Today, people all across America will sit down to dinner with their friends and family in celebration of all that they have to be thankful for. For 95% of Americans, the centerpiece of this meal will be the carcass of a tortured bird prominently displayed for all to admire. That bird that you are so happy to have adorn your table is a five-month-old turkey who has lived his entire life in misery in inhumane factory farm conditions.
According to Dr. William E. Donaldson of North Carolina State University, within the first three hours of that turkey’s life, he was squeezed for sexing, thrown down a slide onto a treadmill, picked up by someone who ripped the snood off his head, clipped three toes off each foot, and debeaked him and then put him on another conveyer belt that delivered him to another carousel where he got a powerful injection of antibiotics that whacked him in the back of his neck. Dr. Donaldson describes what the first three hours of life is like for all turkeys raised in the U.S. as follows: “Essentially, they [the poults] have been through major surgery. They have been traumatized.” As is the norm in modern agribusiness, all of these painful traumatic procedures are done without anesthesia. According to United Poultry Concerns, “Turkeys are painfully debeaked and detoed without anesthetic to offset the destructive effects of overcrowding and lack of environmental stimulation. Beaks are amputated with a hot machine blade. The blade cuts through the sensitive beak tissue causing severe pain and suffering in the mutilated birds. Debeaked birds cannot eat or preen properly, and detoed birds have trouble walking.”
These mutilated birds are then shipped to intensive confinement facilities—large sheds containing up to 100,000 birds—where they will be confined indoors in terribly overcrowded conditions for the duration of their lives. In these intensive confinement facilities, the birds are forced to stand in their own excrement; hence, the need for routine antibiotics. In addition, the birds have been selectively bred to grow to "market weight" in the shortest time possible. [To put just how fast these birds have been bred to grow into perspective, if a 7-pound human baby were forced to grow at the rate that turkeys have been bred to grow that human baby would weigh 1,500 lbs. in 18 weeks.] As a result, the birds grow so fast that their skeletal structures cannot keep up, and thus, their bones are too weak to support their weight. The end result is that turkeys frequently suffer from painful lameness. The unnatural rate at which they have been forced to grow has another side effect, as well. The turkeys are so large that they can no longer mate naturally. So, male turkeys used for breeding are masturbated by a “milker” who then artificially inseminates the female breeding turkeys by forcefully driving the semen collected from the “milked” males into the female turkeys' bodies.
After five months of a hellish existence in a terribly overcrowded shed, the birds are inhumanely loaded onto trucks and shipped long distances to slaughterhouses without food or water and without adequate protection from the elements. Each year hundreds of thousands of turkeys die or are severely injured as a result of such handling and transportation. For example, in 1998, USDA inspectors condemned 768,300 turkeys before they entered the slaughter plant, because they were either dead or severely injured upon arrival (Poultry Slaughter, National Agricultural Statistics Service [NASS], United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] (Washington, D.C.: February 2, 1999)). Once inside the slaughterhouse, the animals are hung upside down on a conveyer that lowers them headfirst into an electrically-charged water bath to stun them. The conveyer then transports them to a machine that automatically slits their throats and then immediately lowers them into a 160ºF scalding tank to facilitate feather removal. Despite the painful "stun bath," many birds are still conscious at the scalding stage of the slaughtering process.
Why are these intelligent, highly sensitive birds subjected to all of these horribly cruel procedures? So that turkey-producing agribusiness corporations can make a few cents more per pound of turkey meat. We as a society tolerate a completely inhumane method of food production at the expense of the birds who become Thanksgiving centerpieces, just to line the pockets of turkey-producing corporations. For more details on the cruel and inhumane way that turkeys are raised, see United Poultry Concerns' more detailed description here.
Of the 264 million turkeys that will be raised, slaughtered and eaten in the U.S. this year, 46 million will be consumed today (and another 22 million will be eaten on Christmas). Why? The answer is: “Tradition.” Unfortunately for turkeys, Thanksgiving has come to be associated with eating them. A day originally reserved for giving thanks is now commercially referred to as “Turkey Day.” Gratitude replaced by gluttony. When a brutally barbaric practice cannot be justified on any other grounds, there is always tradition to serve as a pseudo-justification. “We’ve always done it that way. How could it possibly be wrong?” Many other unjust practices have continued far longer than they should have for no other reason than tradition.
Of course, traditions can change. Americans no longer enslave blacks. Women and blacks are no longer prevented from voting. Americans are no longer segregated by race. We no longer legally allow cockfighting or pit-bull fighting. The 500-year-old tradition of fox hunting has been banned in Britain. The traditional Labor Day Hegins pigeon shoot has been banned in Hegins, PA.
Our Thanksgiving meal traditions could change as well. We could start showing how thankful we are to be alive by respecting all life. We could give thanks by eating life-affirming plant-based meals. We could refuse to support industries that profit from cruelty. Would our Thanksgiving celebration be any less enjoyable? No. In fact, it might even be more enjoyable. Eating a meal without the nagging guilt that comes from knowingly contributing to unnecessary animal suffering is a wonderful experience.
It is probably too late for most of you to change your Thanksgiving dinner plans this year, but you could certainly change your Christmas dinner plans. You could make up your mind to celebrate Christ’s birth in a humane way. What would Jesus do (or think)? Would Jesus be happy that you are celebrating his birth by supporting cruelty? I suspect not. I suspect that Jesus, being compassionate and empathetic, would strongly disapprove of factory farms and the needless, profit-driven tortures they impose on innocent farm animals. If you’ve always eaten turkey, pork or goose for Christmas in the past, try an experiment. Experiment with a cruelty-free vegetarian Christmas dinner. See how it makes you feel to put compassion and respect before cruelty and insensitivity. Surely, that is what the Christmas spirit is all about.
I have been suggesting that people morally ought to refrain from eating turkey on Thanksgiving and Christmas out of respect for these intelligent sensitive creatures who have done nothing to deserve such inhumane treatment. Why? Because an unbiased application of the widely accepted moral principle that it is wrong to contribute to unnecessary suffering entails that it is wrong to contribute to turkey suffering when there are equally nutritious plant-based foods available.
There is, however, another reason to refrain from eating turkey on Thanksgiving and Christmas. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, an estimated 800,000 people will become ill with a food-borne illness this Thanksgiving. That’s hardly surprising since the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 28% of fresh turkeys and 4% of frozen turkeys available for purchase in supermarkets were contaminated with Campylobacter. [Over 70% of turkeys arrive at the slaughterhouse with Campylobacter. Irradiating these turkeys post-slaughter reduces the number of contaminated birds that reach the supermarket, but 28% of 46 million is still a sizeable number, namely, 12.88 million of the fresh turkeys purchased in the U.S. supermarkets this Thanksgiving were contaminated with Campylobacter.] It is estimated that Campylobacter causes 47% of all food poisonings in the U.S. each year. However, currently, the USDA is required only to test turkeys for Salmonella, another harmful bacteria. What is the easiest way to avoid being one of the 800,000 Americans who will get a food-borne illness today? Don’t eat turkey and don’t bring a raw turkey into your home. Bringing a raw turkey into your house increases your risk of cross contamination, even if you cook the turkey to the full 180º recommended by the USDA. Each year 75 million Americans fall prey to a food-borne illness. Of these, over 300,000 require hospitalization, and 5,000 die. Imagine how devastated you would feel if your child or your parent died of food poisoning because of a meal you served. [If you can't imagine it, just read Chapter 4, "Mommy, Am I Going to Die?" of Gail Eisnitz's eye-opened expose Slaughterhouse.] Almost all of these cases of food poisoning result from improperly handled contaminated animal-based foods. Why take such a risk? By ridding your house of animal-based foods, you greatly reduce the risk of you or your loved ones contracting a food-borne illness.
The bottom line: Doing right by turkeys and refusing to purchase, eat or serve them to others reduces the risk of you or one of your family members contracting a possibly fatal food-borne illness. Once again, what is good for the animals is good for us. Yet another instance of ethical synergy.
Wishing you a Happy Healthy Humane Thanksgiving!