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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

Turkey Talk

Published 11/26/08
By Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate

As President George W. Bush’s term winds down, he still has a rapidly approaching, and quite absurd, ritual to perform, as he has each year during his eight-year term. He will, if all goes according to a 61-year tradition: pardon a turkey. The bird, chosen earlier this month from the farm of the chairman of the National Turkey Federation, will not be slaughtered, unlike the birds used in the first decades of this practice.

But who should pardon whom?

The wild turkey is one of two species scientists assign to the family Meleagrididae. That name derives from the name Meleager, son of the king of Calydon in Homer’s Greek mythology, The Iliad. After his death Meleager’s sisters turned, in their grief, into birds called meleagrides, and the Greeks used that name for wild fowl from Africa. It was applied to the wild turkey over confusion as to its origin when the species was formally described by science in 1758. In fact it is only native to temperate North America and northern Mexico. There is only one other species of turkey, the slightly smaller and more colorful ocellated turkey, whose native range is restricted to Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula.

For what we have done to the wild turkey I think we are the ones needing to be pardoned. The domesticated form of the species, first seen by Europeans when Cortés brought some back home to Spain from Mexico in 1519, was virtually the same as the wild form, a strong, beautiful creature who had roamed the forests and jungles of the New World for millions of years. By 1530 the turkey was well established as a domesticated fowl in Spain and from there soon spread to Britain. The domestic turkey would have almost certainly have been known to the Pilgrims when they encountered the wild turkey in North America in 1607.

When Europeans swarmed across the North American continent, through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, they slaughtered large numbers of wild turkeys, then an abundant bird sometimes encountered in roosts of thousands. Like bison or passenger pigeons or heath hens, they were killed for the marketplace, destroyed far more than needed, with a great piles left to rot. Even well into the 19th century wild turkey was cheaper than a farm chicken, and looked upon as a poor-man’s meat. Ultimately hunting and habitat destruction led to elimination through much of their former range. While we might ask the current turkeys to pardon our kind for once nearly eliminating them, it is what else we did and continue to do that is cause of my sense of shame.

Domestication is a form of evolution in which “natural” selection is replaced by selection for those traits we deem most profitable. The turkey who will be “pardoned” by the president will weigh approximately 45 pounds, or about twice the weight of the heaviest of its wild relatives (with the female wild turkey roughly half the weight of her mate). This genetically imposed obesity comes at the cost of many things, including flight. Wild turkeys are strong flyers, with even the babies able to fly from about two weeks of age.

Loss of strong flight was an early result of domestication, and led to the spectacle of turkey “drives,” fowl imitations of the better-known cattle drives, when thousands of birds were walked overland in Europe, and later in the States. Texas drives extended from fifty to two hundred miles, and, in places like Kentucky, lasted well into the 20th century, the birds obtained from farms along the way.

While that might have put a different spin to “range” in “free range,” economies dictated that turkeys be bred ever larger, and kept in ever more confined quarters. Gone from most domestic turkeys are the beautifully iridescent bronze feathers, replaced by structurally weaker, dull white feathers. Gone are many of the natural survival instincts and inherent intelligence of the wild progenitors. Turkeys are now burdened with the unfair reputation of doltish stupidity, incorrectly accused of being so stupid they will stare up at the rain until their nostrils fill with water and they drown. Not so, of course, although an all-too-common nervous disorder called tetanic torticollar spasms can cause them to stare skyward for half a minute.

While wild turkeys care for their young until winter, domestic birds are routinely deprived of their mothers’ care and subjected, from hatching, to physical mutilation, including having beaks cut back and toes cut off without anesthetics. Things usually continue downhill. As United Poultry Concerns writes, “Turkeys are not suited to crowded confinement systems — including so-called free range ... When hundreds, even thousands of birds are forced to sit and stand in a crowded yard or in filthy litter ... breathing burning ammonia fumes and lung-destroying dust, they develop respiratory diseases, ulcerated feet, blistered breasts and ammonia-burned eyes.” Pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics, they are still subject to a range of diseases dangerous to humans, including salmonella, listeria, and campylobacter. That weight so important on the Thanksgiving table derives from greatly accelerated growth that leads to crippling and to cardiovascular disease.

Domestic turkeys normally cannot mate naturally and males are masturbated to produce sperm, hens artificially inseminated in a process that is, very simply, a crude, cruel process politely called “artificial insemination.” At slaughter they are usually hung, conscious, from hooks on moving belts, hit by high voltage that causes their feathers to loosen, and then plunged into scalding water, many still conscious, before finally having their throats slit.

I know, having done so before learning for myself what happens to them, that it is hard to relate the beautifully packaged, ever so pale and uniform rows of frozen turkeys in the supermarket freezer with living beings who, however degraded in form and function by domestication, have not lost cognition or an ability to suffer. Having made that connection, I’ll remain thankful that there are turkeys, and thankful to have none on my plate, ever again.

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