Before I took an internship at a sanctuary for farmed animals, I knew little to nothing about turkeys. Even though my interest in animals led me to apply for the position, it was the pigs and cows that drew my attention. I had no idea that during my time there, I would develop an appreciation for these misunderstood birds that would transform my thinking and also lead to a beautiful friendship.
Two of my duties were to shovel manure and clean the water troughs. It was hard work but rewarding, because I was able to be right in the middle of the animals’ daily routine. One day in the turkey barn, I sat down on the clean straw and watched the goings-on. One bird, named Fern, decided that I passed muster and backed up into my lap. She was soft and warm. I stroked her back and gently massaged her, and she purred, just like a cat. When I stopped, she’d look over her shoulder, equal parts indignant and imploring as if to say, “More, please.”
I loved the inquisitive and intelligent pigs. I enjoyed spending time with the personable cows. The goats could make me laugh out loud they were so pushy and dramatic. But I always came back to Fern and the rest of the turkey troop. The birds’ distinctive personalities were captivating — I simply had to learn more about them. Some, bold and hilarious, would walk right up and look me square in the eye as if to challenge my right to invade their space. Others, like coy debutantes, would peer over their shoulders, aloof but not wanting to miss anything exciting.
In a game of “Which one doesn’t belong?” a wild turkey integrated herself into the rescued flock. Her plumage was iridescent, so she stood out like a beacon. Her robust health contrasted painfully with the crippled legs, mutilated beaks and unnaturally white feathers of those around her who had been saved from slaughter. Though the rescued birds were safe and tenderly cared for, their hideous past had left them physically and emotionally scarred.
Like other birds, turkeys thrive in fresh air and sunshine and spend most of their time taking dust baths and scratching in the dirt hunting for tasty treats. They “gossip” with friends and shelter their babies under outstretched wings.
But on factory farms, they spend five or six months crammed together by the tens of thousands in massive warehouses or dark sheds, where there is barely enough room to breathe or take a single step in any direction, much less move around freely. They are given no painkillers when part of their beaks and the ends of their toes are cut off to keep them from injuring one another in the extremely crowded and stressful living conditions.
In slaughterhouses, the terrified turkeys are hung upside-down and their heads are dragged through an electrified “stunning tank,” which immobilizes but does not kill them. Many flail and fight to save themselves and manage to dodge the tank, so they’re still conscious when their throats are cut. And if the knife wielder fails to kill them by cutting their throats — which is exceedingly common, given the fact that thousands go down the line every hour — they end up being scalded to death in the tanks of boiling water that are used to remove their feathers.
I always think of Fern at this time of year, when supermarket bins are filled with the frozen bodies of her cousins. This Thanksgiving, before digging into their wings, legs and breasts, please remember that these interesting and personable birds wanted — and deserved — to live, and consider keeping them off your plate.
Jennifer O’Connor is a senior writer with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.