Talking turkey about going cold turkey on the Thanksgiving turkey
Alongside some waterfowl and perhaps venison, it’s possible that a wild turkey was part of the first Thanksgiving meal shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. After all, even though they were celebrating a successful harvest, it was still slim pickings at that table, especially in proportion to how we eat today.
But where one turkey perished for that historic meal, fast forward almost 400 years, and about 50 million will be slaughtered so that every household in America can keep the celebrated occasion alive. To put that into perspective, that is the same as wiping out the combined populations of California and Ohio. What kind of peaceful tradition is that?
Much like how the Pilgrims celebrated with their native neighbors, a modern-day Thanksgiving entails all the harvest-fresh side dishes — stuffing from a bag, cranberries in a can, potatoes á la box, Cool Whip on the frozen pumpkin pie, and a host of other artificially colored, flavored, refined, processed, irradiated, engineered, and chemical-laden products. To round out the solemn observance, the settlers probably placed a few bets with their new friends while watching football games on TV, then later headed out for some midnight shopping at the mall.
I haven’t eaten turkey at Thanksgiving since I was a teenager. And this year, I feel compelled to speak on their behalf.
Although I didn’t partake in the meat, I allowed it at the table in past years. After all, I, too, have been indoctrinated from birth to think that this is the only way a Thanksgiving meal could be complete. But judging by the sheer number of turkeys who give their lives on this single day, there are too many of us for this custom to be sustainably viable or to make any sense whatsoever.
This was made painfully clear last December when traveling north on Highway 99 one morning during a cold snap. The car in which I was a passenger overtook a Foster Farms semi-truck with its trailer stacked high with hundreds of wire cages, each containing multiple birds and covered with feces and blood spatter. No care was given to the wellbeing of the turkeys, and they were obviously traumatized, some dead, due to the stress of transport and the cold (40 degrees without the added wind chill of a moving truck).
Because I am the main chef for our family’s Thanksgiving get-together, I can safely say that this is one household that will never again participate in this massacre.
About 300 million turkeys are slaughtered annually in the United States, one-sixth of those for just this one day in November. Turkeys, as with all animals in the industrial food system, are pushed to grow abnormally fast and are slaughtered young. After all, the longer they are kept alive, the more food, supplements, drugs, and space are required, which minimizes profits.
The supermarket turkey, whether bred in confinement or labeled “free range,” that is devoured during the ritual feast was so fat he could barely walk, never flew, and couldn’t mate. With selective genetic breeding and a whole lot of pharmaceuticals, commercial turkeys will grow to a weight three times larger than a mature wild turkey in four months or less.
Because of this, that turkey on the table with the bounty of white breast meat most likely had heart problems, painful leg issues, and may have been crippled. To make sure there are enough turkeys for next year’s onslaught of demand, female birds are artificially inseminated. This human-administered reproduction is the only way domesticated turkeys reproduce because of those big-breasted toms.
Turkeys are treated as commodities but they are actually living, breathing, perceptive, curious beings. They have the same range of personalities as a cat or a dog, the same capacity to feel pain, and the same will to live.
Turkeys in confinement have abbreviated lives, 12 to 20 weeks, while their wild counterparts can live to 10 years. During their foreshortened lives, most turkeys will never see the sun, run in the grass, roost, or even have space enough to spread their wings or stretch their legs.
I was 25 years old when I worked for a state agency in a position that required me to access a road through a Kings County turkey plant on a weekly basis. The operation consisted of several low, rectangular metal sheds. While there were shutters that could be opened, they were always closed.
I knew this place housed turkeys because I could hear the gobbling, but the birds were never seen as they had no access to the outdoors. There was an ammonia-filled stench like an overused outhouse that hung in the air that I could smell before the buildings were even in sight.
One day, there was a worker alongside the dirt access road, and we struck up a conversation. He let me peer inside one of the buildings. It was the first time I realized that turkeys were white (because white feathers do not leave discolorations on the carcass when plucked and any pin feathers left behind aren’t seen by the consumer, I was told), and they were packed in so tightly that they couldn’t move about the enclosure and were standing in excrement, an image that still haunts me.
It was a poorly ventilated, dark, overcrowded warehouse with dusty air that smelled of body waste and death. These cramped, polluted conditions in themselves cause health issues to the birds, including respiratory damage and irritated eyes. To reduce injuries to other birds when the stressed, bored, and frustrated prisoners inevitably fight each other for space, their beaks and toes are seared off with hot blades while fully conscious. The males also have the flap of skin (snood) running from their beak to chest cut off, also with no pain reliever.
Although the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (quite the oxymoron) requires animals to be rendered insensible before shackling and slaughter, the USDA does not interpret this law to include poultry.
According to PETA’s website, “At the slaughterhouse, the survivors are hung upside-down by their weak and crippled legs before their heads are dragged through an electrified ‘stunning tank,’ which immobilizes but does not kill them. Many birds dodge the tank and are still completely conscious when their throats are slit. If the knife fails to properly cut the birds’ throats, they are scalded alive in the tank of boiling water used for feather removal.”
As consumers, we don’t want flesh that’s soaked in blood. To that end, animals in the slaughterhouse need to be alive when their throats are slit so their still beating hearts can pump out the blood from their bodies.
Turkeys endure lives of suffering that end with painful deaths. As compassionate beings, our food should not consist of the enormous treachery, misery, and violence. To simply ignore the suffering of others in the name of social and market pressure is an affront to our own decency.
Eating turkey on Thanksgiving Day is a culturally transmitted belief that should not be passed along to any more generations. It’s a flimsy reason to justify the mass execution of millions of innocent creatures that have no voice. And our bodies reflect our consciousness.