Chickens' champion pecks at the feats of poultry industry

June 18, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

Karen Davis wants to change the way consumers see poultry -- not as fried nuggets or sauce-covered entrees, but as intelligent and lovable creatures.

Pulling hen's teeth might be easier for the Montgomery County woman, founder and president of a small animal advocacy group, United Poultry Concerns Inc.

Since 1990, when Ms. Davis formed her nonprofit group, chicken and turkey slaughter in the United States has risen nearly 4 billion pounds annually to almost 28 billion pounds last year, the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service calculates.

With dues from its 2,000 members and grants from endowments sympathetic to the animal-protection movement, United Poultry Concerns wages its quixotic battle on about $30,000 a year.

"We're up against a huge industry with an enormous amount of money," concedes Ms. Davis, 50, who runs the group from her house near Seneca. "Every time you turn on television, you see one chicken advertisement after another. We certainly have to become a bigger player."

"Chicknapping" all the millions of birds to safety is out of the question, although Ms. Davis admits to walking away from an unattended broiler-house with a bird in hand on at least one occasion.

She relies on the more mundane stuff of activism to spread her gospel that people should not eat birds. Or, as a fallback position, she believes that if chickens must be consumed, they should be treated humanely while they are alive.

Publishing the newsletter Poultry Press, speaking before other animal-rights groups and protesting now and then outside a chicken-processing plant -- about 40 turn out on a good day -- have become routine for United Poultry Concerns members.

For an excursion deep into poultry country, Ms. Davis is attending this weekend's annual Delmarva Chicken Festival, a yearly banquet of chicken dishes celebrating the region's annual $1.25 billion industry.

Ms. Davis says she and other group members will distribute vegetarian food samples and literature urging this year's festival-goers to change their diets and not to eat chicken or turkey.

Because the two-day festival, which runs through today, on Delaware State University's campus in Dover, is designed to be a finger-licking feast, the presence of an animal-rights group could be as welcome as ants at a picnic.

'Not impacting sales'

Folks in the chicken business know Ms. Davis well. Articulate and persistent, the former teacher has tried to turn up the heat on the poultry industry by accusing it of mistreating birds and misleading the public about the health benefits of chicken meat.

Poultry officials find animal-rights activists like Ms. Davis irritating, but basically ineffectual.

"They seem to think we're mistreating the birds when, in fact, it's in the industry's best interests to treat the birds well," says Bill Satterfield, a Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. spokesman. "They're not impacting sales one iota because people don't want a radical group telling them what they can or cannot eat."

Perdue Farms spokesman Dick Auletta says the Salisbury-based poultry giant has no interest in even talking to animal-rights groups about breeding and growing conditions because the goals of the two sides are contradictory.

"There is no purpose served in meeting with people whose ultimate goal is to get consumers to stop eating meat, no matter what else they say," he says.

Chickens seemed sad

One of Ms. Davis' most successful attempts to get attention was her group's "spring mourning," a peaceful but colorful vigil -- including someone dressed as a chicken -- held each year outside a targeted poultry processing plant.

Ms. Davis says she prefers to discuss the poultry issue on a less frivolous level, but she knows what draws the cameras, adding: "We're catering to a society that wants gimmicks and silliness."

A vegetarian who says she once ate so much meat that friends bought her a personal steak knife, Ms. Davis says she always felt close to animals and has been active in the animal-rights movement more than a decade.

Her interest in poultry came after she and her husband, Allan Cate, a 59-year-old professor at the University of Maryland College Park, moved into a wooded neighborhood in Montgomery County. The back yard featured a rundown chicken house and a few chickens left over from a small broiler business. To Ms. Davis, the chickens seemed unhealthy and, she insists, ** sad. Later, she adopted a hen as a pet and named it Tulip.

"She was a very happy chicken," she says. "She used to thump around the house. She loved to sit on the floor pillows with me and would stretch her neck out and close her eyes while I stroked her neck. She was dear." Within a year, Tulip died.

She blames the death and that of Phoenix -- a rooster she "rescued" from an Eastern Shore chicken house -- on genetic engineering she says the poultry industry devised to make chickens grow fast and large. Researchers say some wild chickens can live more than 10 years.

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