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/

Viva! Vegetarians International Voice for Animals
8 York Court, Wilder Street, Bristol, BS2 8QH, UK
T: 0117 944 1000 F: 0117 924 4646 E: info@viva.org.uk