Torture And Terror: Why Thanksgiving Is Tough For Turkeys

Minnesota farm had 25,000 turkeys locked in five sheds described as cruel and filthy.
By @katierucke |
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    (Photo/Cyndy Sims Parr via Flickr)

    (Photo/Cyndy Sims Parr via Flickr)

    When a majority of Americans choose to indulge themselves in a traditional Thanksgiving meal this week — which most likely includes a turkey — most give no thought to the process that resulted in that bird ending up on their table.

    But a recently released video of a turkey breeding factory farm in Minnesota — the highest turkey-meat-producing state in the U.S. — is trying to change the “Turkey Day” conversation by highlighting the cruelty found on fowl factory farms, and encouraging Americans to choose a less violent meal for the holidays.

    In Minnesota, an unnamed Compassion Over Killing undercover investigator went to work at a breeding factory farm for Hargin, Inc. The farm had an estimated 25,000 female turkeys, who were all locked inside five sheds that were described as “cruel and filthy conditions.”

    According to the report, the conditions are completely legal since federal laws do not prohibit birds raised for food from being raised in cruel conditions, including the Humane Slaughter Act.

    Hargin has been previously called out for its inhumane treatment of animals, since the company sells some of the eggs it produces to the Minnesota-based company Willmar Poultry, which is the largest turkey hatchery in the United States.

    In the report, the investigator said turkeys were bred to grow obese so quickly that the hens were no longer able to mate naturally, and had to be artificially inseminated — a process which involves grabbing hens by their legs, shackling them upside down, and inserting a plastic tube into the bird.

    “These hens will spend their lives being artificially inseminated over and over again to continually lay eggs that will hatch young turkeys to be raised and slaughtered for food, including Thanksgiving dinners,” the report said.

    Another side effect of the birds rapid weight gain is that as a result, many will suffer from heart failure, and their legs often break as a result of being unable to handle the extra weight.

    The turkeys are also forced to live in cramped areas that are often no larger than 3.5 square feet of space per bird, and the hens often get “entangled in the dilapidated and poorly maintained equipment.” When the birds try to free themselves, they often get their wings, head or feet stuck and end up with bloody wounds or painful injuries.

    Due to the cramped living quarters, the tips of their upper beaks are usually burned off and portions of their toes cut off without any sort of anesthetic or pain relievers, which causes the bird to suffer from chronic pain and sometimes serious ailments. Many birds also end up with painful infections on their feet making it difficult for them to walk.

    “To make matters worse, the squalid, cramped conditions cause many hens to suffer from various ailments, such as severe irritations covering their heads and faces,” the investigator reported, but the standard industry practice is that even sick and injured birds do not receive veterinary care.


    Gobbling up tortured animals

    Despite all of this inhumane treatment, many Americans continue to crave a turkey dinner, and as a result about 300 million turkeys are raised and killed each year in the U.S. for their meat. More than 45 million turkeys are killed at Thanksgiving and more than 22 million are killed at Christmas.

    Animal-rights advocates such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals say that in actuality, turkeys are smart and socially inquisitive animals who would be devoted mothers to their young if they got a chance to see their young. PETA is encouraging Americans to take a second-look at their turkey-meat buying and consumption habits.

    “Turkeys won’t have the opportunity to breathe fresh air or feel the sun on their backs until they’re shoved onto trucks bound for slaughter,” PETA said. “They are transported for hours without food or water through all weather extremes—and many will die on this nightmarish journey.

    “At the slaughterhouse, the survivors are hung upside-down by their weak and crippled legs before their heads are dragged through an electrified ‘stunning tank,’ which immobilizes but does not kill them.

    “Many birds dodge the tank and are still completely conscious when their throats are slit. If the knife fails to properly cut the birds’ throats, they are scalded alive in the tank of boiling water used for feather removal.”

    While most Americans would likely say they would prefer an organic, free-range bird to a Butterball brand factory-farmed turkey that has been injected with growth hormones and antibiotics, the mass-produced birds are about $40 cheaper than organic, free-range options. Butterball turkeys are about $75 cheaper than Torfurky options, which is a vegetarian turkey option.

    But as the public becomes more aware not just of the cruelty some turkeys experience before they are slaughtered, but of the environmental and health implications of eating factory-farm turkey meat, many are choosing to either pass on eating the meat or forking over the extra money for a bird who was treated in a more humane manner.

    According to a report from the Department of Agriculture, the number of turkeys raised in the U.S. in 2013 is 5 percent less than the number of turkeys raised for food in 2012, which continues a decade-long trend of a decline in U.S. turkey production. Minnesota alone produced about 2 million fewer birds in 2013 than 2012.


    Ethics of a Thanksgiving feast

    In 2008, the Unitarian Universalists Association examined ethical issues of consuming three parts of a traditional Thanksgiving meal — turkey, potatoes and cranberries — by examining the impact the meal had on animal welfare, climate change, and local and organic options.

    The group found that “organic” labels were more meaningful than “free-range” options when it came to turkeys, since organic birds are lawfully supposed to be “free of pesticides, unnatural growth hormones, antibiotics, and toxic heavy metals,” and will have been feed grains that were not fertilized with sewer sludge.

    Free-range” on the other hand, simply means the turkeys must have access to a door that leads them outside, which must be open sometimes. But as the association reported, often the door out of the cage leads the birds to a “narrow pen saturated with turkey droppings.”

    The association also stressed that just because a turkey is “organic” and “free-range” doesn’t mean they were not de-beaked, de-toed or transported and slaughtered in any less of a cruel manner than birds raised on a factory farm.

    The group also pointed out that many historians have noted that the first Thanksgiving meals included meat from swans, eagles, venison, eels and seals — none of which continue to be on dinner tables in most American households for the holiday.

    “We know from experience that we don’t need any of those traditional meats to celebrate Thanksgiving,” the group wrote, adding that most Americans don’t appear willing to go “cold turkey” to remove the now-traditional bird-meat from their Thanksgiving feast menu — at least not yet.

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