The average domestic turkey, has white feathers, a wingspan of 1.5 m (60 in), can fly 88 k/h (55 mph), and walk or trot 32 k/h (20 mph). A breeding hen weighs 9-14 kg (20-30 lbs), while a tom can weigh as much as 36 kg (80 lbs). A turkey has a distinctive reddish, fleshy caruncle on the head and neck, a red snood hanging over the beak, and a bright red wattle hanging from the throat along the neck. Turkeys naturally develop strong flight muscles on the chest, large walking muscles on the legs, and three strong toes and sharp claws on their feet. Although they are good fliers, they are non-migratory. They eat seeds and plants (insects when young). Taxonomic classification: Phylum Chordata, Subphylum Vertebrata, Class Aves, Order Galliformes, Family Meleagrididae.
Friendly, curious, and trusting toward humans yet clever and cunning, turkeys have a zest for living, are interactive and playful. They roost in trees but love to bathe in dust on the ground to groom themselves and control parasites. At night and for safety, they fly up into trees to nest and therefore are easily hunted and killed. The female lays 8-15 eggs on the ground, communicates with her poults while they are still in their eggs, and spends as much as 5 months raising and fiercely protecting her young. Turkeys are polygamous.
Turkeys are indigenous to the New World. The Mexican strain, somewhat different from the wild turkey found in Canada and the U.S., was brought to Europe in the 16th century and formed the basis of today's commercial domestic breed. Wild turkeys were commonplace, easily hunted and rounded-up. Before the growth of intensive confinement farming systems, turkeys were marched to slaughterhouses on walks (known as turkey trots) up to several hundred miles. By the end of the 19th century they were almost wiped out. Hunting wild turkeys was banned for almost 100 years, but after the population increased, most states again legalized hunting. Today there are wild turkeys throughout North America.
Commercial turkey production worldwide has more than tripled in the last thirty years. Approximately five million metric tons are produced annually, with half of the production in the U.S. (amounting to 300,000 birds). As many as a billion turkeys are killed every year around the world for food. Three multinational companies dominate turkey breeding and hatching through their development of unique, patented strains of commercial animal parent and grandparent flocks. Nicholas Turkey (owned by the Wesjohann Group, Germany), British United Turkeys (a joint venture of Sanofi-Aventis and Merck & Co. Inc., France and the U.S.), and Hybrid Turkey Farms (owned by Nutreco, the Netherlands) reach 150 countries around the world through franchise operations and a global distribution network. The eight largest commercial growing production centers are the U.S, France, Germany, Italy, the UK, Brazil, Canada, and Israel.
How Turkeys Live
Turkeys were the last animals to be domesticated, about 100 years ago. Today, factory farmed turkeys are very much changed through decades of selective breeding. They are larger and have more muscle meat.
Turkeys develop neurotic aggressive and cannibalistic behaviors, which are endemic in the typically over-crowded conditions that lack sufficient nesting areas, adequate water, and correct nutritional feed. Under those circumstances, they can peck each other to death and then devour one another. Farmers manage cannibalism by amputating the turkeys' beaks, removing their toes, and cutting away the fleshy growths around their heads (debeaking, toe removal, and desnooding). These surgical procedures are all done without anesthetic and without aftercare for pain or infection.
Usually done at one week old, debeaking involves the use of a hot blade, clippers, or other devices to trim more than a third of the beak (the upper mandible) in an attempt to prevent feather plucking and eye pecking among the turkeys. Breeding turkeys will undergo this again as their beaks regrow. Turkey beaks, with their delicate, extensive nerve supply, are sensitive to heat, pressure, and pain, and are essential for normal drinking and eating, as well as preening. In addition to the obvious pain of the operation, turkeys suffer persistent chronic pain and long-term depression. Toe removal is intended to limit the damage of attacking birds or accidents from the jostling around in tight quarters. In this case, the last joint of the inside toe is cut off, which can result in open wounds and blood loss. The partial toes cause foot problems and ongoing pain. Finally, by pulling off all the fleshy appendages around the head, which can be targets for attacks, turkeys are desnooded.
Because of induced artificial growth rates, turkeys cannot mate naturally and lay eggs normally. At least once a week, breeding turkeys, hens and toms, are put through the artificial insemination (AI) process. Males are kept separate from females, and on designated days, the workers catch them one at a time. While one farmhand restrains the turkey in a bent-over position, another worker palms the vent (the genital covering) with his hands to cause the phallus to protrude. He then must grab the turkey's penis, stroking and masturbating until the tom ejaculates. The semen is milked, collected, and laced with extenders and antibiotics before being quickly sent over to the hen house.
A shed of 3,000 hens is not unusual. A staff member captures a hen and must hold her securely while someone else places a syringe or rubber tube into her, injecting the semen mixture. This procedure is repeated a few hundred times, and the workers frequently tire, get frustrated, and lose concentration. The hens are rushed along and the treatment gets progressively worse. For the toms as well as the hens, each aspect of the artificial insemination process is painful and traumatic. The quick capture and rough handling are frightening. The restraint itself is traumatic. The stroking of the males and the injecting of the females can inflict considerable damage. Published research into the AI procedure reveals an extraordinary level of injury and suffering. Critics condemn AI as a form of human/animal sexual abuse.
The fertilized eggs are taken from the breeder hens and set into an automated incubating system of drawers, where the eggs are rotated instead of receiving natural parental nurturing. Turkey poults hatch after 28 days, are sorted by sex, and then packed for delivery to growers. This shipping, in cardboard cartons, must occur within a 3-day period, since the poults have no nourishment other than the remnants of yolk that they absorb. Survival depends upon their shared body temperature maintaining a minimum 32° C (90° F).
These infant birds will spend the next 6 weeks in a vast, windowless dark shed with perhaps 10,000-30,000 other baby turkeys. The final weeks of their lives are spent in a similarly crowded environment (known as a "growout" facility), where computers control the heating, lighting, and feeding. Their high-protein feed is often laced with antibiotics to accelerate growth. From the day they are born, their lives are governed by a production line.
The litter on the floor of the shed remains unchanged throughout rearing, resulting in hock burns (sores on their legs), painful breast blisters, ulcerated feet, and fume-burned eyes from the ammonia-ridden droppings. Living in conditions like this causes respiratory and heart-lung disease, engorged coronary arteries, congested livers, and lameness. In March 2006, avian flu (H5N1) reached Israel. The virus quickly spread among the chickens, turkeys, geese, and ducks on numerous farms. To contain the disease, the government destroyed 1.2 million birds, only a small percentage of whom were actually infected. The primary method used was poisoning the birds' drinking water, which killed them painfully, and then burying them in mass graves. In some locations, the birds were simply buried alive.
How Turkeys Die
Turkeys are killed when they reach an average market weight of 14 kg (30 lbs). Hens are usually slaughtered at 14 weeks old, while toms can live a little longer (18-24 weeks). They are starved for 12 hours before being slaughtered (to reduce gastrointestinal splatter at the plant), and the next morning they are caught, crated, loaded, shipped, unloaded, and quickly shackled onto an overhead conveyor belt. Once shackled, fully conscious and upside down, with their own body weight so heavy that they fracture their limbs, automated systems drag the turkeys through an electrically-charged stunning bath. The struggling turkey might drop a wing into the water trough, getting shocked but not stunned, or might arch its neck and avoid the stunning completely.
The conveyor moves the animal forward to robotic cutting blades that are meant to slit the throat and bleed the turkey. Those who were not stunned, and are therefore still moving around, will get slashed on various parts of their body or might even make it to the next processing station alive. The turkey is then dipped into a scalding tank to loosen the feathers. Thousands are still alive upon entering the tanks. Automated rubber fingerlike projections spin and yank out the feathers before the butchering actually begins and a marketable carcass can be produced. After slaughter, their feathers are thrown out into the compost pile along with manure and sold as fertilizer. Turkey skin can be tanned and used as leather.
Bacterial contamination occurs throughout the turkey's lifecycle, but especially while the carcass is moving through the production line. The most serious pathogens, and the greatest potential threats, are Listeria, Campylobacter, and Salmonella. Studies in the EU report the percentage at very high rates. They caution consumers to assume that bacterial contamination is prevalent and that the risk to humans is extremely high during handling, preparation, and eating (in some reports as high as 80%).
In North America, there are no legal anti-cruelty statutes that can be implemented to protect animals farmed for food, in spite of the fact that animal welfare legislation exists on the national as well as the local level. In addition, agribusiness has made sure that all poultry is excluded from protection under the U.S. Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (1958, 1978).
They all live in hell, all the time
that they are alive. And no one cares.
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Davis, Karen. More Than a Meal, The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality. Lantern Books, 2001.
Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC). Report on the Welfare of Turkeys. UK (1995): paragraphs 84 & 85.
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