Tribute to Karen Davis… a bellwether in the political storms that animal rights advocates have to face. And Viva, her first rescue who started it all…

A guest blog by Mary Britton Clouse of Chicken Run Rescue

December 5, 2023

Karen, Viva, Pippa. Photo by Mary Britton Clouse, 2023
No pictures of Karen holding Viva exist so we fixed that. The photo of Karen and Pippa was taken at CRR on February 4, 2006 on her 62nd birthday.

The most powerful force in social evolution is to see what needs to be done, act, and by example inspire and motivate others to follow. It takes but one mere mortal to set it in motion. Like a pebble in a pond, the ripple effect is felt by those near the center but radiates outward in the historical context of a movement. An abandoned hen is rescued, named Viva, and so it began…

Karen Davis, PhD, Founder of United Poultry Concerns (UPC), was such a force. She died on November 4, 2023 at the age of 79. This solitary, diminutive powerhouse of a woman leaves a vast void to fill.  She singlehandedly opened the eyes of the world to the boundless joy and abject misery of chickens. Her tireless efforts and breathtaking gifts of language, intellect and empathy created a legacy of accomplishments that lifts chickens from the bottom of the moral heap, to the top of the animal rights agenda. Chickens represent the most visible victims of land animal agriculture in both sheer numbers and in the degree of atrocities. Even animal advocates were overwhelmed by the magnitude of suffering.

Our curse on them isn’t extinction but proliferation.”– Karen Davis

Viva. Photo by Karen Davis, June 1985
A Chicken Named Viva Changed My Life 

The scope of Davis’s work in letters, books, lectures, videos and podcasts is dizzying and well documented in tributes still being published by every animal rights news source. Perhaps most significantly, her obituary appeared in the NYTimes, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. In her passing, she has given the birds their first worldwide moment in the sun. 

The reaction to her passing is stunning with effusive comments appearing after every obituary.  It is hard to imagine how many people she inspired, activists she taught, organizations she collaborated with, and events she organized, all fastidiously documented on the pages of UPC’s website. Her opinion letters were immediate and relentless. Local publications or huge national ones, all publications received the same impeccable quality of writing and incisive thinking. 

The archive of UPC Action Alerts is so voluminous it needs two web addresses.  It is a virtual history book of where the animal rights movement has been, is now and needs to go. Her influence ranged from internationally recognized advocacy leaders like philosopher Tom Regan, author of The Case for Animal Rights (the most important philosophical contribution to animal rights and is a major work in moral philosophy), to small, misrepresented and marginalized efforts by individuals to help animals.

Life of a McNugget/Hand and Hand. Photo by Mary Britton Clouse, 2008
Promotion for presentation on The Life of a McNugget followed by a book- signing and vegan refreshments. 

“Karen Davis was the embodiment of the essence of animal rights. Philosopher Tom Regan paid her perhaps the highest compliment by referring to her as “my bellwether in the political storms that animal rights advocates have to face.”

She was that for so many of us, with her clear vision and brilliant observations of right and wrong. She was passionate and compassionate, and she elegantly articulated complex issues in ways that made them plainly clear and moved many… United Poultry Concerns was a major inspiration for Fish Feel.”

–Mary Finelli, longtime friend and President/Chairperson of Fish Feel.

Chicken Run Rescue (CRR) had the honor to call her mentor, friend and partner for 23 years from its very inception. Several events in quick succession laid the path for our chicken rescue life ahead. 

We chose to name our rescue Chicken Run Rescue initially because of the movie Chicken Run released in 2000. Creator Nick Parks depicted the personalities of the chicken characters in a way that is valid and recognizable to anyone who has ever known a chicken personally and intimately. 

Karen at book signing, Wings exhibit, Hopkins Center for the Arts.  Photo by Mary Britton Clouse, 2006

However, shortly after its release, UPC posted an Action Alert: “Protest Burger King – Chicken Run Promotion.” It called attention to a collaboration between Aardman Studios and Burger King giving out Chicken Run toys with their kids’ meals. Burger King had a commercial that advertised “Save Chickens, Eat Beef.” 

Had it not been for the Action Alert, we might have overlooked an NPR/WHYY/Fresh Air 2000 interview in which Parks said he had no problem eating chickens and boasted he actually ate even more after the movie was made. CRR could not be aligned with such a spokesperson. Parks’ opportunistic betrayal was a disappointment but we decided to use the name Chicken Run Rescue for our non-profit anyway. If challenged, we would use the platform to advance public awareness about the horrific realities chickens face and promote animal-free food. With the pending release of the sequel, that could still happen.

Wings exhibit, Hopkins Center for the Arts.  Photo by Mary Britton Clouse, 2006

CRR’s first direct contact with Davis concerned a 2000 exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts where two chickens, Mabel and Scout, were confined to a cage nailed to a wall in the show An Acre of Art, motivated by the emerging locavore trend. UPC posted an Action Alert that caught our attention. Prior to our animal advocacy work, Bert and I were practicing artists, familiar with the politics of art criticism and with exhibition policies. Davis connected us with Frank Erickson, the local artist who first reported the exhibit to UPC. 

Henmaid’s Tale. Photo by Mary Britton Clouse, 2018
The work is titled as a tribute to the book Henmaid’s Tale by Karen Davis, PhD.

Thanks to the UPC Alert, there was a huge public reaction to the exhibit and the chickens were removed. A small group of Twin Cities artists/animal activists (Mary Britton Clouse, Albert Clouse, Frank Erickson, Susan Roverud, and Ann Follett, with artist/author Steve Baker and artist Sue Coe as advisors) tried to initiate a dialogue and discovered that our ethical and philosophical objections were brushed aside by the artists, curators and the local arts media. The criticism instead was disingenuously
 characterized as “censorship” and anyone who objected was labeled a terrorist. The group organized as Justice for Animals Arts Guild (JAAG) with enthusiastic encouragement from Davis. JAAG exists to support artists whose art and actions advance the rights of animals and oppose the harm and exploitation of animals in the making of art. 

That’s what we strive for, agriculture without animals… Empty cages and no animals having to sit there and rot for cuisine. Now the exhibition really does mean something — empty cages. That’s the best use of land that there could be.”– Karen Davis

That same year, Davis organized UPC’s Forum on the Role of Farmed Animal Sanctuaries. Always precise with her language, she insisted on “farmed” and not “farm” animal to emphasize the fact that this is how these animals are used, not who they are. Presentations from nationally known sanctuary activists addressed issues that are still critically relevant today: 

  • How is the farmed animal sanctuary different from a petting zoo?
  • Is rescuing and giving a permanent shelter to farmed animals “enough”?
  • What is the role of public education in the life of the sanctuary?
  • How does the farmed animal sanctuary obtain respectful media attention?
  • Do the physical labor and veterinary care the sanctuary demands use resources that could be better spent on other projects to help farmed animals?
  • Are “facts” enough? Are graphics enough to educate the public?
  • How does the farmed animal sanctuary deal with the deluge of animals at the door?
  • Is it right or wrong to rescue farmed animals illegally?
  • Where do food choices fit into the farmed animal sanctuary program?
  • How do farmed animal sanctuaries get funding?

With prescient clarity, she provoked the critical thinking we needed to use in establishing how Chicken Run Rescue would conduct its business of rescue, care and advocacy. Founded in 2001, Chicken Run Rescue was the first U.S. urban chicken rescue of its kind working small and local. The tenet at the core of both UPC and CRR is that truly knowing an animal comes with the daily intimacy of living with them, caring for them in sickness and in health, and showing others how to love them for who they are, not for what can be taken from them. 

Davis had a strong connection to Minnesota. Utne magazine chose UPC’s quarterly publication Poultry Press as one of the ten best newsletters out of “Hundreds [that] come to the Utne library, an array extending far beyond the world of nonprofits and non-government organizations.” She participated in many Minnesota events hosted by Chicken Run Rescue, Justice for Animals Arts Guild, Compassionate Action for Animals TLOV conferences, Animal Rights Coalition, U of M at Mankato and Macalester College.

CRR and JAAG continued to collaborate with UPC on other campaigns involving art and animals. In 2006, the Hopkins Center for the Arts featured an exhibit titled “Wings” organized by three Minnesota artists who were committed animal activists involved in bird rescue and advocacy. Davis was a featured speaker and stayed with us at CRR—our first face to face meeting. Bert’s fondest memory is Karen’s delivery of a lecture about Procrustean Solutions to Animal Identity Problems- which described how, throughout history, animals have been represented as willing collaborators in their own destruction in order to benefit “higher” forms of life over our morning coffee. Mythology, history and literature were woven into the very fabric of her existence. 

Other collaborations between UPC have been observances of International Respect for Chickens Day, a designation Karen created, and promotion of Chicken Run Rescue/UPC’s yearly calendar, now in its 18th edition. The 2024 CRR Calendar is in production and will be dedicated to Karen Davis.

How Karen Davis wants to be remembered:

In the Introduction to her last book, For the Birds, she wrote: “Poring over some papers recently, I came across the introduction to a speaking engagement composed by my friend and fellow animal rights advocate, Susan Roghair, at a Florida Voices for Animals dinner in Tampa, Florida. Susan told the crowd: ‘Karen Davis is the founder of United Poultry Concerns. Speaking candidly and forthrightly, she makes no apologies. Her crusade exposes the cruel realities of the poultry industry. She reveals the suffering of the defenseless birds. This is Karen’s mission. It will not end until every chicken is freed from the jaws of mankind.

I found this intro touching—and true, even though I will be long gone if the day ever comes when chickens are free from the jaws of humanity. “Freed from the jaws of mankind” conjures up themes of mine going back to the 1980s, when I joined the animal rights movement, which was just then forming in Washington, DC, to the very moment I sit here writing this Introduction in 2019. — Karen Davis

I wish she could have felt the world’s respect and support while she was with us. Maybe she can now? I am still talking to her just in case. Only good can come from the powerful reactions and focus on the birds her passing is sparking. I know she is thrilled, and I imagine her joking she would have died sooner and more often, had she known.


“AVOIDING BURNOUT: How Does One Survive Dealing Day After Day with a Cruel Industry? We should rage against the dying of the light in every animal’s eyes that results from human cruelty and abuse. The thing is to transform that pity and rage into one’s case for animal rights. It’s hard to burn out once we see ourselves as advocates with a case to put before the public. What matters is making the most of the opportunity of being on the right side, win or lose, while we are living.”–Karen Davis

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