A kinder Christmas: have you ever pet a turkey?
Updated: Jan 20
Many years ago, in 2008, I had the opportunity to visit one of Farm Sanctuary's shelters in northern California. It was a transformative experience; though I had volunteered at animal sanctuaries in the past, this trip ended up being more of a holiday and this relaxed atmosphere meant that we got to know many of the rescued residents of the sanctuary individually. There was Dawn, the small, beautiful russet-coloured cow who served the role of matriarch in Farm Sanctuary's large herd of rescued cattle, many of whom were twice her size. And there was Indigo, a rooster who had gained the trust of his own little flock of hens with his generous, gentle nature: when humans came with treats like oats or cut grapes, he would step back and cluck loudly, waiting for the hens to come and eat first before he took his share. And there was Lily, the biggest pig, whose...er...enthusiasm for food had caused her caregivers into providing her own dish at feeding time, while the rest of the herd shared their troughs properly!
But this post is about turkeys, and we got to spend the most time with them. Though the birds spent their mornings and evenings roaming outside, the hot California summer found most of them resting and keeping cool in the breeze of the fans of an open barn during the afternoon. And that's where we ended up too, with Amelia, Gingko, Delta and many more. People who have never known turkeys as anything other than headless, trussed-up corpses on their Christmas table might be surprised to know how incredibly gentle and personable they are, and how much they love being pet. They behaved very much like dogs--some ignored us, many wandered up to us for an exploratory peck and a pat, and others refused to leave our side, demanding strokes! (As in humans and all other animals, there was a wide variety in personalities.) In particular they loved being pet under their wings, and once they got used to our presence, would approach with them spread out as an invitation, appearing frustrated when we didn't initially take the hint.
Of course, the vast majority of these gentle birds will never experience a moment of kindness in their entire lives, and the only contact they will have with human hands will be violent and painful. In the UK, we kill 18 million turkeys annually, 10 million of them at Christmas. (10,000 were recently killed in North Yorkshire as the H5N8 avian flu strain continues to spread. Read more about the danger of bird flu at our recent blog post, The next pandemic is already on its way.) By the best of industry standard they suffer, with approximately 90% being raised in enormous warehouses with tens of thousands of other birds, never to see the light of day until they are on the way to the slaughterhouse, where they are hung upside down on a conveyer belt and dragged through electrified water before their throats are slit. The fortunate ones die quickly; others remain conscious until they reach the tank of boiling water that loosens their feathers for plucking. (And yes, this includes RSPCA-approved 'free range' birds.) Wild male turkeys weigh about 7.5 kilograms, but as with chickens, extreme breeding means that the birds that people eat weigh more than three times that when they are killed, with as much as 25 kg being common. But their bodies are not made to withstand such weight and an estimated 5-15% (or nearly 3 million individual birds) die of starvation or thirst when their legs break beneath them and they cannot get to food or water; an acceptable and expected loss in an industry where each bird is worth pennies. They can live 10 years, but are sent to slaughter at between two and six months. And one investigation after another demonstrates that cruelty is the default, not the exception. What a way to celebrate Christmas!
This has been a difficult year for many of us and if there's anything the world needs now, it's more compassion. Put just a little bit more love into the world by sparing someone's life this Christmas. It's so easy too--just check out some of the many, many cruelty-free alternatives!
'Horrifically deformed' turkeys found at factory farm run by supplier to major UK supermarkets, Dalton, Jane, The Independent, 17 December 2018
This is the cruelty that goes into your Christmas dinner, Chas Newkey-Burden, The Independent, 22 December 2018
What life is really like for the 10 million turkeys killed for Christmas dinner, Toby Meyjes, The Metro, 25 December 2016