The Truth About Farmed Turkeys

How are turkeys farmed? Is turkey farming cruel? Find out where your Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys really come from.

A turkey profile
Turkey Profile by Thomas.Reproduced Under Creative Commons Copyright Licence

For millions of people around the world, eating turkey during the holiday season is a long-standing tradition, one that goes unquestioned. However, turkeys endure horrific conditions to end up on our plates for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, a fate they don’t deserve.

Turkeys are fascinating animals. They are sensitive, smart and will sing along to music. They make outstanding parents, form close-knit family bonds and often come together for mealtimes.

Rescued turkeys who feel safe and secure love to be stroked and will purr with pleasure. The males in particular like to be noticed.

They follow their favourite person around, puffing out their magnificent chests and body ruffles, just asking you to admire them.

How many turkeys are killed every year?

In the USA alone, around 245 million turkeys are slaughtered for food. Approximately 46 million of them are killed for Thanksgiving, while 22 million are slaughtered for Christmas dinner.

Most turkeys are factory farmed

Most turkeys are reared in large overcrowded sheds that hold up to 25,000 birds. They do not see daylight, breathe fresh air, or strut around in the sun displaying their feathers.

Instead, they live in filth. Lighting is dimmed to prevent aggression among the stressed birds, who should be exploring, foraging and roosting but are denied everything that makes life worthwhile.

Factory Farmed Turkeys
Photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary

Turkeys suffer on farms

Turkeys, like chickens, have been selectively bred to grow much quicker than they would do naturally. This increases the industry’s profits as turkeys reach slaughter weight in a much shorter time.

Turkeys are now four times the size of their wild ancestors and this weight gain comes with a price. Their joints become inflamed, their bones break and they may be in too much pain even to stand.

It is not uncommon to see birds using their wings to crawl to food and water when their legs can no longer support their weight, or immobile birds trampled or starved to death.

Their large frame also puts pressure on their hearts and lungs, and consequently, heart attacks are not uncommon. Together, lameness and heart disease account for a major proportion of premature flock mortality.

The crowded living conditions and poor ventilation of factory farm units can also lead to difficulties in breathing, eye problems, and bacterial and viral infections. The birds also develop ulcers and burns on their feet and legs from standing in contaminated litter for long periods.

Even on free-range farms, the suffering is all too obvious. See for yourself this investigation by Animal Aid on a free-range, RSPCA-assured turkey farm.

Turkeys endure mutilations and invasive procedures

Because consumers prefer breast meat, turkeys have been selectively bred to have huge chests and this means they are not able to mate naturally. Almost all are inseminated artificially.

This is done by workers ‘milking’ the males and then using a syringe to inject the semen inside the female. This is a stressful procedure for these sensitive creatures.

Turkeys may have the ends of their beaks amputated to try and stop the stressed and bored birds from harming one another. This legal mutilation can result in permanent pain and lifelong difficulty eating.

De-beaked turkeys on factory farms
Photo credit: Farm Sanctuary

The birds may also be de-snooded to try to prevent aggression. This is the removal of the long piece of flesh that hangs from a turkey’s forehead. If it is done within their first three weeks of life, the operation does not need to be done by a veterinary surgeon.

Male breeding birds may also have their toes cut off, a procedure that can result in painful open wounds but, again, does not need to be carried out by a vet.

How Are Turkeys Slaughtered?

Turkeys suffer at slaughterhouses. Rough handling during catching and transportation to slaughter can be painful and frightening. The birds often suffer broken legs and wings during the process and arrive at the slaughterhouse in abject distress.

Once there, they may be shackled by their feet and hung from those broken legs for several minutes before they are stunned in electrified water. If their wings touch the water first, they will suffer an agonising electric shock.

Some turkeys are now stunned and killed when the crate they are in is lowered into a gas chamber. Research has shown that there are ‘negative effects’ in gas-stunning, including convulsions and ‘respiratory discomfort’, also known as gasping for air.

Researchers concluded that neither electrical nor gas stunning is painless.

Caged turkeys mid-transport
Photo credit: Farm Sanctuary

What’s the alternative?

We can choose a kinder way to celebrate our cherished traditions. There are plenty of vegan Thanksgiving dishes, not to mention turkey-free Christmas roasts. Why not add your own twist on tradition and make a cruelty-free dish?

There are few wild species that have been detrimentally manipulated as much as turkeys. In the wild, they live in open areas where they will roam and forage.

They can fly at up to 55mph and at night choose to roost in trees. The modern farmed turkey cannot get off the ground, can barely walk and is not allowed to roam, forage or roost. They can no longer even breed naturally, and the females are not permitted to hatch their young.

Turkeys are affectionate creatures and display their friendship with one another and with the people they care for.

One girl named Malibu lives at The Retreat Animal Rescue in Kent. She was terrified when she arrived but settled well, and is now a wonderful foster mum to all the newly-arriving rescued chicks.

Her rescuers say: ‘On meeting her she will purr, hum and coo to you in the gentlest tones. She loves nothing better than spending her day under the apple tree waiting for a windfall. Malibu teaches her new family members how to peck, scratch and find new ways of breaking into the fallen apples.’

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all turkeys could live like this?

Meet Tessa and her friends at Hillside Animal Sanctuary

Thinking of trying vegan?

Veganuary inspires and supports people all over the world to try vegan for January and beyond. Millions of people have already taken part. Will you join them?