Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Life Of The Modern Domestic Turkey: From Birth, To Death, To Plate...

There’s an old saying that goes "Thanksgiving’s not a good time to be a turkey." It’s pretty commonplace and people usually say it nonchalantly with a good natured chuckle. Unfortunately the vast majority of people haven’t any idea just how much truth lies behind those words.

Between 250-300 million turkeys are slaughtered annually for their flesh in the United States, 20-40 million of those slaughters occurring at Thanksgiving each year. What the average person doesn’t know is that turkeys are beautiful and intelligent creatures with a keen awareness of their surroundings. When afforded the opportunity they are highly social and playful, making fast friends with other animals and humans alike. They love having their feathers and underbellies stroked, and relish in building nests, rearing their young and singing! Personality wise turkeys are as varied as dogs and cats, and just as loyal and loving. Yet despite their admirable qualities, their agility, and their magnificence virtually all turkeys raised in the United States are subjected to living out their lives in unbearable pain and suffering in the most horrendous conditions.

Due to the industrialization of the animal agriculture business (Factory Farming) today’s commercial turkeys bare little resemblance to their wild ancestors. Today’s commercial turkeys have been systematically bred, and genetically manipulated by the industry to grow as large as possible as fast as possible. Turkey breeders are able to (and do) manipulate ever aspect of the animals life literally from the moment of conception to their slaughter. Turkeys are selectively bred for production-related traits like fast growth and fleshier bodies. Turkey farmers after all are paid by the pound not by the bird. The heavier the bird the higher it’s monetary value. Unfortunately this system of breeding has caused significant animal-welfare issues. Since breast meat (white meat) is the most desirable, therefore yields a higher price, turkeys have been anatomically manipulated to be so heavy and large breasted that they are now incapable of reproducing naturally. Meaning virtually all turkeys raised commercially in the United States are the result of artificial insemination, which in this case is really just a ‘nice’ term for rape.

Breeding male turkeys (Toms) are typically kept in dark crowded pens for one year. During which time they are handled twice a week for ‘milking’ sessions to collect their semen. This process has the male turkey’s legs secured in a clamp on a bench, while the bird is held over the lap of a worker who induces the turkey to ejaculate. The semen is then collected in a suction hose and mixed with the semen from other toms.

For each of these breeding Males there are more then 20 breeding female turkeys (hens) who are subjected to overcrowding and abusive treatment. Twice a week these breeding hens are herded into a room and then one after another they are held upside down, "Cracked open" (A term used by the Industry) and inseminated in an assembly line fashion. As with the male turkeys the females legs are clamped in metal forceps while the workers race to inseminate between 1200 to 1400 hens within a two hour period.

Toms and Hens used for breeding are typically slaughtered before their second birthday and then used for low grade processed turkey meat products. The turkeys raised on factory farms are hatched in large incubators and never see their mothers nor feel the warmth and safety of a familial nest. When they are only just a few weeks old the baby turkeys are moved into filthy, windowless sheds with thousands of other turkeys, where they will spend the rest of their lives, never setting foot outside.

The overcrowded and filthy conditions in these sheds is so unbearable, and stressful that often times turkeys will take out their frustrations on one another by pecking or attacking other birds. To prevent the turkeys from killing one another under these horrible conditions parts of the turkeys beaks and toes are cut off in a process called ‘de-beaking’ or ‘de-toeing.’ the males snoods (the flap of skin located under the chin) are also typically removed, and all this is done without numbing or pain relievers. Millions of turkeys don’t even make it past their first few weeks of life as the conditions are so stressful they’ve been known to induce a condition referred to as ‘starve out’ which causes the young birds to simply stop eating, and so they starve to death.

As already mentioned turkeys are systematically bred to grow as large as possible as fast as possible. In 1970 the average turkey weighed 17 pounds, today a male or female can be as much as 28-38 pounds when brought to slaughter. Inability to breed naturally isn’t the only problem related to the birds unnatural growth. Commercially raised turkeys are now so obese that they can not fly, and many can barely walk, while their wild ancestors are capable of flight of up to 55 mph for short distances. Their unnatural size also causes many birds to die of organ failure or heat attack, or worse a turkey’s organs can be crushed internally by it’s own grotesque weight. Often times this happens before the birds are even six months old. They also suffer regularly from collapsed lungs, swollen joints and crippled feet. According to one industry publication, modern turkeys grow so quickly that if a 7 pound human baby grew at the same rat it would weight 1,500 pounds at just 18 weeks of age.

At 14-18 weeks of age turkeys are ready for slaughter, but the transportation conditions are no better then those of the sheds they’ve been forced into for their entire lives. At the time of transport workers will often grab turkeys by their legs and throw them violently into crates. Several turkeys are crammed into each crate, making it almost impossible for them to move. The overcrowded crates are then stacked on the backs of trucks. The turkeys are given no food and no water before or during transport and because of this many turkeys are already dead upon arrival at the slaughterhouse. During winter conditions are so bad that many turkeys freeze to death before reaching the slaughterhouse, or even have their limbs freeze to the crates while in transit. When it’s time to remove the turkeys from the crates, if these partially frozen turkeys are even still alive they are often forcibly removed from the crates, leaving their frozen limbs severed in the crates behind them. During summer transports many turkeys die of heat stress, heat exhaustion or dehydration as it’s legal to transport farm animals for up to 36 hours without food, water or rest.

In fact Turkeys (as all poultry, chickens, ducks, geese etc..) have no legal protection or status. The USDA continually refuses to protect Turkeys and other birds in it’s enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act. So if the life of a turkey wasn’t already bad enough, their death by slaughter isn’t any quicker, easier or painless.

At the slaughterhouse turkeys are routinely shackled upside down by their feet along a moving rail while still fully conscious. On their first stop along the moving rail the turkey’s heads are submerged in an electrified ‘stunning tank’ which immobilizes them, but doesn’t render most of them unconscious. Their throats are then slit by a mechanical blade and they are left to ‘bleed out’ as they continue along the rail. However due to the extreme speed at which the rail moves, the large amount of turkeys that are processed in just one hour let alone a full day, and the inaccuracy of the mechanical blade, many turkeys are missed and continue on from this step fully conscious and alive. The turkeys are then submerges in the scalding tank to remove their feathers. Many of the turkeys are still alive at this point, and so are essentially boiled alive.

If the process of slaughter itself weren’t cruel enough there are numerous undercover videos and investigations that have taken place over the past few years revealing even more unthinkable egregious acts of animal-cruelty that have now become commonplace within the industry. Turkeys with broken wings, legs, bloody open wounds, tumors, and other untreated injuries have been seen slaughtered for human consumption. Workers have been caught punching live shackled turkeys for fun as they move along the assembly line. Employees have been witness forcefully shoving their fists or feet into the vaginal and anal cavities of turkeys and chickens. Employees have been seen throwing live turkeys and chickens across rooms, up in the air, onto the floor, into machinery while still conscious. Workers have been caught ripping the heads off of live turkeys, stomping on turkeys heads, wings, legs, and bodies. Kicking them, stabbing them, and crushing them under the wheels of trucks.

The atrocities committed in Turkey slaughterhouses all across the country are innumerable and horrible. No being, wether human or animal - should ever have to endure such senseless cruelty, and suffering. These are living, breathing creatures with feelings and individual personalities, deserving of our respect, and our compassion. Treating any creature in this way makes us no better then the most awful participants of human genocide, and blindly continuing to support an industry that deems these atrocities as ‘okay’ makes us no better then the monsters committing the acts. Thanksgiving should be a wonderful time of joy and celebration. Celebration for all that you have, and a time to reflect on the good in your life and give thanks for it, yet for so many beings this day and all those leading up to it are nothing but a twisted nightmare. People stupidly offer thanks to the dead turkey carcase that becomes the center piece of their diningroom table on this day. Thanking the turkey for ‘giving it’s life’ so that we may revel in it’s ill-begotten flesh, but no turkey ever willingly gave it’s life so that it could sit on our dinner plate. The reality is that we continue to choose to murder these birds, and to support these acts of cruelty out of our own greed, fear and inability to change. We call it ‘tradition’ but as I discussed in my post  'Thanksgiving - Reexamining Traditions' is absolutely nothing traditional about eating turkey on Thanksgiving. In fact seeing as how we only due so because of the insistence of one woman, it’s really more traditional not to eat turkey. Yet we continue to do so, citing tradition because it’s easy, because it’s what we’ve always done, but if being part of such mindless cruelty is something you consider easy then count me out.

I don’t say these things lightly nor do I say them to be mean, I say them because I know, because I used to be that person too. For years I happily and greedily ate my turkey, offering foolish words of thanks for it’s ‘sacrifice’ and never giving a moments thought about the process that brought that turkey to my plate. Once the reality of the situation made itself clear to me however I realized I had to change. I am at heart a compassionate person, and I believe in the equality of all beings. I don’t believe you can live a fully compassionate life if you continue to engage in practices that contribute to such cruelty. After all there is nothing compassionate about the systematic manipulation and murder of millions of turkeys a year. My inner values don’t align with these practices and so as a vegan I’m happy I no longer have to defend myself against them.

So for yourselves but more importantly for the turkeys make the compassionate choice this year and choose a turkey free Thanksgiving. It’s really not as hard as you think, and it’s oh so worth it, especially with so many great vegan food options out there!

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PS: Images found through Google images.


  1. Wow, so crazy to think about! I feel terrible for turkeys. So glad I won't be apart of it this year! Wooh! - M

  2. OMG!! Honestly I have never thought about what those turkeys go through to make it to the dinning table! I found the information you posted upsetting! Feel bad for them.....think we are going to have a turkey free christmas...no WE ARE going to have a turkey free christmas....hell maybe a meatless christmas altogether! The more I hear the worse I feel, kind of making me think I should stop eating meat altogether. S.T