BOOKS: More Than a Meal
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2003:
More Than A Meal:
The Turkey in History,
Myth, Ritual, and Reality
by Karen Davis, Ph.D.
Lantern Books (One Union Square West,
Suite 201, New York, NY 10003), 2001.
192 pages, paperback. $20.00
This review appears on the same page as the conclusion of the
first installment of my “Chronology of Humane Progress,” an attempt
to put into context the major ideas and events that over the past
3,300 years have often falteringly coalesced into the global animal
protection cause of today.
The second installment ends with the major events of 1998, to give
current and recent developments at least five years to settle before
trying to decide what really made a difference and what was just part
of the flow.
Even 1990 is too recent to judge from adequate distance, but
as best I can determine right now, the two most significant animal
protection events of that year were the first March for the Animals
and the incorporation by Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns.
The March was in effect the beginning of the end of the
vivisection-focused first phase of the modern animal rights movement,
in which the bad guys were someone else, doing awful things in
either an academic ivory tower or Dr. Frankenstein’s castle. The
formation of United Poultry Concerns marked the start of the second
phase, in which activists shifted their attention to what they could
personally do to set an example and make a difference: fix feral
cats, get involved in electoral politics, and go vegetarian or
There were active vegetarian communes in the U.S. more than
seventy years before anyone founded a humane society, and there were
many other farm animal advocacy organizations before UPC. Already
integral to the animal rights movement were the Farm Animal Reform
Movement (1981), the Humane Farming Association (1985), and Farm
Sanctuary (1986). Henry Spira, the most accomplished
anti-vivisection crusader of all time, had argued since 1985 that
the movement should logically refocus on diet, since that would be
the next opportunity to effect a steep reduction in what he termed
“the universe of suffering.”
Neither was Davis the first to point out that chickens and
other poultry, doing more than 95% of all the human-caused animal
suffering and dying in the world, hold a far higher moral claim on
humane movement consciousness than they have ever received. Spira
recited that statistic like a mantra while pushing poultry baron
Frank Perdue in futile hope of getting him to make reforms. Peter
Singer, Jim Mason, and John Robbins had already pointed out the
numbers in Animal Liberation, Animal Factories, and Diet For A New
But none of them had strong big-group support for campaigns
on behalf of poultry. The Humane Society of the U.S. began one
campaign decrying the “breakfast of cruelty” featuring bacon and
eggs, then backed away as if splashed with hot grease. American
SPCA president John Kullberg spoke in favor of vegetarianism and got
Who would stand up for the chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese?
“Not I,” said one big-group executive after another.
“Then I will,” said Davis, flapping her arms and thrusting
her beak at Vegetarian Times founder Paul Obis like one furious
Little Red Hen (with jet-black hair) after Obis accepted an ad for a
prepackaged chicken pilaf mix.
Except for Obis, who could not get away on that occasion,
hardly anyone took the Little Red Hen seriously at first. She had no
money, no major political connections, and was even by her own
admission an extreme eccentric, reportedly allowing rescued chickens
to run in and out her windows and across her desk in the middle of
the few very important mass media interviews that came her way.
But the Little Red Hen turned out to be the right person for
the job. Reporters left those strange interviews saying to
themselves, and me, in calls seeking further perspective, “Karen
Davis is a chicken! She is telling us what chickens would, if they
could.” They couldn’t help realizing that chickens are much more
intelligent and sensitive than they had ever imagined. They found
Davis likably charismatic, perhaps because of her oddness, and
eventually she began getting more ink than many of the supposed
More important, some reporters confessed that they could no longer
eat chicken. Somehow the Little Red Hen had gotten to them.
Speaking for turkeys
Those who know chickens really well are aware that they do
not limit their circle of compassion to their own kind. They can
practice cannibalism, and roosters notoriously fight to the death,
yet a hen will faithfully sit on any eggs she is given, and will
mother the hatchings to the best of her ability whether they are
close relatives, reptiles, or even a neonatal kitten placed in the
nest to keep warm–and not because hens are too stupid to know the
difference. On the contrary, many hens will somehow know enough to
lead ducklings and goslings to water, will lead other birds to
whatever they need, and will even try to lead a kitten to kibble,
skipping the nursing stage perhaps because they simply lack the means
I like to think that such an instinct is why The Little Red
Hen wrote More Than A Meal on behalf of turkeys–and made it her best
book yet. Davis has done some first-rate investigative reporting to
chase down the origins of myths about turkeys, and the origins of
turkeys themselves. Her writing is passionate, yet not shrill. For
me, on a recent flight from San Francisco to Seattle, it was a
page-turner, opened at takeoff and completed right at landing.
As we taxied to the gate, the young man across the aisle and
one row back tapped me on the shoulder, and asked if he could have
the title, in order to buy his own copy. He had been reading along
with me, he explained, and got hooked.
Handing him my card, I expected to hear that he was an
animal rights advocate and militant vegan.
Not at all. He was a second-generation wildlife biologist.
His dad was restoring huntable turkey populations not far from Davis’
home in Virginia. Still, the young man never knew before that there
was so much to know about turkeys, and he sounded as if the Little
Red Hen had ensured that he would never see turkeys the same way