Give turkeys something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving

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Give turkeys something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving

poster with turkeys "Turkeys: Too Neat to Eat"

Thanksgiving is just a couple of days away, which makes this a good time to talk about turkeys.

The first time I met a turkey in real life was when I was in high school, many years ago, and volunteering at some harvest festival as a lead up to Thanksgiving.  We were picking pumpkins and other gourds and helping customers load up their baskets.  Meanwhile, a big tom turkey had been put into a cage as a display piece near a pile of haystacks.  He didn’t have much space and I hate to think about how many hours he stood there and what happened to him afterwards.  While taking a break, I wandered over to this large, impressive bird to get a closer look, and someone snapped a picture.  A crummy smudge of a black and white photo of me and the turkey showed up in our school paper later that month, titled something like, “Becci makes a new friend.”

Friend?  If only.  I continued to devour these affectionate, clever birds for another 4 or 5 years before I realized the truth: turkeys are my friends…and they should be yours, too!  Since then, I’ve met many turkeys (read about my experiences at Farm Sanctuary here) and I continue to be amazed by how friendly and curious they are.  It’s no surprise, since most of us only know turkeys as a symbolic Thanksgiving mascot, a “stupid” bird who winds up as the centrepiece of our holiday meal.  Domestic turkeys can also be rather waddling and clumsy-looking as a result of selective breeding that has so severely warped their bodies, but they are not long separated from their wild relatives.

A few fun facts about turkeys:

  • Wild turkeys are good flyers, and roost up in trees at night for safety.  As a result, domestic turkeys sometimes try to fly–but thanks to selective breeding, they’re just too heavy and cannot make it off the ground.
  • Female turkeys are great parents!  Even before the eggs hatch, the mother turkey and her babies (known as “poults”) cluck to one another.  Once they have hatched, the mother turkey guards her babies valiantly, gathering them under her wings to sleep at night as well as periodically during the day for warmth and protection.  For the first month, it is rare for baby turkeys and their mothers to be separated at all, and for another five months after that, they remain under their mother’s care and teaching.  Meanwhile, turkeys raised for food are slaughtered at three to sixth months of age and never know their mothers.

    mother turkey and babies sitting in a tree together.

    A mother turkey and her young. (Photo: United Poultry Concerns)

  • Turkeys are not, as sometimes stated, so stupid that they will look up at rain until they drown.  In the 1990s, researchers at Oregon State University discovered a genetic condition called “tetanic torticollar spasms”, which causes some birds to act abnormally, sometimes cocking their heads and looking into the sky for 30 seconds or more.
  • Turkeys are sociable with humans and especially with each other, forming strong friendships.  If throw an apple into a group of turkeys, they will play with it like a football.
  • Turkeys love being pet and having their feathers stroked, especially the ones under their wings!

A few not-so-fun facts about turkeys:

  • In the 1960’s, it took a turkey 32 weeks to reach slaughter size, but thanks to selective breeding, it takes only 13-16 weeks now.  Their bodies grow so fast that their skeletons cannot keep up, resulting in bowed out “cowboy legs.”  They also suffer respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
  • Like chickens, turkeys are debeaked, meaning that a portion of their beak is cut off. (The industry has begun euphemistically referring to this mutilation as “beak trimming.”) As another measure to keep the birds from wounding each other in the incredibly cramped spaces in which they are raised, they also have the ends of their toes and their snoods cut off.  All of these mutilations are performed without painkillers.
free range turkey poult with portions of beak and toes cut off

This free-range poult has had the end of her beak and toes cut off. (Photo: East Bay Animal Advocates)

  • Turkeys have been bred to have such enormous breasts that they cannot breed naturally; instead, males are kept in the dark and “milked” for their semen, while females are “cracked open” to be artificially inseminated.  Workers are forced to work quickly, and must crack open one hen every 12 seconds.
One factory worker described how young turkeys are curious and friendly with employees “until the first couple AIs—and then they run from you…”
turkey being artificially inseminated

"Ten hours of pushing birds, grabbing birds, wrestling birds, jerking them upside down, pushing open their vents, dodging their panic-blown excrement, breathing the dust stirred up by terrified birds..." - a former turkey inseminator

  • Like chickens, turkeys raised in factory farms are sometimes boiled alive.  The slaughter process begins when they are hung upside down on a conveyer and dragged through an electrical bath. These baths are meant to shock the birds enough that they are rendered immobile, but the electricity is often set lower than necessary out of concerns that high voltage might damage the carcass.  As a result many birds come out stunned but fully awake.  The conveyer then carries them to the next stage of slaughter, where their throats are cut by machine or by a farm worker who must work at lightning-speed in order to keep up.  Frequently, the turkeys struggle and their throats are cut improperly, so some are still conscious when they reach the scalding tank, which is meant to remove their feathers.  This tank of boiling water is where many turkeys finally die.  The industry refers to these birds as “redskins”.

Please consider sharing some of these facts with your family and friends this holiday season.  Remind them that turkeys are much more complex than many of us realize, and that they deserve a better fate than we give them.  You can even “adopt” a rescued turkey at Farm Sanctuary’s Adopt-a-Turkey Project and send the card to a friend.  It’s a great way to spread awareness and support a good cause.

female and male turkey basking in the sun

Have a very happy and compassionate Thankgiving!


1 Comment


October 19, 2012 at 10:32 am

Well written Becci. Thank you for sharing.

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