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The Turkey in America

 By Karen Davis

Perhaps more than any other animal in America, the turkey symbolizes the ambivalence that many people have about animals. The turkey figures simultaneously as a sacrificial victim, a figure of fun, and a sacred player in America's mythic drama about itself as a nation.

The word turkey as an all-purpose term of derision has been traced to the American theatre meaning a "third rate production." In James T. Farrell's 1932 novel, Young Lonigan, the character Dooley is described as "one comical turkey, funnier than anything you'd find in real life."

The term "gobbledygook" is attributed to U.S. House Representative, Maury Maverick, from Texas, who, as chairman of the Smaller War Plants Corp during World War Two, issued a 1944 order banning the bureaucratic jargon he said reminded him of his "old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledy-gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity."

The idea of the comical turkey persists in the litany of sarcasm that accompanies the piety of Thanksgiving each year in the United States, when newspapers and other media poke fun at the "Thanksgiving Day bird" along with the human "turkeys" in power, and holiday rituals include, or have included, everything from throwing turkeys off scaffolds and out of airplanes to forcing them to participate in turkey "Olympics" and in White House "turkey pardoning" ceremonies.

America celebrates its heritage paradoxically by feasting on a bird reflexively despised by mainstream culture as stupid, dirty, and silly, a misunderstanding reinforced by the turkey food industry, which alternates between caricaturing the turkey as a ludicrous "personality" versus representing the bird as an anonymous "production animal." Stock photos of thousands of debeaked turkeys crowded together awaiting slaughter in nondescript sheds reinforce the popular idea that turkeys are worthless except as objects of sport and meat.

Even so, the derogatory turkey stereotype is starting to modify. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the creation of farmed animal sanctuaries and turkey-adoption programs offered new opportunities for people to get to know turkeys differently from the demeaning stock versions of the bird.

Partly in response to these encounters, a growth in vegetarianism is occurring in the United States and elsewhere. At the same time, the avian sciences are debunking the prejudice against birds in general, and ground-nesting birds such as turkeys and chickens in particular, as "primitive."

Avian scientists are calling for a whole new bird-brain nomenclature based on the now overwhelming evidence that birds share with humans a complexly evolved brain that processes information and gives rise to experience in much the same way as the human cerebral cortex, findings summarized by The Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium in Nature Neuroscience Reviews in 2005.

An irony of the low esteem in which domestic turkeys have been held is that, as wildlife biologist William Healy points out, much of what is known about the wild turkey's intelligence is based on work with domestic turkeys. He defends domestic turkeys from the charge of stupidity by observing that genetic selection for "such gross breast development that few adult males can even walk" fuels the fallacy that they are "stupid."

A further irony is that the wary turkey that dominates modern hunters' discourse is not exactly the bird the early European explorers and colonists encountered. As John Madson writes in the Smithsonian, "Wild turkeys, as the first settlers found them, were as trusting and unwary as they were plentiful."

From the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, wild turkeys were characterized repeatedly as showing the same kind of friendly curiosity towards people that modern visitors often discover with surprise and delight when they meet domestic turkeys at animal sanctuaries. "They often sat with their young on my fences so trustingly that I found it difficult to bring myself to shoot them," said one person typically of the wild turkey's amiableness towards the settlers.

It remains to be seen whether modern experiences and the advancing sciences of avian cognition and ethology will lead people to rethink, as did naturalist Joe Hutto in the course of raising young turkeys to adulthood, many of their attitudes and presumptions about "the complexity and profoundly subtle nature of the experience within other species."

As the single most visible animal symbol in America, the de facto symbol of the nation and "icon of American food," the turkey highlights the growing conflict in Western culture between the age-old presumption that animals exist solely for humans to exploit and the view that nonhuman animals are kin to humans with value and autonomy in their own right.

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Karen Davis is president of United Poultry Concerns, a non-profit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. She is the author of several books including More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, published by Lantern Books in 2001. For more information, please visit www.upc-online.org and www.upc-online.org/karenbio.htm.

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