Soon after the recent re-release of "Pink Flamingos," the New York Times Magazine asked filmmaker John Waters why he cast a chicken in arguably the most grotesque minage ` trois in cinematic history. "Chickens scare me. They are frighteningly stupid. They don't even find happiness with each other in a pen," replied Waters, who didn't stop there. "We probably improved the chicken's quality of life. It got to be in a movie, got to have sex and then we ate it ... I don't have a problem if they test cosmetics on [animals]. Eyeliner has been important in my life. If 10 chickens have to die to make one drag queen happier, so be it!"
Days later, Waters' agent in Hollywood received a scathing letter intended for the director. "In response to your sarcasms about chickens," the missive began, "you are wrong. Chickens are intelligent, sensitive, and social birds ... It's interesting that you eat creatures whom you despise. In calling chickens 'frighteningly stupid,' you are projecting an image of yourself onto them."
The letter came from Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns Inc. Davis -- something of a Simon Wiesenthal for fowl -- says she founded the not-for-profit organization seven years ago in part to memorialize her "companion" broiler hen, Viva, whom she had rescued from a chicken coop five years earlier. United Poultry Concerns' main mission, explains Davis, is to "combat the negative stereotype of poultry as dumb, dirty and low on the evolutionary scale."
Thanks to her vigilance, public criticism of the much maligned birds rarely goes unanswered these days. When Oprah Winfrey told viewers about how she switched from eating pork to turkey after seeing "Babe," Davis fired off a letter recommending vegetarianism to the perpetually dieting talk-show host. When a farmer moaned to Dear Abby that neighbors were complaining about his rooster's constant crowing, Davis offered her support. "In his own fascinating world of chickendom," she wrote, "the rooster is a lover, a father, a brother, a food-finder, a guardian and a sentinel. He is nothing to scoff at."
But Davis' activism transcends mere letter writing. Aside from building a skylit sanctuary for injured chickens (don't call it a coop in her presence) onto her Seneca, Md., home, UPC's president has testified before Congress in a bid to extend "humane slaughter" legislation to poultry, promoted the concept of an "eggless" Easter, lobbied for schools to end classroom hatching experiments and been arrested for disrupting a Pennsylvania pigeon shoot and for trespassing at a county fair in Virginia that featured ostrich races.
Lately, Davis and her flock of 6,800 poultry protectors are throwing their weight behind a grass-roots campaign to halt forced molting, the systematic starvation of hens to control laying cycles. "To manipulate the supply of eggs on the market, hens are deprived of all food for an average of 10 days," charged Davis. "It puts the birds into physiological shock, so they lose their feathers and stop laying eggs. It's an extremely cruel practice. You can't starve your dog or cat and get away with it."
Davis is heartened by the recent attention focused on campylobactor, a bacteria that infects between 70 and 90 percent of chickens and annually causes millions of Americans to suffer from cramps, abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea and fever. But she still worries that her feathered friends face a bleak future. "Their fate is worse than extinction," Davis laments. "As the world population grows, poultry will be produced in greater and greater numbers and be subjected to continued misery and degradation ... We have a bad attitude towards chickens as symbolized by depraved comments like Waters'. He disgraces our species."
Waters, however, remains unrepentant. "I'd be willing to bet that [Davis] has a rotten sense of humor and no (human) friends," he said with a chuckle during a telephone interview. "Her letter was astounding. I thought I had written it to myself as a parody. I'm just glad this woman doesn't have my home address, because she's the kind of person who will one day don a chicken outfit and be at my door with a chain saw."