Winter 2012 Poultry Press NEXT
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Altoona Mirror Profiles UPC Founder Karen Davis

Won’t back down
Altoona native pursues poultry advocacy

Sunday October 7, 2012
By Beth Ann Downey (
LIFE, Altoona Mirror

For years, it was a repressed memory.

It was a day when Altoona native Karen Davis was just a child, walking to a friend’s house near 58th street in the Eldorado neighborhood.

“I don’t recall knowing that my friend’s father kept chickens; this would have been back in the early 1950,” she said. “But I clearly remember him taking a brown hen out of a shed, laying her on a platform or a wooden chopping block, and using a hatchet to cut her head off. I can still picture her head lying there, clucking on the right side of me, and on the grass on the left side was her body still running around the yard.”

Karen Davis (second from left) walks with other members of United Poultry
Concerns at the Veggie Pride Parade in New York City in May 2012.

It took Davis years of her life to extract this memory from subconscious, but this and other experiences contributed to her current work in animal advocacy, especially for chickens.

After earning a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Maryland in College Park, Davis founded the animal advocacy group United Poultry Concerns in 1990. The group aims to promote the respectful treatment of domestic fowl and teach people the truths of the egg and chicken meat industry.

Davis also runs a small chicken sanctuary in Machipongo, Va., and has relayed her personal experience keeping chickens in the numerous books she has written and talks she has given.

“I’ve had a life-long affinity for animals,” she said. “From the time of my earliest consciousness, I was always deeply drawn to dogs and birds. When a bird would fall out of a tree when I was a child, I would have sleepless nights. I liked animals. I have always cared about animals. I could never stand to see an animal hurt, and most especially see an animal being deliberately mistreated.”

Long before she started UPC, Davis became involved with environmental and social injustices. This includes fighting for the equal treatment of black students at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa., where she studied for her undergraduate degree, and going to work for the Poor People’s campaign and partake in the March on Washington. She also visited Canada around 1974 to protest the slaughter of harp seals for sport.

“I’ve never been able to tolerate injustice, whether it was humans . . . animals or whoever it may be,” Davis said. “I have that strong instinctual disgust with and abhorrence against watching it.”

Davis became more heavily involved with the animal rights movement in the 1980s, and remembers when supporters of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals held a demonstration near her home in Washington, D.C., and showed pictures of animals who had been hurt or mutilated during laboratory experiments.

“As I looked at those animals, I said to myself right then and there that never again would I abandon these animals to the inequity [iniquity] of our species, because I can’t bear their suffering,” Davis said. “That was it for me. I made that pledge and I never looked backward after that. . . . From that moment on, I was an animal activist.”

Davis said she was told that a group advocating just for chickens and turkeys would never get off the ground. Now, UPC has more than 15,000 members, with in-person and online support continuing to grow.

The group has led several successful campaigns, including working to get poultry tycoon Frank Perdue off of the University of Maryland’s Board of Regents, and recently protesting the public slaughter of thousands of chickens in New York City in conjunction with Orthodox Jewish Kapparot practice on the Eve of Yom Kippur.

karen and florence
Davis plays with Florence, a turkey she keeps at her poultry sanctuary in Machipongo, Va.

“Even if I didn’t think we would ever get people to care about chickens, I would still do exactly the work that I do because I believe it’s the right thing to do,” Davis said. “The world is a better place because I am doing this. I believe we have a responsibility to make a better world even if we know in advance that we’re never going to get people to change. I still think we do the right thing because we’ve decided this is the right thing to do, and we care enough to do it.”

Michael Tucker of Altoona met Davis 15 years ago through the North American Vegetarian Society. He is president of the Nalith Foundation, which gives grants to nonprofits that support the education of the public on issues of farming, the ethical treatment of animals and the benefits of plant-based diets. The foundation gives an annual grant to UPC, and Tucker said that gift has a lot to do with Davis’ personal passion for what she does.

“It means a lot to her, I think, and she really truly cares to help these animals,” Tucker said. “She’s a very compassionate person. . . . She’s not in it for the money or the fame at all. . . .”

Though Davis isn’t in it for the fame, she does have a slight claim for it. Ira Glass, host of the popular podcast “This American Life” on National Public Radio, announced on the “Late Show with David Letterman” that speaking with Davis and taking a trip to her chicken sanctuary caused him to become a vegetarian. He did so after she organized several UPC members to write in complaints about a segment on the show which glorified eating chicken and turkey during the holidays.

“Things we thought couldn’t happen happened,” Davis said about this feat.

Davis views the sanctuary as one of the most important initiatives of UPC. It houses more than 100 roosters and hens.

Debbie Alekna of Chesapeake, Va., drives an hour and a half on weekends to help run the sanctuary when Davis is away on speaking engagements.

“I call it paradise, I absolutely love it here,” Alekna said. “Those birds get exquisite care.”

Alekna . . . supports UPC’s initiative to get birds “into our hearts and off our plates” because they are animals with such great personalities.

“They’re very whimsical, very animated and wonderful companions,” she said.

Davis said the biggest thing that people can do to help chickens and combat industrial farming is to take up a healthy vegan lifestyle.

“There is so much going on with chickens and other animals that we don’t begin to understand, and we may never understand,” she said. “That’s one of the things we want people to know, that these animals have their own family lives and their own feelings – their own social lives, sensibilities, relationships and communications.”

Visit for more information on United Poultry Concerns.


Due to space, UPC editors had to omit Karen Davis’s activist Timeline sidebar to this fantastic October 7, 2012 Altoona Mirror profile. We are deeply grateful to reporter Beth Ann Downey for her powerful portrayal, and to animal rights activist Mary Finelli for recommending this story idea to Downey for the Altoona Mirror’s series, “Catching up with people who became success stories after launching from central Pennsylvania.” To read the entire article on the Internet, go to What’s New on UPC’s homepage, and click on Altoona Mirror Profiles UPC Founder Karen Davis.”

Winter 2012 Poultry Press NEXT