The Fort Worth Star-Telegram (c)
Thursday, November 21, 2002
You could meet one (and don't eat one), pardon one, even adopt one.
Or you could, like most folks, say thanks over one. Read on about the
life of that big, dumb bird.
By David Casstevens
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
CLIFTON - If turkeys had an ounce of sense they would hatch a plan of escape.
They could dig a tunnel, maybe, taking turns at night.
Or jump the farm manager when he entered their barn, as he does every morning, alone, one man pulled beneath a sea of pecking inmates.
Turkeys are aggressive.
They're inquisitive, too.
"Watch this," the man says.
David Neal, co-owner of Mida Farms, one of the largest turkey-growing operations in Texas, stood at one end of a barn that stretched the length of two football fields. Before him, covering 30,000 square feet, appeared a huge white-feathered flock of domestic birds, identical in age (14 weeks) and odd-headed appearance.
Nine thousand Toms filled the prison yard.
The all-male population bobbed at the feed and water trays. Their large, clawed feet switched stances. The feed-lot air was thick with
barnyard aroma and the strangest noise, a flutey gargling sound.
Neal drew a breath and whistled.
Instantly, the chorus of gobbling voices fell silent.
Every turkey neck stretched -- shot up -- like a periscope. As if of one mind, like those birds in the Hitchcock movie, they turned their heads toward the sound, a precision movement, as synchronized as the Kilgore Rangerettes. En masse, they held their stare, oil-drop eyes gleaming.
Perhaps turkeys are smarter than we think.
Neal thought this over.
"No. They're pretty much idiots," he says, not unkindly.
Top-heavy, and clumsy, the domestic turkey that ends up on the dinner table alongside the yams and giblet gravy is said to be so dimwitted that it will gaze up into rain with its mouth open until it drowns.
Neal isn't sure about that.
"It would have to be a pretty damn hard rain."
But curiosity shouldn't be confused with intelligence.
Turkeys must be taught to eat and drink.
If spooked, the birds will herd and stampede and pile up in a corner, like soccer rioters, suffocating those at the bottom.
Not one of the half-million tom turkeys grown annually at the Neal brothers' Central Texas farms understands that his life eventually will end, his fate preordained.
Ignorance is bliss.
United Poultry Concerns will stage a candlelight vigil for turkeys on Friday in Washington, D.C. The group distributes buttons that read "Turkeys: Meet One, Don't Eat One."
UPC also objects to the annual Turkey Day presidential "pardon" ceremony, arguing that turkeys (unlike human beings) are not guilty of anything for which they should be exonerated.
The Farm Sanctuary sponsors an Adopt-A-Turkey program.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wants to alleviate the "suffering" of turkeys raised on farms and urges the public to forgo turkey in favor of tofu.
But 95 percent of Americans surveyed by the National Turkey Federation eat turkey at Thanksgiving.
Turkeys pay the price of history.
They might face a different fate today if Pilgrims had chosen another entree for their fall feast.
The day turkeys are hatched, they are "sexed," separated by gender.
The brooder house regulates temperature and provides round-the-clock access to food and water. Poults don't know how to eat but are drawn toward color, so their grain is sprayed with green food coloring.
Six weeks later, the toms are moved into a grow-out barn where there aren't any mirrors, perhaps for a reason. A turkey is not a handsome bird. As he matures, a wattle drapes from his neck. That long red growth that hangs down over the beak is called a snood.
A farm isn't the idyllic scene urbanites view in a Rockwell painting. "Ol' Norman should have put some flies and [manure] in there," Mike Neal says, adding, "and a guy doing this." The turkey grower pinched his nose. "But he probably wouldn't have sold many pictures."
Mida Farms turkeys produce thousands of truckloads of manure annually. Mida-Bio Ltd. converts the byproduct into organic compost and sells it commercially under the Dr. Gobbler label.
Turkeys eat and eat, and as they grow, their moving-around space diminishes. The shoulder-to-shoulder environment influences their disposition.
David Neal puts himself into a turkey's frame of mind. "I'm going from a nice big 2,000-square-foot home in Texas to a 300-square-foot apartment in New York City. I can't just walk over and get me a drink. I've got to move this sucker out of the way first. I'm not very happy today. So get off my [tail feathers]."
As toms mature, they fight with each other. Weak and undersized birds are pecked to death. By 16 weeks, turkeys, much feistier than broilers, will even spur and peck at their human keepers.
As a flock's farewell date draws near, the lights in the barns are left on at night. Growers want the turkeys awake during the pre-dawn hours when they are "pulled," placed into coops and trucked to the disassembly line at the Cargill processing plant in Waco.
In a grower's worldview, a bird that gives its life to feed the hungry (hens are sold as whole turkeys, while toms end up as deli meat) achieves its highest calling. A domestic turkey is too large to fly. It lacks the survival skills of its wild cousin. Better for it to walk the last mile than be released into nature and attacked by predators.
"Coyotes would eat them. To me, that's cruel and unusual punishment," Mike Neal says. "I don't assign human rights to animals. But I'm for animal welfare."
It's a short life, on average 144 days.
A 40-pound tom will consume about 100 pounds of feed and drink 25 gallons of water.
It will never have a meal interrupted by a telemarketer.
Or worry about an IRS audit.
But a tom never will know his mother.
He will never date, marry and have children.
Because of his chest size, a tom is physically unable to mate. So the domestic turkey population is replenished through artificial insemination.
A hired hand watches a video to learn how to perform this procedure. It's a specialized job. The person who does it receives modest pay and no public recognition, but deserves some kind of award.
Maybe the Pullet Surprise.
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.|
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
(Action Alert - Fort Worth Star-Telegram Article Disparages Turkeys )