3. Talking Turkey | Viva!

3. Talking Turkey


What a strange time of year Christmas is. Suddenly, everyone smiles and talk of peace, forgiveness and goodwill is everywhere. And then most people sit down to celebrate these noble sentiments by eating the diseased and dejected body of an abused animal whose throat was forcibly cut!

Many farmed turkeys can barely walk let alone fly, they have become so obese.

Eleven million turkeys die at Christmas and you would think that turkey eating was as old as Santa Claus, the fuss that is made of this ‘tradition’. In fact, turkey eating only began in the industrial revolution and didn’t become widespread until the 1950s, when factory farming really got underway.

The great, waddling monstrosities that turkeys have become are again a product of modern farming methods and selective breeding. They still live wild, believe it or not, in the US and are actually very handsome creatures with black wings and tail feathers that shimmer red, green and copper, contrasting with their white wing bars. Seeds, nuts, roots, tubers, grubs, grasses, legumes and sometimes small amphibians, snails and slugs make up their varied diet. They roost in trees but build their nests on the ground and if threatened, can fly for nearly two kilometers at a staggering 88kmph.

Many farmed turkeys can barely walk let alone fly, they have become so obese, all because of people’s obsession with big breasts. Still semi-wild by nature, their rich diet has become a monotonous stream of identical pellets. A boring, never-changing diet causes frustration and stress to almost all farmed animals. My own rescued turkeys (and chickens for that matter) eat anything I have cooked as well as bugs and spiders, seeds and shoots, take-away curry or bread – anything – in preference to high-protein pellets.

With as many as 25,000 birds to a single shed, reared in a way that is an almost exact duplicate of broiler chicken production with three or four birds to a square metre, it is not surprising that these once-beautiful creatures take very badly to factory farming.

Viva! has filmed inside dozens of turkey farms and three Christmases running, in sheds belonging to Europe’s biggest turkey producer, Bernard Matthews. On one occasion we were accompanied by a camera crew from the peak-viewing show GMTV, which aired the results to nearly eight million viewers.

(You can view some of this footage on our website: see Stuffed at /video/index.htm.Or contact Viva! forStuffed on video or DVD.)

What we saw inside these sheds was deeply depressing. One day old chicks known as poults are placed in either large, windowless broiler sheds or in pole barns, which at least have natural light and ventilation. As they grow they can hardly move and the floor becomes putrid and stinks of excreta. Like broiler chickens, the poor turkeys can suffer agonies from burns and ulcers on their feet and breasts. Professor John Webster, head of Department of Animal Husbandry, Bristol University, says:

"One quarter of the heavy strains of broiler chickens and turkeys are in chronic pain for one-third of their lives. Given that poultry meat consumption in the UK exceeds one million tonnes per annum, this must constitute in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man's inhumanity to another sentient animal" (7).

Instead of the wide variety of food that a turkey is meant to eat, farmed birds are given pellets of the same unnaturally high protein feed, day in, day out. Because farmed turkeys are forced to grow quickly and have an unnaturally large breast size, many are in severe pain as their heart and legs cannot withstand this abnormally rapid growth. About 2.7 million birds die mainly from heart attacks before they reach slaughter weight – about seven per cent of the total.

Turkeys are never cannibals in the wild but in overcrowded, filthy and boring conditions they may peck at each other relentlessly. Instead of changing the conditions, many are debeaked with a red-hot blade at five days old.

At between 12 to 26 weeks old, the end comes for the birds and many are destined to become the ‘traditional’ Christmas type of dinner – oven-ready turkey.  Those worn out from constant breeding are made into processed meats, such as turkey ‘ham’ or ‘sausages’.

Some of the saddest turkeys are the ones kept for breeding.  They can grow to the huge weight of six stone and have such diseased hip joints that they can barely walk. Most males face the repeated strain of being regularly masturbated and females have semen injected into them with a catheter. Both processes are highly stressful.

Again, free range may not be what it seems. Viva! has filmed inside a unit of ‘premium quality’ bronze turkeys who had access to a muddy paddock during daylight hours. In the run up to Christmas day that means 18 hours spent inside a shed. We have never seen so many mutilated animals in one place, some with pecking wounds reaching down to the bone and others with constantly dripping abscesses. It is impossible to imagine the extent of the suffering these birds endure.

Doesn't it seem strange that when people sit down for Christmas dinner to celebrate peace and forgiveness and all the better things in life, they do it by first cutting an animal's throat? When they ‘coo’ and ‘aah’ and say what a lovely turkey they're munching, they close their eyes to the pain and filth that was its life. And when they carve its huge breast they probably don't even know that this great lump of flesh has turned turkeys into freaks.

We have produced a creature that can't even mate without us doing it for them. Not a very merry Christmas for them!  Turkeys are naturally ‘bootiful’ but what we have done to them is anything but that.