The reality for turkeys
Turkeys, like chickens, have been manipulatively bred to grow much quicker than they would do naturally. This increases the industry’s profitability as turkeys are now reared to reach slaughter weight in a much shorter time frame.
|Animal||Natural lifespan (on average)||Age at which they are typically killed|
|Turkey||10 years||4 to 6 months|
At slaughter weight, turkeys are now four times the size of their wild ancestors. Many of these birds become immobile during this period due to their heavy body weight and painful joints. The turkeys’ skeletal systems struggle to support their unnatural weight and increasing pressure is put on their hearts and lungs. As a consequence, many turkeys are often found lying on their backs having suffered from heart attacks.
Most turkeys are reared in large windowless sheds with dimmed lighting to prevent aggression among flocks, such as feather pecking and even cannibalism. This aggression stems from the stress of overcrowding. Up to 25,000 turkeys can be kept within one shed. More than 99% of turkeys in the U.S. come from this type of rearing environment. [i]
These intensive conditions provide no opportunity for these active and intelligent creatures to carry out their instinctive behaviors such as exploring, foraging, roosting and forming social groups. Because food, water, and climate control are all mechanized, a single worker can be responsible for the care of tens of thousands of birds, meaning birds are often neglected in such large flocks.
See for yourself – watch MFA’s revealing footage investigations at Butterball, which is is the world’s largest producer of turkey meat and responsible for 30 percent of the turkeys killed for Thanksgiving in the U.S:
Disease and ailments
Disease is widespread in turkey flocks on industrial farms. More than 33 million turkeys die before being slaughtered every year. The crowded living conditions and poor ventilation leads to breathing problems, eye problems, bacterial and viral infections, and poor hygiene that causes the birds to develop ulcers and burns on their feet and legs from standing in contaminated litter for long periods. [ii]
Turkeys within the industry suffer from a variety of diseases and ailments caused by both bacterial and viral infections as well as physical deformities. In February 2007 there was an outbreak of H5NI on a UK Bernard Matthews Turkey Farm. 159,000 turkeys were gassed to death as a result. In 2007, Cargill was forced to recall 18,000 tons of ground turkey, and close a factory, due to an outbreak of drug-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg that killed one and sickened 136 people in 34 states.
Turkeys are also prone to injuries, deformities, and diseases related to obesity as a result of being bred for rapid growth and oversized breasts. Heart disease, enlarged livers, skeletal weakness, and crippling lameness are all quite common. It is not uncommon to see birds using their wings to crawl to food and water when their legs can no longer support their own weight, or immobile birds trampled or starved to death.
Manipulation and mutilations
Male turkeys grow so large that they are unable to reproduce naturally. Their weight either prevents them from mounting the females, or would cause the females injury to do so. Consequently, artificial insemination is the common practice for breeding turkeys.
The semen is stripped from the males before the females are then caught and tipped upside down. Using a syringe, the semen is injected inside her – a highly stressful procedure for these highly sensitive creatures.
This mutilation is carried out on young birds, from one day old up to five weeks old, to prevent them from injuring each other when they are confined in close proximity. It involves partly amputating their beaks when they are just a few days old using shears, a hot blade, or electric current. [iii, iv]
Research at the AFRC Institute of Animal Physiology and Genetics Research in Edinburgh has indicated that debeaking results in chronic pain for many of these animals. A significant number of birds express depressive and pain related behaviors in response to debeaking. [v]
The snood is a long piece of flesh that hangs from a turkey’s forehead and extends over their back. It is often removed in order to reduce aggression and cannibalism among the birds. Again, this procedure causes unnecessary pain and suffering for the turkeys.
Like chickens, turkeys are physically caught by their legs to load into crates for transportation. During this process many birds are bruised and suffer from injured heads, broken legs, and wings. Reports have also documented dislocated hips and hemorrhages. Their heart rates rise dramatically, indicating the stress this process causes.
Turkeys may be transported up to 36 hours, without food or water, to the slaughterhouse. An estimate of nearly a million birds die in transport, often due to extreme weather, particularly in winter holiday months. [vi]
Once the turkeys arrive at the slaughter house they are…
1. …hung upside down by their legs on metal shackles along a moving conveyor belt.
This can cause more stress and injury to the birds as they are often left hanging like this for several minutes.
2. …they move along the production line to an electrified water bath. When the bird’s head makes contact with the water, an electrical circuit between the water bath and the shackle is completed, which stuns the bird. Because of extremely fast line speeds, and human error, proper stunning is not guaranteed.
A study by researchers at the Agricultural and Food Research Council (AFRC) found that around 25% of turkeys received accidental painful electric shocks as a result of this water bathing system for stunning, with many of the birds’ wings touching the water before the full procedure had begun.
3. …the conveyor belt then moves the birds to a mechanical neck cutter that cuts the major blood vessels in the neck. [vii] Birds who were improperly stunned immobile by the water bath continue to struggle, which makes the neck-cutting difficult.
This automatic cutter may only administer a single cut that will leave the turkey to bleed out for several minutes before dying.
4. …next birds are dunked in a scalding tank to loosen their feathers. Tens of thousands of turkeys drown in scalding tanks each year, boiled alive.
Intelligence and character
Turkeys are affectionate and friendly creatures with engaging personalities. They have been known to display strong affection towards humans and love to interact, responding in similar ways to companion dogs and cats. They even make a purring sound when they are happy and content. [ix]
While it’s said that Founding Father Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as the national bird of the U.S., this is a myth. He did, however, consider the turkey to be “a much more respectable Bird” than the bald eagle, “and withal a true original Native of America.” [x]
Turkeys tend to flock together in small groups. Mothers and their young will join together with other families and stay together for four to five months, and male groups will stick together and remain so for life.
These animals have long and powerful legs and excellent vision during the day, although not so good at night. They are able to reach speeds of up to 25mph when running and 55mph when flying.
In the wild, turkeys live in open areas where they will explore their surroundings and forage for vegetation and insects. At night, they will seek woodland environments for roosting.
They communicate their emotions to one another using a variety of vocalizations, up to 20 in fact, all with unique meanings. Observed by wildlife biologist William Healy: ‘turkeys recognize one another by their voices as well as their head characteristics. To turkeys, the voices of other turkeys are unique and recognizable.’ [xi]
Number consumed in U.S.
The U.S. is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of turkey, and Americans eat more turkey than any other country. 250 – 300 million turkeys are raised for slaughter every year in the U.S., with an estimate of 46 million being slaughtered for Thanksgiving alone. [xii, xiii]
A heart-warming video of rescued turkeys exploring their new home – By Animal Place:
[ii] Kristensen, H., and Wathes, C.M., 2000. ‘Ammonia and poultry welfare: a review’. World’s Poultry Science Journal 56(3) pp.235-45.
[iii] Farm Animal Welfare Committee, 2005. Debeaking. [Online]. Available at: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20121007104210/http://www.fawc.org.uk/reports/turkeys/turkr025.htm [Accessed 1 October 201].
[iv] Gentle MJ, Thorp BH, and Hughes BO. 1995. Anatomical consequences of partial beak amputation (beak trimming) in turkeys. Research in Veterinary Science 58(2):158-62.
[v] Gentle, M., 1990. ‘Behavioural evidence for persistent pain following partial beak amputation’. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 27 pp. 149-157.
[vi] Petracci M, Bianchi M, Cavani C, Gaspari P, and Lavazza A. 2006. Preslaughter mortality in broiler chickens, turkeys, and spent hens under commercial slaughtering. Poultry Science 85:1660-4.
[vii] RSPCA, 2008. Slaughter factfile. [online] Available at: http://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/farm/slaughter/factfile [Accessed 14 September 2014].
[viii] U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2008. Poultry slaughter: 2007 annual summary. http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/current/PoulSlauSu/PoulSlauSu-02-28-2008.pdf.
[ix] Hatkoff, A., 2009. The inner world of farm animals: Their amazing, social, emotional, and intellectual capacities. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang.
[xi] Hatkoff, A., 2009.