By Jennifer O’Connor
Some years ago, when I interned at a sanctuary for farmed animals, I’d sit in the barn, and a turkey named Fern would back up into my lap and demand to be petted. When I’d stop, she’d look over her shoulder imploringly as if to say, “More, please.” I always think of Fern this time of year, when supermarket bins are filled with the frozen bodies of her relatives. If people got a chance to know these interesting and personable birds, I believe they’d balk at baking and eating their wings, legs and breasts.
Turkeys on farmed-animal sanctuaries quickly prove themselves to be intelligent and industrious, as well as outgoing at times and shy at others, much like human children. As I sat in the barn watching them, the birds’ distinct personalities were immediately clear. Some, bold and hilarious, would walk right up and look me square in the eye as if to challenge my right to invade their space. Others, like a coy debutante, would peer over their shoulders, aloof but not wanting to miss anything exciting. Many, like Fern, would actually purr when being petted.
In a game of “one does not belong,” one wild turkey integrated herself into the rescued flock. Her plumage was iridescent and she stood out like a beacon. Her robust health contrasted painfully with the crippled legs, mutilated beaks and unnatural white feathers of those around her who had been saved from slaughter. Even though the rescued birds were safe and tenderly cared for, their hideous past had left them physically and emotionally scarred for life.
Like other birds, turkeys thrive in fresh air and sunshine and spend most of their time taking dust baths and scratching in the dirt hunting for tasty treats. They “gossip” with friends and shelter their babies under outstretched wings. On factory farms, turkeys are crammed by the tens of thousands into massive warehouses where there is barely enough room to take a breath much less move around.
Factory-farmed birds live in a thick stew of their own waste. Part of their beak and the ends of their toes are painfully cut off to keep them from injuring one another in the extremely crowded and stressful conditions. Some develop congestive heart disease, enlarged livers and other illnesses. Their unnatural forced weight gain often cripples them since their legs cannot support their oversized bodies.
In slaughterhouses, terrified turkeys are hung upside-down and their heads are dragged through an electrified “stunning tank,” which immobilizes but does not kill them. Many turkeys flail and fight to save themselves and manage to dodge the tank, so they are still conscious when their throats are cut. And if the knife wielder fails to cut the birds’ throats properly—and given the thousands going down the line every hour, that’s exceedingly common—the animals end up getting scalded to death in the tanks of boiling water used to remove their feathers.
This Thanksgiving, please take a moment to reflect: Can the fleeting pleasure of a meal justify the immeasurable pain and suffering of a bird who didn’t want to die? Give turkeys like Fern a reason to purr. Stuff yourself with mashed potatoes, cranberries, pumpkin pie and other goodies and leave the birds alone.
Jennifer O’Connor is a staff writer with the PETA Foundation.