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Sam King

Turkey Day

November 22, 2021

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Thanksgiving is right around the corner. It’s one of the most special holidays of the year; a chance to pause and be grateful for what’s most important in life—family, friendship, and, of course, food.

For many Americans, Thanksgiving is synonymous with turkey. There’s roasted turkey, brined turkey, sous-vide turkey, fried turkey, beer can turkey—the list is endless. Since the presidency of George H.W. Bush, it’s been customary for the White House to pardon a turkey at a ceremony filled with pomp and levity. The implication? That all other turkeys are fair game. The National Turkey Federation estimates that about 46 million turkeys are eaten at Thanksgiving tables every year.[1]

We have a right to ritualize gratitude, we tell ourselves. Fidelity to family and tradition come first. But what do we make of the sacrifice of so many turkeys for a holiday that, at least originally, had nothing to do with them?

Let’s first consider turkey temperament. In the wild, Turkeys are attentive and intelligent creatures.[2] Scientists have found that turkeys remember the locations of baiting stations a whole year after feeding. Naturalist and longtime hunter Joe Hutto observed that, “Turkeys have a refined ‘language’ of yelps and cackles. They mourn the death of a flock member.”[3] According to James McWilliams in The Atlantic, domestic turkeys are known to have epidemical heart attacks after watching members of their flock get taken off for slaughter.[4]

The vast majority of turkeys raised for meat come from factory farms. Bred by artificial insemination, they’re hatched in large incubators without nests or the care of mothers.[5] Days later, as much as two-thirds of their beaks are burned off with a hot blade without the use of anesthetic.[6] Despite being natural omnivores, the birds are fed a homogenous diet of corn-based grain laced with antibiotics. Those that are sick or too small are ground up in a woodchipper-like machine called a macerator.[7]

Wild turkeys typically roam and forage in small flocks. But factory farmed turkeys spend their first three weeks crammed in brooders with hundreds of other birds.[8] On their fourth week, they’re moved into large, windowless rooms with around 10,000 other turkeys.[9] Bright lights shine for 24 hours a day, disrupting their eating, sleeping, and fertility patterns. Bred for maximum gain, the turkeys are forced to gobble up copious amounts of grain and antibiotics.

They’re then trucked off for slaughter. The birds are typically hung upside down, stunned by electrified water, and slit in the throat.[10] Those missed by high-speed factory lines are often boiled alive.[11] A 2006 investigation at a slaughterhouse in Ozark, Arkansas documented workers stomping on live turkeys, slamming them against walls, and committing other acts of brutality.[12] According to the Animal Welfare Institute, a majority of poultry purchasers think standard turkey production practices are unacceptable.[13]

It’s hard to think of these realities from the serenity of a Thanksgiving dinner table. Most Americans would rather not. But gratitude isn’t enough to justify the torture of these sensitive and intelligent creatures. This Thanksgiving, consider pasture-raised turkey or a plant-based alternative. We may just discover that family extends to our avian kin.

[1] “Turkey for the Holidays.” (University of Illinois Extension).

[2] James McWilliams, “Consider the Turkey” (The Atlantic. November 24, 2010).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kristin Wartman, “The Truth About Turkey” (Civil Eats, November 10, 2011); “Farm Animal Welfare: Turkeys” (MSPCA-Angell, 2021)

[6] Joe Loria, “5 Ways Turkeys Suffer on Factory Farms” (World Animal Protection, November 11, 2020).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Wartman, “The Truth About Turkey.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Loria, “5 Ways Turkeys Suffer on Factory Farms.”

[11] Kimberly Kindy, “USDA plan to speed up poultry-processing lines could increase risk of bird abuse” (The Washington Post, October 29, 2013).

[12] “Butterball’s House of Horrors: A PETA Undercover Investigation” (PETA).

[13] “Thanksgiving Survey: Majority of Poultry Purchasers Find Turkey Factory Farming Practices Unacceptable” (Animal Welfare Institute, November 5, 2021).

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