Giving thanks for the turkeys

I’ve written before about my vegetarian experience, when I first “got it.” I had never liked veal or lamb or pork growing up, and I had unsuccessfully attempted to eliminate meat years earlier. I, like many millions of people, had associated family meals and holidays with various foods. My favorite holiday has always been Thanksgiving—a time I consider to be a focus on those who mean the most to us, our friends and families. I get warm fuzzies thinking about gathering around a table during my favorite season to enjoy comfort food. For years, like those millions of other Americans today, that dinner meant turkey. To my surprise, my lightbulb moment came when my family visited Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY for their annual “Pignic”—and when I came kneecap to wattle with their beautiful turkeys.

Since this was their “pignic,” I was excited to meet the lovely pigs that live on the farm. Still, even before we got to the pigs, I had my “duh” moment. It happened when we stepped into the pen with the most handsome and personable birds I had ever met—Chicky and Echo. They effortlessly approached us like dogs will, except they knew we were there to visit and say hello and they were very friendly. They sidled up to us, right next to our legs, expecting to be petted. Now, I’ve had parakeets and cockatiels before, so I know how to pet feathers; but these guys got all puffed up, stretched out their wings a bit, and wanted all kinds of love. It was at that moment when I realized these were two, individual, massive turkeys that could have been on my dinner table. I was here now, feeling their tender feathers against my leg, gingerly petting them like I would my cats.

Hundreds of millions of turkeys are brutalized and killed in the United States each year for their meat. As with chickens, they are hatched in large incubators, away from the warmth and safety of their mothers. They are crammed together into sheds to grow, and are bred specifically to produce the most meat over the shortest amount of time. Because these animals grow so quickly and so fast, they can barely support the weight of their own breast. Since the industry demands so much meat, these animals suffer from such medical issues as leg disorders, skeletal disease, lowered immune systems, and heart disease.

The approximately 4 million turkeys that are not slaughtered for meat are used for breeding. Since the industrial meat complex doesn’t want to use these animals primarily for consumption, they are systematically starved to prevent them from developing like their other turkey friends (they are typically given half as much to eat as the animals raised for their meat). Still, because the males are bred to be so large, the females have to be artificially inseminated to get pregnant. These “breeders” are usually kept alive longer than the typical 5 months of the average turkey raised for meat; but since they live longer, they suffer more from these neglectful conditions.

As with all poultry, there are no federal legislation to regulate their slaughter. It’s typical for turkeys to be killed without being stunned—and some are stunned through the use of an electric water bath. When they arrive at the processing plant, they are shackled by their legs and hung upside down. A circular blade then slits their throats; then they are placed into a tank of scalding water to loosen their feathers (there is a whole other massive demand for their feathers). If turkeys are not properly stunned, they often miss the blade, resulting in the birds being boiled alive and conscious.

When I was a kid, I had a t-shirt with a Sandra Boynton drawing that said, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” It had this hippo on it, and there were a bunch of turkeys standing on and around it. If this hippo had the same experience as I did with Chicky and Echo, I’m sure he would have experienced the same kind of adulation and respect for these animals as I did. They didn’t get me down, but made me feel so connected and present. What a wonderful gift they gave to me—so I feel it’s only right to give one back by choosing not to eat them (or any of their animal compatriots) ever again. Instead of eating them, I give them thanks for helping me to feel a connection to farm animals as I had never felt it before.

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