From Hunting Grounds to Chicken Rights: My Story in An Eggshell

karen and lorna

Excerpt from UPC President Karen Davis’s essay in Sister Species , “From Hunting Grounds to Chicken Rights: My Story in An Eggshell.”

Growing Up in Altoona, Pennsylvania

I grew up in a family and community where sport hunting was normal and expected. When I was in grade school, schools closed on the first day of deer season, and probably still do. My father hunted rabbits and ring-necked pheasants (pen-raised pheasants turned out on the first day of hunting season), then “cleaned” them in the basement. He said he didn’t hunt deer because he didn’t want to have to lug them through the woods. His defense of rabbit hunting was “everything hunts the rabbit.” My father and his friends hunted grouse, squirrels, and small birds, but I don’t recall anything about turkeys. Maybe they were “too big” to lug through the woods. We ate some of his killings, and the rest simply disappeared. There was talk such as: “Hell, I don’t want them; give them away . . . or throw them away.” One of my uncles loved to tell the story about how he threw away twenty pheasant pies his wife had baked.

Not until my brother Tim was a teenager, and wanted to spend Saturday with his girlfriend, do I recall a family conflict over hunting. My father flew into a rage when Tim announced that he didn’t want to “go huntin’” with his dad. He was accused of being “a girl” because he preferred to be with a girl that day.

My middle brother, Amos, had his eye knocked out with a slingshot when he was five, yet he grew up to be an avid small-game hunter with a penchant for killing pheasants and quails. He could admit that some nonhuman animals had feelings. His own family had a golden retriever named Coffee, who was kidnapped from their yard in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Weeks later, when they somehow got her back, “Coffee’s fur had turned white from fright,” Amos said.

My father always kept a succession of hunting dogs at the far end of the yard. These beagles had a wooden doghouse filled with straw and lived at the end of a long chain tied to an iron stake. Whenever I visited “Nellie,” or “Gus,” or whoever was there at the time, the dog would cower inside the doghouse or approach me crouching, with his or her tail curled under trembling back legs. My father trained his dogs by hitting them with a work-gloved hand. I’d hear them whimpering from inside the house. I heard stories about hunting dogs who had heart attacks running in the fields because they had been tied up, without exercise, for months between hunting seasons. My father took the beagles out for runs during the year to keep this from happening. In the fall, the men stood in the kitchen in the early morning talking about the great day of killing that lay ahead, then load Dad’s dog into the trunk with the other dogs, all yelping, and off they’d go.

I was an avid meateater. I loved broiled fat, which I would eat off other people’s plates: “Give it to me, I’ll eat it!” Nonetheless, around the age of thirteen, I started arguing with my father about hunting. We’d be at the dinner table when the fight would commence. I’d be yelling at my father about hunting, and he’d be yelling back – over prime rib or baked ham or broiled lamb chops. Needless to say, my father never changed. He stopped hunting in his eighties only because he could no longer see well enough to shoot, but he hunted for years with poor eyesight before quitting.

I never thought then that I was eating sentient beings. I remember my mother proudly announcing: “I buy fresh chicken from Imler’s” (a poultry slaughter market which is still in business). Chickens weren’t real to me the way pheasants were. Growing up, I saw ring-necked pheasants dead and alive. Occasionally one flew into our windshield on a country road. As a child, I begged my Uncle George, a cabinetmaker, to carve me a big wooden pheasant. I colored in the pheasant’s eyes and neck and carried it protectively under my arm. Now I know that chickens are pheasants.

One of my most vivid childhood experiences was when the white duck who lived up the street with the Mallory family was run over by a car. I cried inconsolably on the couch. I loved that duck, and for some reason it was more painful to me for a duck to be hit by a car than a dog, which I saw often enough, and which was traumatic enough.

As a very young child I spent feverish nights suffering over baby robins that fell out of nests in the trees in our yard. They would be naked and their mouths would be open, crying, and my mother would help me “take care of them.” But the next morning they were always gone.

I loved parakeets, too. My parakeet, Wiffenpoof (a budgerigar, actually), loved to push a rubber jacks ball across the rug with his beak. He sat on my father’s head whistling loudly while Dad yelled at my brother, on behalf of our neighbor, Mr. Feathers: “I told you to stay out of Mr. Flower’s Feathers!” One day I came home from school and Wiffenpoof was gone. My mother said they gave him away. They bought me a wind-up canary in a plastic cage to take his place. It still hurts to wonder where they took Wiffenpoof. In those days, no one recognized such parental decisions as both an act of animal abuse and an act of child abuse.

In truth, my mother couldn’t stand to see an animal hurt and suffering. I still picture her crying in our driveway over a mouse with an injured foot, which she tried to coax (with cheese) into a bucket. At the same time, my brothers and I picked many butterflies off the flower bushes in our yard and put them in jars and cigar boxes, with a handful of grass, until their wings were tattered and transparent, and they died, or we “put them back.” We also caught grasshoppers, grass snakes, and worms. Why were we allowed to hurt these creatures? How could I do that?

Only years later did I recall seeing my best friend’s father pull a brown hen out of a dark shed next to their house one day, lay her on a wooden block, and chop her head off with a hatchet. Her head lay clucking on the grass at my feet while her body ran around the yard. It was definitely a hen. I see her as clearly as if the episode happened yesterday.

When I was eight or nine, my father decided to get rid of the rats under the house by killing them with the whisk of a broom. This project was carried out in the same gleeful spirit as when he and his brother, my uncle Clyde, killed bats in the attic with rolled-up newspapers and tennis rackets. Meanwhile, my mother went through the house shrieking, “God didn’t make rats, the devil made rats.” That was how she dealt with the cruelty she couldn’t bear to watch, much less take part in, but didn’t have the courage to speak out against in our household. I can still see a rat deep in a hole in our yard with two bright eyes looking out, and my father bent over the hole with a broom.

Racial Prejudice and Civil Rights

A story in the teenage magazine, Ingenue, titled “Them!” drew my attention to racial prejudice in the mid-1950s. “Them” referred to the black students being escorted by police into the all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in a hate-charged atmosphere vividly evoked by the writer. I remember asking my father about the cause of this hatred, which I couldn’t grasp through the writer’s depiction of these students. (Perhaps that was the point of the story.) I don’t recall his answer, but later, when I was at Westminster College, shortly before my obsession with the concentration camps, I became involved in the racial conflicts that were just then surfacing on campus. I dated a few black students, which was taboo, though it was accepted for a white girl to “fast dance” with a black male student in the student union. At the time – 1962 – campus fraternities and sororities excluded black students, though a special status, “associate member,” was created in one of the fraternities for black football players.

One weekend I was home talking with my father about racial issues at school, and he said that if I ever brought a colored person to the house, male or female, he would not let them in. He said that growing up in Altoona, he and his family used to tip their hat to the single colored family in the neighborhood, but never invited them into the house, and he insisted that the family didn’t want to come in anyway. When I questioned my father’s point of view, my mother said I should respect other people’s opinions. I replied that I was only obliged to respect other people’s right to hold an opinion, not the opinion itself.

The opinion at Westminster College (I was sent to this Presbyterian school to satisfy my mother’s concern for my “safety,” not because my parents were religious – they weren’t) was that there were certain lines you must not cross, certain things that were immutable. For example, the school choir’s prize soprano, June Singleton, was black, so she had to stay in separate hotels when the choir toured the South. Despite all the talk about Christian love and courage, the administration defended this policy. One day two girlfriends and I went to the college chaplain and urged him to take a stand against racial discrimination on campus; he argued that separate-but-equal was God’s will.

Such moments marked the beginning of my intellectual awakening of opposition to much of conventional society’s way of thinking. My sensibility began to take shape in the form of ideas and values that were frequently at odds with the norm. . . .