Karen Davis, an animal-rights activist who led campaigns to recognize the dignity of chickens, turkeys and other farmyard fowl — and whose fervor was such that she compared the industrial slaughter of poultry to the Holocaust — died on Nov. 4 at her sanctuary for rescued chickens in Machipongo, Va. She was 79.
United Poultry Concerns, the advocacy group Ms. Davis founded and led, announced that she died “surrounded by her beloved birds,” but did not cite a cause.
The animal rights movement was well established when Ms. Davis became an activist in the 1980s. But she expanded its reach by advocating on behalf of commercially raised poultry, which were low on the list of other activists’ priorities because of their ubiquity on the American table — and also, at least in part, because of their limited ability to elicit sympathy.
“In our culture, fowl is ignored by the animal protectionist community,” Ms. Davis said at a candlelight vigil in 1992 at a farm in Virginia where customers could reserve a Thanksgiving turkey. “We’re talking about a universe of pain and suffering that far exceeds virtually all other animals combined.”
A fierce campaigner whose dedication to her cause could turn conversations into lectures and overshadowed her career as a college English teacher, Ms. Davis raised awareness through protests, speeches, a newsletter (Poultry Press), books and newspaper columns.
“Many people are surprised to learn that turkeys have a zest for living and enjoying the day,” she wrote in a column that appeared in The York Daily Record in York, Pa., in 1994. She went on to note that commercial farms confine turkeys to three square feet, where, she claimed, they “develop respiratory diseases, ulcerated feet, blistered breasts and ammonia-burned eyes.”
In 2014, she protested Americans’ traditional Thanksgiving dinner outside the White House before the ceremonial pardoning of two turkeys by President Barack Obama. She campaigned against kapparot, a ritual practiced by some Orthodox Jews, in which chickens are swung overhead and killed as an act of atonement ahead of Yom Kippur.
In 2002, Ms. Davis was inducted into the U.S. Animal Rights Hall of Fame “for outstanding contributions to animal liberation.”
“Her work helped humans recognize that chickens, who are among the most abused individuals on the planet, have thoughts, feelings and hopes for a pain-free existence, just as we do,” Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wrote in a blog post after Ms. Davis’s death.
Raised in a family of sport hunters who stalked pheasants and other wild game, Ms. Davis was a meat lover who became a vegan. Her poultry consciousness was raised in the mid-1980s when she and her husband moved into a home in the Washington exurbs. Nearby was a run-down chicken coop occupied by a single hen. The bird, whom Ms. Davis named Viva and brought into her home, had trouble walking because she had been bred to have an over-large body for meat.
Soon Ms. Davis was taking in chickens from grade-school hatchery projects and buying older birds from egg farms before they could be killed. “I was just so drawn to the chickens in a way I can’t articulate,” she told The Washington Post in 1999. “Everything about them is so moving to me.”
But she was no sentimentalist; she could be “abrasive and impolitic,” according to Martin Rowe, the executive director of the Culture & Animals Foundation, an animal rights nonprofit.
“Idly ask if there is a more humane way to kill chickens for food,” The Post wrote, “and her dark eyes ignite with instant fury. ‘What’s the best way to slaughter babies?’ she hisses.”
Some of her views were far outside the mainstream. She found parallels between the Nazis’ killing of six million Jews and the industrial-scale slaughter of farm animals in a 2005 book, “The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities.”
Mr. Rowe, whose company Lantern Books published “The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale,” wrote after Ms. Davis’s death that she was “filled with righteous fervor” for her cause. “Timidity and reticence,” he wrote, “were not what the chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and other domesticated birds she dedicated so many decades of her life to defending needed.”
Ms. Davis’s other books included “More than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality” (2001) and “For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation” (2019).
For its part, the poultry industry scoffed at Ms. Davis’s activism, arguing that it was in farmers’ interests to raise flocks in healthy conditions and kill them humanely.
After one protest by United Poultry Concerns in 1994, a spokesman for poultry processors in Maryland and Virginia told The Baltimore Sun, “They’re not impacting sales one iota, because people don’t want a radical group telling them what they can or cannot eat.”
Karen Elizabeth Davis was born on Feb. 4, 1944, in Altoona, Pa., to Amos and Mary (Orr) Davis. Her father was a lawyer. She earned a Ph.D. in English in 1987 from the University of Maryland-College Park, where she also taught.
She married George Allan Cate, a professor in the university’s English department who was a specialist in Victorian studies, in 1983. The marriage ended in divorce. She is survived by three brothers, Tim, Amos and Andrew Davis.
In the late 1990s, Ms. Davis moved from Maryland to Machipongo, Va., on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where she built a 12,000-square-foot predator-proof enclosure for rescued chickens. In its most recent annual report, United Poultry Concerns, the nonprofit organization she founded in 1990, said it received $277,000 in donations in 2021 and adopted seven new chickens in its sanctuary that year.
In a video recorded recently, Ms. Davis said she was quite happy living at the sanctuary.
“So I’ve always loved birds,” she said, “and when I met a chicken, I realized I had this special feeling for chickens, which has lasted up to this very moment.”