Death in the Wild

In the wild turkeys die of a variety of causes:  predation, accident, injury, illness, or old age.  Their lifespan is approximately twelve years.

When one of their group dies turkeys appear to mourn, exhibiting behaviour that is indicative of grief and shock.  Karen Davis describes the “the great wake” that turkeys hold over a dead companion.  Schorger illustrates this phenomenon in The Wild Turkey: Its History and Domestication describing how the beating wings of a turkey hen who had been shot brought a flock that stopped beside the dying bird.”

Davis notes that similar behaviour has been observed in turkeys on factory farms when one of them suffers cardiac arrest:

 “It is not uncommon to go into a bird house and see the afflicted bird lying dead, surrounded by three or four other birds that died because of the hysteria caused,” wrote a poultry researcher. Such “hysteria” reveals a sensibility in turkeys that should awaken us to how badly we treat them and make us stop.[1]

At Eden Farm Animal Sanctuary I have observed behavioural changes in turkeys following the death of a companion.  Those changes include constant pacing, seeking and calling behaviour at the perimeter of their living area, and a sudden withdrawal from sanctuary workers with whom they had previously been affectionate.  I have also witnessed increased vocalisation at high volume when an ill companion is taken away from the Sanctuary for veterinary care, followed by another, less shrill although equally animated, exchange of vocalisations when the sick turkey returned home to Eden.  Although my observations are anecdotal and correlational, I believe that they are valid indications that turkeys fret and grieve in a manner that is comparable to human emotional experience.  What must they experience when they witness the suffering and death of their companions on farms and in slaughterhouses?

In July 2012 the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals was signed.  We now have sufficient scientific evidence to accept that non-human animals experience both physiological and affective states much as humans do.  Given the revelations about non-human animal psychology that follow scientific investigations, it is highly likely that in future we will discover immense depths to their experiential existence, in the light of which it will be very difficult to accept the speciesist torture we have inflicted on them in life and in death.

They are aware of their own suffering, and they are aware of, and disturbed, by the suffering of their companions.

They fear harm and pain.

They cling tenaciously to life.


Death in the Slaughterhouse

“Slaughter is different from processing in that the raw material is alive, has a central nervous system, can express emotional states, and has biological components like humans.” [2]

Swanson, J, American Meat Institute Foundation

“Comparing pain in birds with mammals, it is clear that, with regard to anatomical, physiological, and behavioural parameters measured, there are no major differences and therefore the ethical considerations normally afforded to mammals should be extended to birds.”

Michael Gentle (1992, p235)[3]

The process of death by human hands for domesticated turkeys begins when food and water is withdrawn the day prior to transport to the slaughterhouse.  The rational for starving animals prior to their deaths is that empty crops or intestines prevent the excretion of faecal matter that would contaminate their bodies that will soon be consumed by humans.  In their hunger turkeys are known to attempt to eat the faecal contaminated litter from the floors of their houses.[4]

On the day of their slaughter turkeys, like chickens, geese and ducks, are caught by human ‘catchers’ who wear gloves to protect them from potential injuries inflicted by the feet and beaks of terrified birds.  The turkeys are handled extremely roughly, caught by their legs and carried upside down.  Given their unnaturally heavy weights and extant poor skeletal condition, they suffer injuries such as hip dislocations and broken bones.  Some facilities use mechanical methods of catching them.  The terminology of this machine, which is known as a harvester[5], is yet another indication of how human language is used to dissociate from their sentience.  It reflects the fact that these beautiful, sensitive beings are regarded as the ‘property’ of the farmer, and accorded as little cognisance of their sentience as any of his vegetable crops.

Turkeys, like other birds, are packed, like cardboard, into open crates that are too small for them to stand upright.  Once loaded onto a truck they travel unprotected from the weather, often for very long distances to the slaughterhouse.  Those who are fortunate do not survive the journey.

On arrival they can be left in their crates for several hours before they are unloaded by forklift.  They are roughly dragged by human ‘catchers’ causing further injuries.  Occasions have been reported when the heads, wings, and legs of birds remained in the transport cages[6].  They are then shackled by their legs and hung upside down as they await their deaths.

The deaths of non-human animals used for food is legislated for by your country’s government[7].  It is meaningless to state, as is stated in the legislation of most Western countries, that

“animals slaughtered or killed at any slaughterhouse, farm, premises or place shall be spared any avoidable excitement, pain or suffering during movement, lairaging, restraint, stunning, slaughter or killing”

It is impossible to slaughter animals for human consumption with causing suffering[8].  Because suffering is ‘unavoidable’, it is legal.

Our laws are written to protect against rights violations that have happened, or are likely to happen.  Here are some of the rights violations that our legislators feel bound to outline on the basis of their likelihood with respect to the slaughter of non-human animals[9]:

  • Prolonged delays in killing unweaned (infant) animals
  • Delays in killing those who experienced pain or suffering during transport or upon arrival at the slaughterhouse

Is it acceptable that our legislation permits the killing of infants or the infliction of pain and suffering on the journey to death of non-human animals?

Why would legislation need to issue instructions not to:

  • drag to their slaughter animals who cannot walk?
  • lift them by the head, horns, ears, feet, tail or fleece?
  • crush, twist or break their tails, grasp their eyes, or inflict blows or kicks?

That same legislation makes it acceptable to:

  • keep animals at the slaughterhouse for more than 24 hours prior to their deaths
  • inflict electric shocks to usher them to their deaths
  • to grind alive or gas ‘surplus’ one day old infant chicks
  • shackle by their legs and suspend conscious rabbits and birds.

Turkey Shackled prior to Slaughter Photo Courtesy of All

Given the unnaturally heavy bodies of turkeys, their extant severe skeletal disorders, and the injuries such as hip dislocations and broken bones that they sustain on their way to the slaughterhouse, the pain of being shackled is unimaginable.  Turkeys, and other birds, can be hung for 3 minutes, and have been known to remain shackled for six minutes[10] prior to attempts to stun them.  Struggling in these shackles causes further injuries.  They have also been reported to have been shackled by one leg (Grandin, 2002).[11]

Birds, including turkeys, are usually stunned by immersion into electric waterbaths.   Their wings frequently dip into the water first causing painful electric shocks.  They often lift their heads in panic and a high percentage of them are not stunned at all, or inadequately stunned and regain consciousness.  They are then fully conscious and aware as their throats are cut.

The process of killing is prone to human and mechanical error and when their arteries are not fully severed they remain conscious when they are placed in the scald tank, and when their feathers are plucked[12].

Electrical waterbath stunning is a method which remains legal and standard for the slaughter of birds despite acknowledgement of its insufficiency in rendering them unconscious to the horror of their subsequent deaths.[13]

Turkeys in backyard and other small, unregulated situations are killed by decapitation or by breaking their necks.   Many of the birds killed in this manner suffer prolonged deaths by ‘incompetent’ killers.

The atrocities listed here are, yet again, not isolated incidents.  They are standard practice to which billions of non-human animals are subject every year.  They are written into our legislation, and their horror is fully acknowledged and referred to, for example, in the new regulations on the protection of animals at the time of killing due to be enforced on 1st January, 2013[14].
As long as we legislate to kill non-human animals, we cannot say that we protect them.
As long as we legislate to use them we are fooling ourselves in our belief that we protect them.

Can we justify killing non-human animals?

Some people feel that advocating for more humane treatment of non-human animals throughout their lives and attempting to kill them in a less horrific fashion than is currently legal, is the best that can be achieved for other species.

Surely we can do better than that?

Maeve at Eden Farm Animal Sanctuary

Why kill them at all when their bodies are unnecessary for human wellbeing?  Even if they were necessary it would be debatable that we have a right to kill them.

The non-human animals we slaughter for consumption are selectively bred in a way that gravely compromises their natural health status.  We would not countenance the deliberate breeding of human beings into lives of suffering.  It is speciesist to imagine that we have the right to do it to any other being.

Our use of sentient non human animals inflicts great suffering on them.

The changes to our lifestyles that veganism necessitates in order to avoid their exploitation do not require a great deal from us.  Yet, these changes grant something that is of monumental significance to them:   their right to liberty from our oppression.

[1] Davis, K (2006) Turkeys: Who are They? Poultry Press, Vol 16, No 3. Accessed 1st October, 2012

[2] Swanson, J (2002) “Why You Should Care About Animal Welfare,” American Meat Institute Foundation’s 2002 Annual Animal Handling and Stunning Conference, February 21-22, 2002. In Davis, K, The Need for Legislation and Elimination of Electrical Immobilisation. (Accessed 20 October, 2012)

[3] Gentle, Michael. “Pain in Birds.” 1992. Animal Welfare. 1: 235-247. In Davis K The Need for Legislation and Elimination of Electrical Immobilization, (Accessed 28 October, 2012).

[4] Irene V. Wesley, Wayne T. Muraoka, Darrell W. Trampel, H. Scott Hurd, Effect of Preslaughter Events on Prevalence of Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter coli in Market-Weight Turkeys. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2005 June; 71(6): 2824–2831. doi: 10.1128/AEM.71.6.2824-2831.2005

[5] Davis, K The Need for Legislation and Elimination of Electrical Immobilization, (Accessed 28 October, 2012).

[6] Davis, K The Need for Legislation and Elimination of Electrical Immobilization, (Accessed 28 October, 2012).


[8] Review of Council Directive EC 93/119 on the protection of animals at the time of slaughter or killing. Submission by Animals’ Angels (Accessed 28 October 2012)


[10] Davis, K The Need for Legislation and Elimination of Electrical Immobilization, (Accessed 28 October, 2012).

[11] Grandin. Temple. AMI Stunning Conference, Feb. 21-22, 2002.

[12] Compassion in World Farming, (Accessed 3rd October, 2012)


Löhren, U (2012) Overview on current practices of poultry slaughtering and poultry meat inspection.

The EFSA Journal (2004), 45, 1-29, Welfare aspects of the main systems of stunning and killing the main commercial species of animals.