At Christmas it would be nice to think that humans show some
goodwill to other creatures. And increasing numbers do. But
many British still celebrate Christmas by killing 11 million
turkeys. And yet this British "tradition" only began
in the Industrial Revolution and became widespread in the 1950's
when factory farming began.
Turkeys are still wild in America. It makes you even sadder
to think of the farmed birds when you have seen them free in
their natural environment. Wild turkeys are handsome, with
black wing and tail feathers that shimmer red-green and copper,
contrasting with their white wing bars - nothing like the all-white,
broad-breasted, meat strains bred in our farms today. They
enjoy roosting in trees, but build their nests on the ground.
If they are threatened, they can fly as far as 1.6km at an
amazing 88km/h (55mph). Strange that so many people think turkeys
can't fly. Seeds, nuts, roots, tubers, grubs, grasses, legumes
and sometimes small amphibians and molluscs (snails and slugs)
make up their varied diet. The turkeys semi-wild nature means
that they suffer very badly in factory farms.
Yet almost all turkeys are intensively reared in Britain.
One day old chicks (known as poults) are either placed in large,
windowless broiler sheds or in pole barns which have natural
light and ventilation. Up to 25,000 birds may be crammed into
a shed - giving only 0.27 - 0.37m of space per bird. As they
grow they can hardly move and the floor becomes putrid and
stinks of excreta. Like broiler chickens, the poor turkeys
are in agony from burns and ulcers on the feet and breasts.
Professor John Webster, Head of Department of Animal Husbandry,
Bristol University says:
"One quarter of the heavy strains of broiler chickens
and turkey are in chronic pain for one third of their lives.
Given that poultry meat consumption in the UK exceeds one million
tonnes per annum, this must constitute in both magnitude and
severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man's
inhumanity to another sentient animal." (Animal Welfare:
A Cool Eye Towards Eden, Blackwell Science, 1995)
Instead of the wide variety of food that a turkey is meant
to eat, farmed birds are given pellets of the same unnaturally
high protein feed, day in, day out. A boring, never changing
diet causes frustration and stress to almost all farm animals.
Because farmed turkeys are forced to grow quickly and have
an unnaturally large breast size, many are in severe pain as
their heart and legs cannot withstand this abnormally rapid
growth. About two million baby birds die mainly from heart
attacks before they reach slaughter weight. Turkeys are never
cannibals in the wild but in overcrowded, filthy and boring
conditions they may peck at each other relentlessly. Instead
of changing the conditions, some are debeaked with a red-hot
blade at 5 days old.
At between 12 to 26 weeks old, the end comes for the birds
and many are destined to become the "traditional" Christmas
type of dinner - oven-ready turkey. Those worn out from constant
breeding are made into processed meats, such as turkey "ham" or "sausages".
Some of the saddest turkeys are the ones kept for breeding.
They can grow to the huge weight of six stone and have such
diseased hip joints that they can barely walk.
Doesn't it seem strange that when people sit down for Christmas
dinner, to celebrate peace and forgiveness and all the better
things in life, they do it by first cutting something's throat
and killing it? When they "coo" and "aah" and
say what a lovely turkey they're munching into, they close
their eyes to the pain and filth that was its life. And when
they carve its huge breast they probably don't even know that
this great lump of flesh has turned turkeys into freaks. We
have produced a creature that can't even mate without us doing
it for them using artificial insemination. Not a very merry
Christmas for them! Turkeys are naturally "bootiful" but
what we have done to them is anything but that.
For further information, please see www.viva.org.uk/campaigns/turkeys/