Behind the Scenes of a Festivity
Laura A. Moretti -- Farm Sanctuary News, Fall 1998
P.O. Box 150 * Watkins Glen, NY 14891-0150 * 1-607-583-2225 * www.farmsanctuary.org
If I had been looking for home-grown peaches or rolled oats, I would have had the help of the entire community, but finding a turkey farm was another matter. On a trip from fellow activists, I learned there was one right in the heart of northern California's picturesque wine country -- but no one, not even activists, could tell me exactly where.
"Turkey farm?" the woman behind a deli counter mused. "Just what is a turkey farm?"
"A place where turkeys are grown for, like, Thanksgiving," I told her.
I could see the flash in her eyes: turkeys came from the supermarket -- and those could be found anywhere, so what was my complaint?
The animal feed supply stores didn't help much, either, but I'm certain it was because they didn't want to. The process of animal rearing is a well-kept secret -- and for good reason. If most Americans knew how the animals were treated and killed to adorn their dining tables, they'd have second thoughts about eating them -- and that isn't good for an industry that makes its billions off the bodies of slaughtered animals.
Half a billion turkeys are raised in the United States each year. They're killed at the rate of 1.4 million birds a day, 58,000 an hour, nearly 1,000 per minute, 16 a second -- and yet I couldn't find a live one anywhere in sight. And it wasn't for lack of trying.
I drove miles and miles of scenic and not-so-scenic back roads. I crept up the driveways of many a ranch. I talked to numerous grain and fruit and grape farmers. I peeked into seemingly abandoned warehouses. But I couldn't find even a feather.
They say a watched pot never boils. I had just given up looking when the birds, it seemed, flocked to me. On a return road trip from Calistoga to Santa Rosa -- and on a highway, mind you, that I frequently traveled -- I was enjoying the late night drive, the way the moonlight cast black shadows across the asphalt, when the smell of putrefying flesh suddenly invaded my nostrils.
My first thought was I had just passed road kill. Having lived in the northeast where such odors are common because road kill is so common, and having lived in La Paz, Bolivia, where the rotting carcasses of dogs and livestock could be found all along the river banks and roadways, I knew that smell all too well. It was the overpowering smell of something dead. It's not like the awful odor of rotting cantaloup. Or moldy kidney beans. It's the unmistakable smell of death and decay.
This time it didn't pass. It stayed with me on that lone country road around every bend and dip -- for miles. It was the strangest thing because I was the only one on the highway. I was driving through pristine wilderness. Had I happened upon road kill, I would have left the odor with the carcass on that black, moonlit asphalt behind me. Perhaps, then, I had picked up something on the tries. The smell was strong, strong enough for me to believe it would be in my clothes and in my hair until I bathed -- the way the smell of blood in a slaughterhouse has often stayed with me.
It's a steep drop into the Santa Rosa valley from Calistoga Road. Where it leveled is where the answer lay. Just pulling off the road ahead of me into a gravel parkway, was a huge livestock truck -- packed full of white, living turkeys, stacked like dead sardines in a tin can, four-levels high in putrid-smelling crates, on their way to slaughter.
I wasn't prepared for the emotion I felt. The truck had been ahead of me all along, unseen by the bends in the highway. To see so many birds, trucked in ways most Americans would outlaw if they were parakeets or macaws, wreaking of death even before they had died, broke my heart.
The turkey farm on Calistoga Road was nearly empty when I arrived there later that week. Its product had been sent to market. Harvested -- like so much corn. But, unlike grain farms, I wasn't welcome at this one. What the turkey farmers -- and the pig and cow and chicken farmers -- don't want you to know is that animal agriculture is a cruel and bloody business, and its cruelties begin long before the animals are born or hatched.
Genetically altered, turkeys, for example, are forced to grow twice as fast and twice as large as any wild turkey. They are so breast-heavy, in fact, they cannot fly. They can't even mate. Every neatly packaged turkey in America's supermarkets was brought into this world by grown men who have milked male turkeys for their semen and wrestled turkey hens in order to open their legs and their vents to inseminate them.
Turkeys have the ends of their beaks and their toes clipped -- without anesthesia -- in order to prevent them from injuring each other in the tightly packed warehouses in which they are raised. Inside these factories, packed by the hundreds with no more than three square feet per bird, they die from heat prostration, infectious disease, and cancer. Turkeys also suffer from heart disease -- caused by their bodies trying to keep pace with their excessive rate of growth. They die, often and simply, from heart attacks.
After being trucked to slaughter, turkeys are pulled from the creates into which they've been crammed for transport, and hung upside down by their legs onto a rotating rail. Their heads are submerged in an electrified water bath which immobilizes them for the killing blade. They can still feel pain and many of them emerge from stunning fully conscious. If the blade misses killing them, the birds are also fully conscious when they are submerged in scalding, boiling water. The industry calls these birds "red skins" -- and it happens to millions of them because turkeys are not federally protected.
The ironic part is that, after all this cruelty and killing, death and dying, Americans have symbolized the carcass of this domestically mutilated and mutated bird with a national day of gratitude.
Get in the Holiday Spirit!
Party Till The Turkeys Come Home
Help your local animal rights group or vegetarian society host a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner. Whether it's potluck or catered, you're sure to make vegetarian advocates happy for the holidays (and educate their friends and family too!). Call or write us for our Vegetarian Thanksgiving Resource brochure with mail-order videos, books, photographs, literature, recipes, and other materials to help you provide "food for thought" for the Thanksgiving holiday.
And remember... `tis the season for holiday dinner parties! So don't let the holidays go by without showing your friends and family how delicious and nutritious Thanksgiving dinner can be.
Turkeys in the News
Let your local newspapers know that you are starting a new Thanksgiving tradition by adopting a turkey! Call your paper, ask for the features editor, and then inform him or her that you have a unique Thanksgiving story -- you're participating in a national ADOPT-A-TURKEY Project because you wanted to save a turkey, rather than serve a turkey this year!
Of course, it helps to have a photograph of your adopted turkey, and we can also provide sample press releases and information literature. Our ADOPT-A-TURKEY Project Coordinator is happy to help -- just call (607) 583-2225, ext. 69.
And don't forget to write a letter to the editor too! It's a great way to educate people about the compelling health, environmental, and ethical reasons to have a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner. Feel free to write or call us for a sample Thanksgiving theme "letter to the editor."