Give Turkeys a Reason to Be Thankful on Thanksgiving

Long before the Puritans decided to cop a squat on Native American land and then had the first “Thanksgiving” meal featuring turkey meat (at least as the legend goes), someone managed to discover that the turkey was a good bird to eat. Somehow, despite all logic, some hungry human looked at this rather odd-looking (okay, ugly) bird and thought, “Boy, that sure looks tasty!” Or maybe that lucky hunter was just so desperate that anything would suffice for food.

Whatever the case, turkeys found themselves on the menu and soon became the feature of Thanksgiving–comprising the main course and finding their way into just about everything else, from stuffing to leftovers for the rest of the week.

While gourmands may give praise to the first turkey eater, turkeys themselves have very little to look forward to on Thanksgiving–the Black Thursday for these birds. Even if their intelligence level is as low as it has long been held to be, even amongst (the stupidest) animals, turkeys are yet another victim of the meat industry. Unlike other commodified creatures, though, turkeys practically have their own holiday…with celebration centered on eating them!

Thanksgiving is particularly black for more reasons than the simple acts of killing and eating living beings (however ugly and dumb). Like most other commercial meat industries, the turkey industry is riddled with cruel practices, from raising to transporting to “preparing” the birds that end up on human tables.

According to Farm Sanctuary, approximately 300 million turkeys each year are run through the manufacturing meat grinder.1 Thanksgiving accounts for about one-sixth of that, around 45 million gobblers. Nearly all of them are raised on “factory farms,” which means tiny cages and (short) lives lived amidst waste, disease, genetic tinkering, drugging, and brutal treatment. Transport involves being squeezed into tiny cages and trucked any number of miles through any kind of weather. Then “processing” begins while the bird is still alive, progressing through various measures that turn a big (ugly) bird into the golden brown drumstick sitting on your plate.

I will not go into the details of this, as it saddens and sickens me just thinking about it. One example of turkey suffering appears in this video shot during an undercover investigation by PETA. And I have witnessed the horrors of poultry transport when I got stuck behind a Tyson chicken truck on the interstate. As I putted along through a cloud of feathers, staring at the scrunched up birds, I swore that I would die before (knowingly) eating an animal.

So what can you do this Thanksgiving to help turkeys live their happy, ugly little lives? Well, the easiest way is to go vegan. Skip the white meat, the dark meat, the innards, the neck, everything…. Just leave out the meat and stuff yourself on the vegetable dishes. Or if you just have to have something that tickles your palate the way turkey does, try some alternatives like Tofurky and Unturkey. While the ingredients lists will show you just how far from real, live turkeys this stuff is, at least you will be able to say “-urkey” in some way on Thanksgiving. You probably will not be able to trick your guests into believing it is turkey, though.

Going further, you can even help Farm Sanctuary’s work to improve the lives of farm animals in general and turkeys in particular by adopting a turkey. While you may not want to carry around a picture of your adoptee in your wallet to show to friends, your adoption will go a long way to prevent the wholesale heartless slaughtering of turkeys.

And as with all things that should be changed in modern society, you can write letters to poultry processing corporations, newspapers, and other media outlets to raise awareness about needless abuse. Supporting non-profit animal rights and industry watchdog organizations is also an excellent way to help turkeys. And, the easiest and one of the most effective ways to help abused turkeys: go vegan and decrease the demand for the flesh of other living beings.

After nearly four centuries, the American tradition of Thanksgiving need not continue to be a tradition of torture for turkeys. While the Pilgrims likely were so desperate for a meal that any old food would do–and food that likely was provided by their fairly tolerant Native American neighbors–we can choose kinder ways to celebrate our American heritage. So bring together all your loved ones, load up the table, and share some wonderful holiday cheer this year. But skip the turkey and give our feathered friends a reason to cheer, or gobble, as well.

Image credit: Chris Greenberg of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, via Wikimedia Commons.
1. “Turkey Industry Information.” Adoptaturkey.org. Farm Sanctuary. 2007. 16 November 2008 <http://www.adoptaturkey.org/industry.htm>.

  1. Robin Shreeves

    Justin – We will have a turkey on our table on Thursday, but for the first time, I have ordered a truly free range, raised on all natural feed turkey from a local farm.

    I must admit I wavered back and forth on the decision. Those $15 (or often free) turkeys at the grocery store are tempting, even for someone who like me who understands the consequences of their existance. But in the end, I choose to not only do what was right for the turkey, but what was right for the local farm. I know that people’s budgets are tight right now, and I can imagine it’s really affecting the farmer’s who are rightfully charging a high price for their free range, natural turkeys. When grocery stores are literally giving away turkeys with $250 in register receipts, it is hard for many people to convince themselves to spend money on a turkey.

    I know not everyone can afford the happy turkey, but I’d like to encourage everyone to choose something local or organic or natural to put on their Thanksgiving table this year. Even if you just spend the extra $1.50 or so to get broccoli from a local farmer instead of the stuff that is shipped hundreds of miles to your grocery store, do something to support good food.

  2. Concetta

    Exactly, Robin – that’s how I felt too. Only other problem there was is what are two people going to do with a 18-20 lb turkey? The free ones or the cheap ones at the store are way too big.

    In the end, my husband and I ended up ordering the turkey special from a community farm – containing an organically fed, true free range turkey (only 12 lbs! Hurray!), organically grown veggies and fruits, and rice.

  3. Melisser

    This is a wonderfully informative post.

    While a “free range” turkey may seem like a better option, the term “happy turkey” is completely misleading & inaccurate. Sure, it’s LESS cruel to buy an organic turkey, but the end result is still not humane in any way.

    Remember that there is no certification or government inspection for these ‘free range’ claims and that the term was created by the industry in order to market their product. Despite being organic, the birds still face health problems due to their selective breeding to grow at an unnatural rate before a knife blade cuts their lives well short of their natural span.

  4. nancy

    Contrary to belief, turkey was NOT served at the first meal for the Puritans. This was promulgated mostly by a cheery whitewashing of the Pilgrim-Indian relationship, and the Christian slant given the day of observance created by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

  5. Bea Elliott

    Yes, of course there is the “free-range” myth – most birds hardly get to see the light of day let alone roam the few miles that nature instills as their instinct. And that is cruel to deny a being the whole of what it’s existence says to do.

    Other than this let’s not forget that poultry is excluded from any “humane slaughter”… Their throats are slit while they are fully conscious and many make it to the scalding (feather removal) tanks while alive. Gosh, that sounds like a lot of pain and suffering to me…

    We have so much to be thankful for – the bounty of healthy and tasty plant-based foods is enormous… Most meals include more “trimmings” than any family could consume in a week… Doubling up on the veggies and side dishes is certainly the most compassionate way to truly celebrate a “Thanks”-giving-holiday.

    Please consider: http://www.goveg.com

  6. Milkweed

    If you’re going to have a turkey, I think that Robin and Concetta are doing it the most ethical and the most ecologically low-impact way – buying a turkey from a local small farm. This way you’re not contributing to the the interstate transport of trucks full of poultry crammed together on their way to the “processing” plant, or factory farming of turkeys (whether it’s “free range” or not) but you’re also supporting local farms, and often helping preserve heritage breeds. And I guarantee you that a turkey raised on a small farm and killed in a small-scale operation is going to have had a better life and a better death than his factory farmed counterpart.

    I haven’t eaten turkey in almost 20 years, but I really appreciate people who do eat turkey making thoughtful decisions about where it comes from.

    Here’s to gratitude for all of our thoughtful food choices….

  7. Robert

    I see the point, but it may not hit home with your average Joe and the traditionalists. In addition, as long as organic continues to have a high price in todays economy it drives a hard bargain.

    Great info and well put.


  8. Heather

    I’ve gone off turkey completely. Ever since my mom became a pescatarian, we’ve always eaten salmon burgers for Thanksgiving, and they’re a million times more delicious!

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