For many British families Christmas is probably the one time of year we come together to eat turkey. It’s an odd tradition but a staggering number of us believe Christmas is simply not Christmas without a dry turkey roast dumped in the middle of the dinner table. But why?
The Origin of the Turkey
Turkeys are not native to the UK. They instead originate from the Americas and were brought over to Europe in the 1500s by Spanish traders. There are two species – the meleagris ocellata and the meleagris gallopavo, the latter of which our domestic turkeys descend from.
It’s claimed that King Henry VIII was the first person to eat a turkey on Christmas Day, yet it didn’t become widely popular with the general masses until the 1950s. Up until then most people would have been eating geese or wild boar heads to preserve cows for their milk and chickens for their eggs – both of which were much more expensive back then.
Our Domestic Turkeys
In the UK there are about 10 million turkeys alive at any one time, with between half a million to two million killed each month. Last year, we slaughtered more than 15 million of them – the vast majority of which would have been intensively bred on factory farms.
Although we’re used to seeing images of the brown or bronze-feathered varieties, the ones more commonly found in supermarket frozen sections would have had white feathers. This is due to an artificially selected gene to make the bird’s pin feathers less visible once they’ve been plucked and dressed for dinner. So basically, it’s to make their carcasses look ‘nicer’ before they’re eaten.
Like their wild relatives, domestic turkeys are highly social and become easily distressed in isolation. Their vocalisations range from gobbles to clucks, putts, purrs and yelps and can carry around a mile in distance!
Modern Turkey Farming
Naturally turkeys can live up to 10 years of age, foraging on forest floors, roosting in trees and flying (yes flying) a maximum 55 miles per hour. However, those bred for meat consumption are limited by their abnormal size and are killed between eight and 26 weeks old.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, their short lives are filled with pain, misery and a cocktail of antibiotics to curb disease. They’re selectively bred to grow quickly and often suffer from agonising leg disorders, joint degeneration and heart disease as a result. Others may die prematurely due to being unable to reach food and water points in the overcrowded units – some of which house up to 25,000 individual birds per shed.
A combination of such overcrowding and poor environmental enrichment leads to extreme stress and unnatural behaviours – such as cannibalism and feather pecking. This is one of the main reasons why mutilation is standard practice on poultry farms. Like chickens, turkeys have the ends of their beaks trimmed in attempts to reduce injury.
At the slaughterhouse, the animals are either gassed or hung upside down by their legs and dipped into a basin of electrified water to stun them. It doesn’t always work and some remain conscious while their throats are cut. If their main arteries are not severed effectively, others are boiled alive when plunged into scalding water to loosen their feathers for plucking.
The Terrible Truth
Over the years, investigations by Viva! Campaigns have exposed shocking conditions on farms owned by companies some consider household names; Bernard Matthews, Traditional Norfolk Poultry and Kelly Turkeys for example. It’s anything but a Christmas miracle to read our investigators describe being hit by the ‘fetid stench of stale, warm air, turkey excreta and ammonia’. It turns your stomach just thinking about it. So if it’s bad for us what must it be like for the birds living in it?
Inside the sheds you’ll find the floors covered in litter, sodden with waste and faeces, which leads to a build-up of ammonia – a highly reactive gas that irritates skin, eyes, noses, throats and lungs and for turkeys, leads to painful hock burns. You’ll see collapsed birds tending their broken or deformed legs, pathetically trying to drag themselves along the floor, with their outstretched wings, to reach the feeding stations. Many of these have raw breasts where their feathers have burnt away by the ammonia or open wounds caused by the severe boredom of other animals around them. There’s no doubt you’ll also see a few already dead, but these losses are considered the ‘economics of business’.
Compassion at Christmas
Yet despite the huge numbers of turkeys killed each year in the UK, there has been a moderate decline since the mid-90s and a steady rise in vegan alternatives. In 1997, for example, 40 million turkeys were slaughtered and in 2004 21 million, which suggests we might just be ready to dump the turkey ‘tradition’.
With every major supermarket racing to tantalise our taste buds with their extensive ranges of plant-based products, it’s never been easier to be vegan! So this season, give turkeys the gift of life and choose a cruelty-free Christmas with Viva!.