The Modern Turkey

In Need of Thanksgiving Deliverance

At a distance, turkeys look like otherwordly visitors moving gracefully through the grass. Close up one sees their large, dark, almond-shaped eyes and sensitive fine-boned faces.

In pre-Columbian times over 10 million wild turkeys ranged in what are now the United States and Mexico. They thrived from forest to plain, needing only foliage cover for nesting, trees for roosting, food such as nuts, acorns and grass, and water. Destruction of much of their natural habitat and heavy hunting drastically shrank their numbers and original range.

In mating season, wild male turkeys ("toms") form territories that the hens move freely in and out of. A typical group includes one male and about five females. The turkey hen seeks seclusion to brood her eggs, which hatch in the Spring not far from the mating area. The turkey mother is alert, protective and brave. If surprised before her young can fly she may "freeze" or sound a warning note causing her youngsters, called "poults," to dash for cover. She may then threaten, attack, or pretend to be hurt to distract the predator's attention to herself away from the poults. After a few weeks the poults fly and roost with their mother in trees. Hens and their poults flock together apart from the male flocks, moving about their home ranges with mother and young closely bonded until next year's mating season.

Like their wild relatives, domestic turkeys are unsuited to the harsh turkey confinement systems in which 15,000 or more birds with three square feet of floor space each are forced to sit and stand in filthy litter, breathing burning ammonia fumes and lung-destroying dust. They develop respiratory diseases, ulcerated feet, blistered breasts, and ammonia-burned eyes. They're loaded with vaccines, antibiotics, sulfonamides, mycins, and tetracyclines. In 1991, International Hatchery Practice reported that, "[T]he last decade has thrown up numerous examples of new diseases" in turkeys including rhinotracheitis, paramyxovirus 2, and Salmonella enteritidis -- a major new bacterial source of human food poisoning that can cause arthritis, blood disease, impaired immunity, and death. The weekly agribusiness newspaper Feedstuffs (Sept. 9, 1991) says turkeys now suffer from a "combination of problems." For example, "[I]n recent years turkeys have been bred to grow faster and heavier but their skeletons haven't kept pace. They have problems standing, and fall and are trampled on or seek refuge under feeders." Pathologically obese, commercially-bred turkeys develop congestive heart and lung disease accompanied by engorged coronary vessels, distended fluid-filled pericardial sac, abdominal fluid, and a gelatin-covered enlarged congested liver. Their hearts explode. Consumers could eat a diseased turkey or turkey part for dinner. In November 1991, the Associated Press reported that "Researchers are looking for ways to keep afflicted birds alive long enough to get them to market."

Turkeys are debeaked and detoed to offset the disadvantages of over-crowding leading to downgraded carcasses. Toes are amputated without anesthetic. Beaks are amputated with a hot machine blade. Research has shown that the hot blade cuts through the sensitive beak tissue causing lifelong pain and suffering in the mutilated, disfigured bird resembling human phantom limb and stump pain.

Modern turkeys are so heavy and misshapen that they must be artificially inseminated to reproduce. Obscenely, the males are "milked" of their semen by phallus manipulating teams who stick it in the upside down turkey hen's vagina with a hypodermic syringe or the operator's breath pressure blown through a tube. Artificial insemination spreads fowl cholera, a major bacterial disease of domestic turkey.

When they're between 12 and 26 weeks, turkeys are grabbed by catchers and carried by their legs upside down to the transport truck. Jammed in crates they travel for hours without food, water or protection from the weather to the slaughterhouse. There are no United States laws regulating turkey or other poultry transport. At the slaughterhouse, turkeys are torn from the crates and hung by their feet from shackles head down on a movable metal-rack -- torture for a heavy bird especially. They may or may not be stunned, whether by a hand-held stunner or an electrified water bath through which their heads are dragged.

Many turkeys receive pre-stun electric shocks. Poorly stunned birds suffer "intolerable pain," says a researcher in Turkeys (October 1990). Stunning includes a "recovery phase." Turkeys can regain consciousness during this period of recovered respiration and heart beat. Each year thousands of turkeys suffer the added agony of badly cut necks, bleedout, and scald tank immersion alive, conscious, and breathing.

Unlike the United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden, and most other modern nations, the United States does not extend federal humane slaughter protective legislation to turkeys or other fowl, even though birds constitute the enormous bulk of animals killed for food each year in this country, totalling well over six out of seven billion animals. In 1991, 285 million turkeys were killed. The National Turkey Federation (the U.S. trade group), as expected, opposes humane slaughter protective legislation for poultry in the United States.

Now, however, the omission of birds from humane slaughter legislation is being challenged. In 1991, the state of California set the U.S. precedent for legislation requiring the humane slaughter of poultry. In 1992, House Representative Andrew Jacobs (D-Indiana), introduced the federal Humane Methods of Poultry Slaughter Act (H.R. 4124), stating, "We decided long ago that humane slaughter ought to be a policy of a civilized people, but chickens and other fowl were excluded. However, a bird has a brain and feels pain just the same as other animals. Therefore, I have introduced legislation, H.R. 4124, to make the same requirement with regard to fowl as now exists with regard to hoofed animals."

While no truly humane system of slaughter can be devised, the present situation would be improved by the proposed statute as part of the overall effort to create a more just and compassionate world. The principle of societal obligation to animals slaughtered for food would be legitimately extended. Jacobs, who said that he was moved by the sight of reddened and blackened legs, breasts, and wings of dead birds on a barbecue rack to become a vegetarian, represents this viewpoint.

This year it is to be hoped that the growing trend of alternatives to the traditional decapitated turkey with dead wings and leg stumps for the holiday dinner will continue. To help people make the switch, United Poultry Concerns published a bountiful cookbook, _Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey: A Poultryless "Poultry" Potpourri_. The book is praised in Guide to Healthy Eating (now called Good Medicine), published by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, as "full of the heartiest heart-warming home cookin' this side of your grandmother's stove." I think turkeys would agree.

Dr. Karen Davis