United Poultry Concerns December 5, 2001

A review of the theological, philosophical, and physiological effects of fasting across species, including both naturally occurring fasts as well as those imposed by others for some means.

On behalf of United Poultry Concerns, I submitted the following responses on 20 December 2000 to the North Carolina Cooperative Extensive Service at the request of Dr. Kenneth Anderson and Dr. Deana Jones, who wrote to me on 23 October 2000 that "In an attempt to present current views on the issue [of fasting], we would like to conduct a personal interview with you. Due to your accomplishments, you have been identified as a concise voice with strong beliefs pertaining to the philosophical or theological area of fasting whether it is self-induced or in some cases forced. We would value and welcome your insight and perspective on this topic."

The Review On Fasting is expected to be published as a single document, including the responses of all contributors, within the next year or so. In the meantime Dr. Anderson has granted permission for United Poultry Concerns to post the following contribution by Karen Davis to the forthcoming Review:

The theological, philosophical, and physiological effects of fasting across species.

1. Based on your interpretation, how do you define fasting?

To fast means to abstain from all or certain foods. Fasting is a form of behavior that proceeds from within an individual or a species as part of a larger purpose or activity that is meaningful to that individual or species. Examples in other species include hibernation, migration, and the one-to-three-day period for a hen when her chicks are hatching. In human beings, fasting is normally undertaken for perceived health, ethical, or political benefits. Or one gets engaged in an activity and forgets to eat. Fasting means to abstain from food oneself. It does not mean to prevent another creature from eating.

2. In your opinion, is fasting a willful or unwillful act or both in humans? Please provide examples if so inclined.

Fasting is a willful act in human beings when a person decides not to eat or to eat very little in pursuit of a goal. One may belong to a group that requires fasting in pursuit of a goal such as self-purification or the testing of spiritual endurance or faith. In this case, the person chose to join the group (willfully) that makes such demands on its members. To choose to join and remain in the group is to willfully accept its dictates.

3. Do you view these examples as beneficial, providing no benefit, or harmful to humans.

I have no categorical answer. People such as Irish nationalists have chosen to starve to death for political goals, so biologically, fasting harmed them, though with respect to their goals, it sustained them. Doubtless their fasting to death caused suffering to those who loved them, at the same time that it benefited people who were inspired by their endurance on behalf of their values. Gandhi used fasting as a political strategy. Each time he fasted, it was to achieve a particular goal. When the goal was reached, Gandhi started eating again. I do not recall Gandhi ever expressing disillusionment with fasting as he employed it. To him, whatever harm fasting may have caused was superseded by the moral and political benefits he sought and achieved by fasting.

Some people fast for health purposes. They do not eat, or they drink only fruit juice, for several days or more to rid their bodies of poisons. Those who practice fasting for health reasons either really do help their body to stay healthy, or at least they feel better emotionally as a result of, say, meeting a standard they have set for themselves. In the sense that they feel better about themselves and their health as a result of sustaining a fast, they are benefited.

A political harm that can result from fasting is breaking the fast before you said you would. Since fasting originally means to "hold firm and not be moved," it is important to hold (the) fast. Fasting is too serious a Statement and too much of an undertaking to be adopted capriciously.

4. Do you consider fasting a willful or an unwillful act, or both, in animals, excluding those in the commercial agricultural setting.

Fasting proceeds from within a creature or species. Fasting by definition cannot be imposed on another. You fast yourself, but you withhold food from or starve another. Preventing others from eating who would otherwise choose to eat is to deprive them of food, and, beyond a certain point, to starve them. Fasting is undertaken "voluntarily," either in the sense of a conscious choice or in the sense of a species-specific behavior pattern selected through evolution. As noted in the article, "Animal Anorexias," in Science (1980. 207:837-842), when animals fast in nature, fasting is part of their being "engaged in other important activities that compete with feeding." Hibernation in bears and in garter snakes is one example among others of this kind of engagement.

Philosophy Questions

1. In current commercial agriculture, husbandry practices may result in periods of fasting. What is your view?

In current, past, or future agriculture, husbandry practices "may result in fasting" only in the husbanders, and not even then, as phrased. For example, the husbanders may decide to go on strike and not eat as part of the strike. Use of the passive voice in posing this question is disingenuous because husbandry practices do not passively "result in" animals being deprived of sustenance. People in the agriculture business make decisions and implement them. There is an agent; there is agency. The husbander chooses to withhold food from the husbanded. The husbander chooses the husbandry practices that may include depriving the husbanded-the commercially used birds and mammals--of food and / or water. The husbander chooses to work in or remain in a business that deprives other creatures of sustenance against their will.

2. What animal husbandry practices are you aware of that result in willful or unwillful fasting?

With regard to "unwillful fasting," this phrase would apply in cases where an individual would prefer to eat but whose social group, economic plight, or work deadline, for example, constrains that individual to subordinate the desire or need to eat to a more pressing commitment or demand: spiritual, political, health, ethical, economic, work-related.

Husbandry practices that I am most familiar with in which sustenance is deliberately withheld from animals are the withholding of food from animals for, say, 12 hours before slaughter; the force molting of birds; and skip-a-day feeding schedules imposed on broiler (chicken, turkey, duck) breeder flocks. The poultry and egg industries deprive birds of food to control and manipulate egg production and mating and to reduce intestinal contents and splatter in slaughtering operations.

3. Do you view these examples as beneficial, providing no benefit, or harmful to the animals. Please explain your views.

I view these examples as harmful to the animals. Litter-raised birds have been documented eating the litter in order to reduce the sensation of hunger and to obtain nutrients their bodies crave. Hens in cages have been documented pulling out the feathers of adjacent hens for the same reasons. Broiler breeder flocks have been documented compulsively pecking at spots on the floor and the males have been documented displaying abnormal aggression toward the hens because of hunger and because, deprived of opportunities to eat, they are deprived of a satisfying activity in a situation from which they cannot escape, and in which there is virtually nothing else for them to do but eat and drink.

Unlike food-deprived animals, animals in nature do not develop immune dysfunction, intestinal inflammation, and pathogen colonization as a result of fasting that is part of their evolved repertoire of behaviors. If animals in nature developed the pathologic changes that have been scientifically documented in deliberately food-deprived birds and mammals, they would not survive. A brooding hen infected with ovarian Salmonella enteritidis, "severe intestinal infection" (Holt et al, 1994. Poultry Science 73:1267), and behavioral debilitation, all of which have been characterized in forced molted hens in many studies, would not be able to perform her maternal functions or to produce viable chicks. Naturally molting hens do not stop eating and they do not lose 30 percent or more of their bodyweight. To be deprived of food is to be deprived of nutrients and of the time-consuming, comforting activity of eating which is satisfying even without nutrients.


Fasting is self-and /or species-generated behavior. A brooding hen, for example, is bodily and mentally engaged in a structured, holistic activity that is meaningful for her and to her as a brooding hen. Being in a condition of motherhood bears no resemblance to the frightening experience of being arbitrarily deprived of food. We may go for hours without eating while being absorbed in a project. This is completely different from somebody locking us in our room without food or the prospect of food. As the article, "Animal Anorexias," cited above, states, all the evidence indicates that "fasting is physiologically different from starvation" (840). The evidence indicates that fasting is psychologically different from starving, as well. I believe there is a moral ecology as well as a physical ecology to consider in our relationships with one another. In the realm of moral ecology, taking away a fellow creature's food and depriving him or her of the opportunity to get any, in order to advance one's own cause, is an act of evil. It isn't an earthquake "happening," however calamitous. It is a consciously intentional human act, and this makes it both cruel and evil.

Karen Davis, PhD

United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
FAX: 757-678-5070

(Fasting: An Interview With Karen Davis)

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