By Joanne Chang
When most people hear the word turkey, they think of a roast on the table at Thanksgiving—the piece of flesh whose entire purpose is to satisfy our need to follow a tradition. It’s something that everyone must have at Thanksgiving, no questions asked.
I like asking questions. My favourite question to ask around Thanksgiving time is: Have you ever met a turkey? The answer to this question usually varies from “Oh, I’ve met lots of turkeys. My brother-in-law is one!” to “I heard they drown when they look up in the rain.” The responses do not surprise me, since most people who eat turkey do not have the opportunity or an interest in meeting the incredibly cuddly and affectionate creature in its living state. You must think I’m out of my mind to even suggest that an ugly bird can be cuddly and affectionate. But turkeys, like dogs, are truly affectionate by nature.
I was introduced to my first turkey when I spent a month volunteering at Farm Sanctuary in California. When the 70-pound tom named Wylie waddled up to me, I shuddered at his repulsive-looking face and took a step back. Wylie was bred for meat, which means his chest will grow rapidly and continuously until his legs cannot hold him anymore or until his heart gives out. Genetic manipulation is done in all farms, whether they are industrial, organic, or local.
At the sanctuary, Wylie was kept on a restrictive diet and had to be separated from the females. Because they are bred for maximum breast meat, today’s male turkeys would crush a female turkey if they tried to mate naturally. At turkey farms, the only way to make new turkeys is through artificial insemination. Yes, it is true. There are farm workers whose job is exclusively devoted to “milking” male turkeys for their semen and those whose job is devoted entirely to “breaking” female turkeys. How’s that for a Thanksgiving tradition?
As Wylie waddled up to me, a sanctuary staff member said to me, “Go ahead, he just wants a belly rub.” I was taken aback, but soon learned that turkeys are a lot like puppies. Wylie the turkey and many of the other turkeys at the sanctuary spend a lot of their days following volunteers around begging for kisses, hugs, cuddles, and scratches. I’ve spent many afternoons with a turkey preening on my lap while I scratched under her wings. The poor sweet creatures are so trusting despite the chronic pain they suffer from mutilations at the hands of humans.
Most of the turkeys I met were mutilated before their rescue; their beaks and toes were all cut off. Turkeys become frustrated and aggressive when overcrowded on meat farms. Instead of giving them more space, the turkey industry decided that it was better to cut off the birds’ toes and beaks so that they do not kill each other when they fight. Yes, this is also true. There’s someone at a turkey hatchery whose entire job is devoted to cutting off the toes and beaks of newborn turkey poults.
Wylie and most of the rescued turkeys eventually die prematurely due to collapsed organs and broken legs as their genetically manipulated bodies continue to grow out of control. The natural lifespan of a turkey is 10 years. But a turkey raised for food is killed at three to four months of age.
Every Thanksgiving, I think back to my time at the sanctuary and fondly remember the sweet gentle birds who knew nothing about hate and vengeance. They were mutilated mutants who lived in constant pain, but they were thankful to the humans who cared for them and enjoyed the short and peaceful life they had at the sanctuary. Perhaps they knew that despite all their suffering, they were luckier than the 20.4 million of their cousins in Canada who live in a constant state of violence and do not get to live beyond four months of age.
This Thanksgiving, please consider visiting a turkey at a local sanctuary instead of eating one. On the Web site of the Rest.Q Animal Sanctuary on Mayne Island, you can find out how you can sponsor a local rescued turkey.
Joanne Chang is a director of Liberation B.C., a Vancouver-based animal-rights organization.