Dying Traditions: The Truth about Thanksgiving Turkey
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


Hope Bohanec, Free From Harm
November 2014

The tradition that we must scrutinize today is the merciless killing of billions of farmed animals, and particularly poignant this month, the Thanksgiving turkey. The Norman Rockwell image of family coming together on the third Thursday of November with a huge dead bird on a platter is rooted in our psyche as the epitome of tradition. It’s as if Thanksgiving wouldn’t be the same without the globular, barren belly of an avian carcass smack in the middle of the family dining table.

“Immorality sanctified by tradition is still immorality.”
― Bernard E. Rollin

tradition Thanksgiving turkey

Tradition: We hold onto it like the railing on top of the Grand Canyon, like those ten extra pounds we just we can’t let go. Traditions can be important to a society — they shape who we are. But every culture’s traditions must be scrutinized by each successive generation for ethical and moral flaws. Throughout history, many traditions that were once considered natural and normal for generations were eventually deemed outdated, cruel, or simply no longer necessary. Some traditions are positive and make society stronger and more stable, but some have proven to weaken our character, damage our health and our spirit, and are cruel to others.

The tradition that we must scrutinize today is the merciless killing of billions of farmed animals, and particularly poignant this month, the Thanksgiving turkey. The Norman Rockwell image of family coming together on the third Thursday of November with a huge dead bird on a platter is rooted in our psyche as the epitome of tradition. It’s as if Thanksgiving wouldn’t be the same without the globular, barren belly of an avian carcass smack in the middle of the family dining table.

But what was traditionally seen simply as “food” by older generations requires deeper reflection and examination with new eyes.

The deceased turkey, lying exposed on her back with feathers ripped from her body, decapitated, limbs severed, and organs ripped from her belly through her anal cavity, certainly suffered a horrible fate, along with millions of others of her kind. Hiding behind tradition and masking violence with the euphemism of gratitude does nothing to ease the turkey’s misery.

Bending Traditions

To contemporary societies, established traditions seem consistent, continuous and interminable, but they can actually be quite fleeting and malleable. Some traditions we believe are as old as the hills are in fact fairly recent developments. The tradition of giving an engagement ring to a betrothed started less than a century ago in 1938 as a marketing scheme by a diamond company. But now, few eager potential spouses would be able to get away with a marriage proposal without presenting a ring or the answer may not likely be favorable.

There are some traditions from our recent past that do have ancient origins such as a hopeful husband acquiring matrimonial permission from a potential bride’s father and the daughter’s family negotiating with a dowry. We would of course see this today as incredibly demeaning to the woman and recognize that she has the right to choose her own spouse and her own destiny. But just as recently as the late nineteenth century, this tradition was thriving among the upper and middle class, even in the United States. Yet society eventually deemed this practice old-fashioned and even came to see it as shameful that a young woman would be treated as a piece of property to be exchanged, so the tradition fell out of favor and has fortunately vanished.

Of course racism has been a strong tradition in the United States, and many would argue that institutions such as slavery were inextricable to U.S. economic development. At one time, tradition was considered a persuasive argument in favor of slavery and other forms of cultural and institutional racism. It took the courage of strong, ethical people to fight the traditional aspects of this brutal practice. With this fight came the recognition that tradition provided inadequate justification to commit atrocities against others. Of course, slavery is still present around the world, even in the United States, but it is illegal, considered reprehensible by mainstream society, and not practices for the sake of tradition.

tradition Thanksgiving turkey
Turkey Farm. Shed containing 18,000 turkey chicks, mainly for export to Germany.
Photo Jan van IJken

The Traditional Turkey?

As the reality of the plight of farmed animals comes to light, the ethical ramifications of this traditional mainstay holiday feature must become the subject of scrutiny. Turkeys are packed into long, windowless buildings by the thousands. Much like chickens bred for their meat, turkeys are overcrowded on floor systems and forced to live in their own waste. Breathing ammonia fumes and irritating dust causes them to develop respiratory diseases, ulcerated feet, blistered breasts and ammonia-burned eyes and throats.

Turkeys have been bred to grow so fast and to become so heavy that their bones are too weak to support their weight. They suffer from leg deformities, arthritis and joint pain just in their first few months of life, resulting in lameness so severe that they are sometimes forced to walk on their wings to reach food and water. Induced to grow too large too fast, turkeys raised for food develop congestive heart and lung diseases accompanied by engorged coronary blood vessels, distended fluid-filled heart sacs, abdominal fluid, and enlarged, congested livers.

Turkeys go to slaughter at a very young age, some as young as 12 weeks, but never more than 6 or 7 months old. They never see their first birthday, even though they can live to be 20 years old or more. They are violently handled and carried upside down by their legs to the transport trucks. Jammed in crates, they travel without food, water or weather protection to the slaughterhouse. No U.S. laws regulate the treatment of turkeys, chickens, ducks or other birds during handling, transport or slaughter.

tradition Thanksgiving turkey
Dakota, at Animal Place Sanctuary

Humanely-Raised and Free-Range is Better, Right?

As people become aware of the miserable conditions birds endure in the poultry industry, companies are attempting to appease customers by describing turkey meat as “humane” or “free-range” and other feel-good classifications. Unfortunately, these labels are largely insubstantial, and the overwhelming similarities between practices on a supposedly “alternative” farm and those of a more conventional one far outweigh any differences. While most “free-range” farms do offer outdoor pens, overcrowding is similar to indoor operations and painful mutilations are still routine.

While visiting Animal Place, a farmed animal rescue sanctuary in Grass Valley, California, I met Dakota, who puffed up his large arc of white feathers as we approached. Dakota’s snood and waddle (the wrinkly skin around his beak and neck) were a brilliant bluish purple. As we got closer and started talking to him, the folds of skin turned a dazzling red! This amazing talent can be an expressive indicator of his mood. What an incredible being and so beautiful! But poor Dakota’s feet were terribly deformed. His toes looked like swollen stumps.

Dakota had been rescued from a free-range facility where 20,000 birds were overcrowded in outdoor pens. Workers had not only painfully removed a portion of his beak, but had also cut off his toes. This must have been an excruciating experience for the young turkey.

If a turkey is treated with kindness and has plenty of space, he will not normally use his claws against others, but because of the overcrowding and brutal handling, stressed turkeys use their thick nails to defend themselves, which can be dangerous to workers or other birds. Rather than treat them humanely and give them the space they need, the industry has deemed it to be more convenient to cut off not just the nails, but the first and sometimes the second section of the turkey’s toes so they will not grow back, all without anesthesia. This is a common practice even with labels like “humane” and “free-range.” The open wounds often get infected and swell, making it incredibly painful for the turkeys to walk.

tradition Thanksgiving turkey
Debeaked turkey poults.
Image courtesy of Farm Sanctuary

The similarly cruel practice of de-beaking is also routinely performed, no matter the label, where a sizable portion of the beak is burned off when the turkeys are just chicks. Not only is this a painful mutilation, but turkeys use their beaks to preen, to groom, to peck and to eat, all of which can be impaired with a disfigured beak, causing lifelong suffering.

There is a dark side to the romanticized notion of animals “free-ranging” outside. In harsh weather, heavy rain, freezing temperatures, cold wind, sleet or snow, outdoor operations may not have adequate indoor space for the birds to get out of the weather. In nature, turkeys would seek out natural barriers to bad weather like trees, bushes or slopes in the terrain. Thousands of birds overcrowded in a muddy, outdoor pen are often unable to escape the weather. Turkey farming, no matter the label, does not provide for the bird’s complex needs, and the result is a miserable, short life.

Butterball’s Tall Tale

A recent announcement by Butterball, the largest turkey producer in the United States, is an indicative example of the popularity of humane labeling. Butterball provides one-fifth of the U.S. supply of turkey meat, producing one billion pounds annually. The company announced that by the fall of 2014, just in time for Thanksgiving, all of their products will have the “American Humane Certified” label. Of course, this will make consumers feel that conditions for turkeys must be significantly improved and that Butterball is providing a healthier, more humane product. But what does the label really mean for the millions of condemned turkeys currently awaiting the holiday holocaust?

The label’s requirements are so lax that most are already in practice, such as the basic provisions that require adequate food and clean water. It is likely that very few of the Butterball facilities will have to make any improvements at all. Under the American Humane Certified label, there are no requirements for animals to have access to the outside, so windowless indoor buildings are still the standard, and the stocking density requirement (how crowded the birds are) is 1 square foot of space for every 7.88 pounds of bird. This is only slightly more space than the typical industry standard. Birds are still de-beaked and de-toed, are still bred to become painfully overweight, and still go to the same horrifying death as all of the other non-certified turkeys.

The American Humane certification is designed to be industry-friendly, so producers can still cram thousands of birds into windowless buildings and have a pacifying label on the product. This is nothing more than humane-washing to cover up the inexcusable and horrifying reality of confining and killing animals.

Visceral Veganism

There is an added element to contemplate when considering the Thanksgiving turkey. The traditional way to serve the dead animal is to pack the turkey’s body with stuffing–up the bird’s disemboweled rectal cavity. The anus has been removed, but let’s face it, it’s still basically stuffing food up a dead animal’s rectum. This is a repugnant revelation when you truly stop to reflect on it. The visceral reaction to this is disgust, and rightly so. Animal’s bodies are similar to ours, and the thought of eating out of someone’s rump should be seen as filthy, offensive, and incredibly distasteful. Eating dead bodies in any form is revolting, but this method is particularly ghastly.

A New Tradition of Compassion

In the recent past, the majority of U.S. citizens favored slavery. They resisted those who were fighting for the abolition of people of color. If you lived 150 years ago and were white, do you think that you would be in favor of freeing the slaves? Or do you think that you would be in the majority of traditionalists who wanted to keep the status quo. This is the question that will be asked in another 150 years, when people look back and say, how could a dead bird in the middle of the dining table have ever been a traditional symbol of gratitude and family? Don’t you want to be on the compassionate side of history? Let the Thanksgiving tradition evolve to a new standard of kindness and let’s resolve to shed no blood in the name of a holiday celebration.

We can create a new tradition and host a vegan Thanksgiving dinner for family and friends. It could be an intimate gathering of just close friends and family or a large community potluck. However we decide to celebrate our gratitude, let’s be brave and forward-thinking enough to initiate a new tradition of compassion. There are numerous delicious vegan options for holiday centerpieces such as Tofurky Roast, Field Roast’s Celebration Roast, and Gardein’s Savory Stuffed Turk’y, just to name a few. A stuffed pumpkin or other large squash can also make a beautiful centerpiece. All the traditional side dishes can be made vegan easily with non-dairy milks and other plant-based alternatives. There is even vegan egg nog, and I can personally attest that it is delightful!

Tradition should uplift and strengthen a community. As long as a tradition causes suffering, it is hindering our entire society’s ability to thrive. By practicing compassion, love and kindness, we can create a society where our holiday traditions facilitate a better world, for ourselves and all species on earth.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hope Bohanec is an animal and environmental activist and author who recently published the book The Ultimate Betrayal: Is There Happy Meat? Many years ago while living eighty feet off the ground in a redwood tree so it would not be cut, Hope dedicated herself to animal and environmental causes, and has since organizing countless events, demonstrations, conferences and fundraisers. She is a nationally recognized leader in the animal protection movement and is currently serving as Projects Manager for United Poultry Concerns. Hope is the primary organizer for the annual Conscious Eating Conference at UC Berkeley as well as the Sonoma County VegFest. She is currently working on a vegan themed sci-fi novel.

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