It’s that time of year again: Thanksgiving – a time to surround ourselves with the ones we love and give thanks for everything we have, for everything we experienced, and for everything still to come. Thanksgiving is a day to slow down, reflect, enjoy family and friends, and stuff ourselves silly.
And for most, the “guest of honor” will be… a giant dead bird.
So why don’t we take a step back and consider the centerpiece: the turkey. After all, it will be a main talking point – guests will ooh and ahh over how big it is, how juicy it tastes, and how meticulously it was prepared. But to really consider the turkey, we need to start at the beginning – no, not at the grocery store where the turkey was picked up or the moment it arrived at your home – let’s start at the very beginning.
Turkeys are actually not an “it” at all. Turkeys are, by nature, curious, social and playful. They are affectionate and intelligent creatures who exhibit natural problem-solving behaviors and are shockingly good at navigation and geography. They can differentiate between one another by their voices and use sound to communicate. Mothers are very protective of their children and raise them for at least the first five months of their lives, aptly preparing them for the world. Turkeys have many of the same qualities and characteristics as cats and dogs and other animals we love and cherish. They also feel pain no differently than a dog, cat, horse, or human being, and have a natural life span of about ten years.
Every year, however, over 300 million baby turkeys are slaughtered for food in the United States and an estimated 46 million are killed for Thanksgiving alone. (Christmas and Easter are the respective runners-up in list of gore-filled holidays.) Wow, that’s a lot of turkeys who will never know love, never feel a warm touch, and never live freely or happily, even though they have the capacity to feel such emotions.
The sad fact is that the vast majority of animals that humans consume, turkeys included, do not come from happy little farms where they live happy little lives up until the point they begin their happy little march to be “humanely” transformed into food. Quite the opposite is true; instead of growing up with the freedom and ability to run, stretch their legs and wings, explore their surroundings, and form bonds with each other, turkeys who are bred for food – the very ones that end up on our plates – come from factory farms where they live short and pain-filled lives until they are violently killed.
So, since the bird slated to be on your dinner table will likely come from a factory farm – 98% of them do – let’s focus on them. First and foremost, there is nothing natural about their lives. Females are artificially inseminated, and a mother does not have a chance to spend time with her babies before they are snatched away from her and she is impregnated again. (Once she is “spent” and cannot produce more offspring she is killed.) Turkeys are genetically manipulated to grow at an unprecedented and unnatural rate. Today’s birds grow at twice the rate they did in the 1960s, and that’s because the faster they grow, the sooner they can be slaughtered, and the quicker the people in charge can be paid. Simple as that. But the genetic modification does not stop there. Studies have shown that Americans prefer to dine on the breast of the turkey and on white meat so the industry has taken steps to ensure that the people get what they want; turkeys are bred to develop breasts so large that their small bodies struggle to support them. (A top-heavy bird means more white meat.) That, combined with the fast rate in which they grow, causes an array of problems; their legs tend to be unable to support all their weight, they have skeletal disorders, they cannot naturally breed, they experience chronic pain, and they develop heart and respiratory diseases. And just like that, these explorers who would naturally and inquisitively run and fly around their surroundings, are restricted to their immediate areas – which is an added bonus to the industry. You see, without having to worry about turkeys running or flying about, their captors can more easily pack thousands of birds into buildings where they will be confined for the duration of their lives with only 2.5 to 4 square feet of floor space.
Imagine being limited to such a small space with so many other beings. We all know that inherent sense of claustrophobia and feeling antsy in tight spaces – just think about rush hour on the subway. It’s not uncommon to be irritable in such situations and, just like humans, turkeys react the same way. They argue and peck at one another, and so the industry debeaks and cuts the talons off each bird shortly after they are hatched in anticipation of such behavior. Yes, rather than allowing these birds more space, the industry chooses to mutilate them. These painful procedures are typically done with a searing hot blade or an electrical current and without the use of an anesthetic. “Ouch” does not even begin to describe what that feels like.
In such tight and cramped quarters, disease spreads rapidly and so turkeys are given antibiotics (which, in turn, is ingested by humans and raises our resistance to antibiotics), but many birds still get sick and live without veterinary care. They live in utter filth, breathe in ammonia and bacteria-filled air from urinating and defecating on one another, and endure abuse at the hands of factory farm workers. Undercover investigations over the years have brought to light the regularity of violence within factory farms, and much of the abuse is shrugged off and considered standard practices.
After about 5 months – just about 20 weeks of life (and sometimes even as early as 12 weeks) – turkeys are taken to slaughter, where they face an entirely new set of traumas. For these birds, the first time they go outside is not to take a dust bath or to stretch their legs and run in a field of grass; instead, they are thrown into transportation trucks and crammed into tiny crates that are piled high inside the trucks. The hundreds of birds per truck are handled so aggressively that it is not uncommon for their wings and legs to be broken – or their feet to be ripped off completely – in the process. During transportation, turkeys, like chickens, do not have any legal protections; they are not given food or water, and some die from starvation or dehydration. The slated crates do little to protect the turkeys from the elements, and many fall victim to hyperthermia or heat exhaustion, while others experience heart failure from the stress on their already fragile and compromised bodies.
Inside the slaughterhouse, the surviving turkeys are hung upside down by their feet and electrocuted in attempts to render them unconscious before their throats are cut. Trouble is, all this happens so quickly and haphazardly that not all the turkeys are killed or even unconscious. Many are alive and aware when they are then submerged into scalding hot water to be defeathered. (If you don’t believe any of this, a quick YouTube search of undercover videos will confirm each and every torturous stage.)
What an excruciating life… and death.
Weren’t we all taught that Thanksgiving is about peace, respect, kindness, compassion, and gratitude? Celebrating these ideals over the tortured corpse of a once sentient being is inconsistent – hypocritical, even – with the notion of Thanksgiving.
Isn’t it time we started celebrating who is around the table and not who is on it?
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