“Scared of a Brochure!”
by pattrice jones
The Delmarva Chicken Festival was an annual event at which children petted baby chicks and then watched bird body parts sizzling in a giant frying pan, all under the guise of family fun. Karen Davis and United Poultry Concerns often showed up at those celebrations of cruelty, hoping to prompt festival-goers to truly see the birds as well as the violence visited upon them. Sometimes I tagged along.
One year, at a public park in Delaware, we protestors spread out with our signs and brochures. I positioned myself by the giant frying pan, silently holding a UPC placard that I hoped would inspire empathy. I tolerated the subsequent taunting until my tormentors summoned the police, at which point I went looking for the rest of the gang.
And so it came to be that I happened upon a scene I will never forget: a grown man literally fleeing from Karen Davis as she gave chase in low-heeled sandals and flowered dress, waving her leaflets in the air. “Scared of a brochure! Scared of a brochure!” Karen shouted so that all would hear, “This man is scared of a brochure!” She was right. He was. Perhaps he sensed, accurately, that Karen wanted to shake the very foundations of his identity as a male human at the apex of a hierarchy of hubris.
I have known Karen Davis since 2000, when she generously extended encouragement and assistance to what was then the new Eastern Shore Chicken Sanctuary and is now VINE Sanctuary. During the nine years before we relocated from Maryland to Vermont, I spent countless hours in conversation with Karen, frequently visited her at UPC, and sometimes participated in UPC events. We’ve been in less frequent contact in the years since but have continued to correspond and to see each other at events. I draw upon that rich relationship to write this afterword. I know that Karen would want you to evaluate her essays for yourself, so what I aim to do is to help you better understand their context.
Karen broke her own rules about leafleting that day in Delaware, but I’m glad she did because that moment encapsulates so much of what I appreciate about her. Karen insists that people see and think about the violence and indignity inflicted on chickens, and she sometimes persists in that insistence past the point of politeness. She does so while not merely female but unabashedly feminine, which is why I mentioned what she was wearing that day. She has paid the price for this, enduring indignities herself on occasion, yet she continues to “stick up for chickens” whenever and however she can.
That said, Karen is one of the most highly respected and influential activists in the animal rights movement and one who has consistently garnered respectful and informative press coverage including prize-winning articles about her work.
The feminist proposition known as Standpoint Theory argues that what we can see depends on where we stand. Since she met Viva the hen in 1985, Karen Davis has stood with chickens, doing her best to simultaneously see the world from their perspectives and articulate what she sees from her own. Since founding United Poultry Concerns in 1990, she has done that from the grounds of a sanctuary located in a region dominated by the poultry industry, caring for chickens while forcing herself to see and contemplate and then try to find words to describe and analyze the unspeakable violence done to them.
In her germinal 1995 essay “Thinking Like a Chicken,” Karen Davis tells us that chickens became “the center of my personal and professional life” after getting to know two hens during a period of intense reflection. To truly understand the context of Karen’s thinking and writing, you must understand that is not a hyperbolic statement. Chickens have been at the very heart of Karen’s professional and personal life for all these years. She wakes up every morning and takes care of chickens; spends the day researching and writing or planning for some event, periodically going out to check on the chickens; and then takes care of chickens each evening.
Many of those chickens are the large white birds called “broilers” by the poultry industry, who Karen warned me in our very first conversation will “break your heart” because they die so young no matter what you do. If you really want to put Karen’s thinking and writing into context, then you must also try to imagine what it is like to love and lose a beloved bird over and over again more times than you can count, often wrapping your arms around them as they die, holding on tight through the death throes, but just as often turning a corner to find the dead body of a friend.
But in fact you cannot imagine this. I can kinda feel where Karen’s coming from, because I spent years on the Delmarva Peninsula, where the local poultry industry kills and cuts up more than a million chickens every day. Like Karen, I cared for the vulnerable escapees of that violence, trying my best to give each one as many good days as possible. For a couple of years, like Karen, I lived alone while doing so. It nearly wrecked me. I sincerely do not know how she is still standing.
Sanctuary folk know sorrow, know compounded grief and impacted rage and how to soothe an agitated bird while feeling completely frazzled yourself. We all have faced the terrible reckoning of the realization that something you did or didn’t do hastened someone’s death. We know the literally deadly mistakes we ourselves have made, and so we do not expect people to be perfect. Maybe that’s why we are usually able to extend solidarity to each other even when we disagree.
The first time Karen Davis visited our then very new sanctuary, Miriam Jones and I were nervous. “It’s not an inspection,” Karen kept reassuring us, but we all knew it was. We passed! Karen became our biggest booster, even going so far as to ask one of her own donors to buy us a barn. Karen also used her clout in the movement to open up speaking and writing opportunities for me. She did this even though she did not always agree with me. Similarly, Karen has often invited people who disagree with her, and with each other, to share their views at UPC conferences. In so doing, she has done something it seems to be increasingly difficult to do: provoke people to consider perspectives other than their own. Now more than ever, when we are called upon to devise collective solutions to devilishly difficult problems, that’s vital.
The problems faced by chickens in this world are as old as the first weapons used to kill them and as new as genetic engineering. Karen doesn’t have all the answers. None of us do, none of us could. What Karen has done consistently, as evidenced by these essays, is to generate ideas and analyses rooted in what she sees from her heartfelt hen-centric standpoint. Whether I agree or disagree, I always find it useful to think about what she has to say. So, the next time you see Karen coming, waving her latest essay, don’t be scared of a brochure.
This article was written by pattrice jones as the AFTERWORD to Karen Davis’s book of essays For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation published by Lantern Books. In it, pattrice describes Karen’s pursuit of people seeking to flee an encounter with a chicken rights activist in the 1990s.
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