After surviving their first harsh colonial winter, the Pilgrims held a three-day harvest celebration in 1621; at least that is how the story goes.
Governor Bradford’s description of the Pilgrims’ first autumn in Plymouth speaks of a “great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.” So wild turkey might have been on the menu for that particular fest.
President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving, as it became known, a national holiday in 1863.
Today, for many the celebration would not be complete without a dead, stuffed turkey on the table.
In 2015, more than 233 million turkeys were raised in the US. Over 212 million were consumed within the country. An estimated 46 million of those turkeys were eaten at Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas and 19 million at Easter.
Nearly 88% of Americans surveyed by the National Turkey Federation that published the above figures, eat turkey at Thanksgiving.
Factory-farmed turkeys make up 99% of these numbers.
Thanks to copious amounts of high-calorie feed, factory-farmed turkeys weigh up to 28 pounds and have such large breasts that they are unable to naturally reproduce.
Male turkeys used for breeding are masturbated repeatedly, while the breeding hens will spend their short lives being artificially inseminated, semen driven into their bodies over and over, through plastic tubes, to continually lay eggs that will hatch young turkeys to be raised and slaughtered for food, including Thanksgiving dinners.
Baby turkeys are hatched in large incubators. The parents never see their offspring and the hatchlings will never meet their mothers or feel the warmth of a nest.
Baby turkeys’ first challenge is to not get mangled in the factory selecting and transporting machinery or break limbs through cruel handling by factory workers. Damaged and thus useless baby birds are ground up alive in giant macerating machines.
After only a few weeks, turkey chicks are moved to large, stuffy, windowless sheds, which they generally share with tens of thousands of other genetically similar turkeys.
They will all spend the rest of their doomed lives there, denied their natural behavior of running around, building nests, courting & mating, raising their young, breathing fresh air, feeling the sun on their backs, taking dust baths, flying, foraging for varied food, cleaning their feathers, roosting … in short, the pleasures of turkey life.
To be labeled ‘free-range’, the turkeys just need to have access to the outside, not actually ‘range’ there. Free-range turkeys will live in the same barns as all other Thanksgiving turkeys, but their particular barn will have a tiny access hole to a small fenced yard beside the barn, where there is no food or grass and thus lacks the incentive for the turkeys to go there.
On average, each 20-pound bird has only 3.5 square feet of space.
Turkeys are painfully de-beaked with a hot machine blade; toes are cut off, as are the males’ snoods (the flap of skin under the chin), to prevent the animals from harming each other in the overcrowded conditions. All of the procedures take place without anesthetics.
De-beaked birds cannot eat or preen properly and de-toed birds have difficulty walking.
Millions of turkeys don’t make it past the first few weeks of life in a factory farm as many succumb to ‘starve-out’, a stress-induced condition that causes young birds to simply stop eating.
Injured turkeys are left to suffer and die, denied proper veterinary care.
Slow-growing turkeys, those ill from the filthy living conditions or those crippled under their own weight, are killed so that no more food is wasted on them.
In nature, turkeys spend up to 5 months close to their mothers after which they can live up to 12 years. In factory farms most turkeys are slaughtered five to six months after birth. They have to be, as their unnaturally large size would kill many of them from organ failure or heart attacks beyond that age.
A domestic turkey weighs about twice what a wild turkey does. They are genetically selected to grow as fast as possible.
Factory farmed turkeys grow too heavy to fly and the males usually get so large their legs cannot support their own weight.
Turkeys frequently suffer from painful lameness and arthritis so severe that they try to crawl on their wings to food and water.
Forced to grow too large too fast, turkeys raised for food develop congestive heart and lung disease accompanied by engorged coronary blood vessels, distended fluid-filled heart sacs, abdominal fluid, and gelatin-covered enlarged congested livers.
They inhale pungent ammonia fumes and lung-clogging dust, resulting in respiratory diseases. Ulcerated feet, blistered breasts and ammonia-burned eyes stem from the crowded, filthy conditions they are forced to live in.
Most turkeys are fed antibiotics to artificially enhance growth and to fight off Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter and other zoonotic (transferable to humans) diseases.
The amount of waste produced and resources plundered in the process are enormous. A turkey finishing-farm in Rose Hill, Ohio, that ‘raises’ 140,000 turkeys each year, reportedly produced about 4 million pounds of turkey manure annually.
Between 12 and 26 weeks old turkeys are scooped up by unschooled, poorly paid catchers and carried head down by their legs to a transport truck. Jammed in crates they travel without food, water or protection from the elements to the slaughterhouse.
No US welfare laws regulate the treatment of turkeys, chickens, ducks or other birds during catching, transport or slaughter and there is no veterinarian care. These are not considered sentient living beings by the exploiters; they are treated like things, property, a product, your Thanksgiving meal!
At the slaughterhouse, turkeys are ripped from the crates and hung by their feet upside down from a rotating belt. Legs that hadn’t collapsed under the birds’ weight in the barn might break now during this process. The birds may be incapacitated by a handheld electrical stunner or by having their heads dragged through an electrified water bath, before their throats are slit. Then they are submerged in scalding-hot water to release the feathers from the skin.
Turkeys that aren’t stunned and neck-slit properly are scalded to death.
Turkey breeding is handled by just a handful of huge corporate turkey farmers. Undercover crews have several times exposed the cruelty at industrial turkey breeders like Butterball, which supplies about 30% of the turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving.
Turkey consumption has nearly doubled over the past 25 years and supply has overtaken demand, so it’s now cheaper than ever to buy a Thanksgiving turkey.
After the holidays, massive amounts of unsold turkey carcasses end up in landfills, while the corporations of death still rake in huge profits.
In his 1863 proclamation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, president Lincoln referred to the hundreds of thousands of Americans that had been affected by the then raging Civil War. He asked the American people to not only set this day apart “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”, but also to “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged”.
It seems cynical that this day of “Thanksgiving and praise” that, following Lincoln’s recommendation, should also include the remembrance of those Americans that died or suffered at the hands of fellow Americans in the Civil War, today has degraded to ‘Turkey Day’, the genocide of an iconic American bird.
A better way to ‘acknowledge’ those dead soldiers and affected families, the hardships of the first settlers and the genocide of the natives that was soon to follow, would be to leave the violence and cruelty of your plate!