at wild birds.” (UN News Centre. 2005. “UN task forces battle misconception of avian flu,
mount Indonesian campaign,” 24 October)
Avian influenza viruses have lived harmlessly in the intestines of waterfowl for millennia. Shed in sparsely populated outdoor settings in the droppings of
birds whose immune systems have evolved to accommodate them, these viruses are rapidly killed by sunlight and tend to dehydrate to death in the breeze. By
contrast, chickens and turkeys are crowded together in dank, sunless buildings – ideal breeding grounds for disease organisms to thrive and prey on
the disabled birds.
Thirty years after rescuing Viva from a Maryland chicken shed, I have watched the plight of chickens grow worse. At the same time, more people are speaking
up for chickens than ever before, praising their charm and intelligence, their capacity for happiness and their right to enjoy fresh air and a life worth
living. Inspired by Viva, I founded United Poultry Concerns in 1990 dedicated to the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. Back then I
was told that people “weren’t ready” to care about chickens and that an organization devoted to them would never fly, but they were
May 4th was International Respect for Chickens Day and May was International Respect for Chickens Month. Our message is simple. Be kind to chickens.
Don’t eat them. Tell your family and friends how much chickens suffer in animal agriculture and how cheerful and loving chickens are when they are
treated with compassion and respect. Please make every day Respect for Chickens Day.