Every year over 650 million turkeys are brought into existence for the purpose of slaughter for human meat consumption. Approximately 252 million lives are taken by the American meat market and more than 240 million by the European meat market. Four million turkeys are bred and killed in a small country like Ireland alone. A lot of ‘turkey’ meat is imported and the violations endured by these birds cannot even be accurately ascertained.
The vast majority of the turkeys bred and killed for human food have short lives that are filled with pain, fear and frustration. All of them face horrendous deaths. Some of us attempt to sooth our conscience by purchasing an ‘organic’, or ‘free-range’ turkey at Thanksgiving or Christmas. Unfortunately, this is of little help to the turkey who has been selectively bred in a way that greatly damages his or her health, and who has suffered a painful, frightening and unnecessary death regardless of what kind of life he or she lived. There is no humane, just, or painless way that other animals can give us their bodies to be our food. All ‘turkey’ meat was someone who suffered and whose life was forcibly ended.
One of the main problems facing a domesticated turkey in today’s world is his or her legal status as an object or non-person. Like all farmed animals, they are regarded as the ‘produce’ of human labour in the same way as any other inanimate product. Their sentience is disregarded throughout their journey from breeding to slaughter. This is evident in the use of the term ‘factory’ in place of the term slaughterhouse. Research on the issue illustrates a language that is not cognizant at all of individual turkey beings with distinct personalities and personal histories; rather they are spoken of in terms of the mass weight of their eviscerated, lifeless bodies using the phrase ‘kill-out percentage’.
Their objective status as our ‘property’ results in the legalized torture that is standard farming practice. The gruesome facts outlined on this website are not isolated cases of animal cruelty; they are the facts of our standard treatment of millions of turkeys and other sentient beings every day.
Turkeys are tortured in many ways throughout their lives.
The section of this website entitled Birth describes the torture inflicted on turkeys as they begin life on this earth. This includes standard industry practices of maternal deprivation and hyperconfinement. It also includes hanging newly hatched turkey infants by their heads while removing part of their beaks, and other mutilations such as cutting off their toes and snoods. These mutilations are inflicted without anesthesia or pain relief. Unsurprisingly they cause chronic pain.
Obesity & Associated Problems
The average American consumes 17 lbs of turkeys’ flesh per year. The demand for animals’ bodies as human food is a growing market worldwide. For example, the demand has risen consistently in China at an average annual rate of 2.2 million tonnes over the last 30 years. To meet this demand for meat, turkeys are selectively bred to produce as much body tissue as possible, in as short a time as possible, with as little food input as possible, to maximize the industry’s profits The faster they grow, the sooner they can be killed, keeping investment in their welfare at a minimum until they reach the industry’s desired weight.
- Wild turkeys reach weights of between 8 and 20 lbs in adulthood (one year).
- In the 1960’s turkeys were being selectively bred to reach weights of 35 pounds in 220 days.
- Today turkeys are killed as young as 60 days old, but more usually from 140 days onwards. Their average weight is 29 lbs.
Their grossly obese bodies, particularly their heavy breasts (due to the human demand for ‘white’ breast tissue) causes them severe physical suffering, not least of which is the frustration of not being able to mate. The forced rapidity of growth has been described thus:
“There is no doubt that the rapid growth rate of birds used for meat production is the fundamental cause of skeletal disorders, nor that this situation has been brought about by the commercial selection programmes used over a period of 40-50 generations.” 
They endure skeletal, respiratory, and cardiovascular disease, as well as chronic hunger in those turkeys retained as for breeding purposes. Dr. Ian Duncan has stated “Without a doubt, the biggest welfare problems for meat birds are those associated with fast growth.”
Their skeletons cannot adequately support their weight, leading to abnormal gait in as many as 83%. Common skeletal diseases include hip lesions and tibial dyschondroplasia, in which an abnormal mass of cartilage extends across the tibia, causing bone deformity and lameness. This painful condition is found in 73% of turkey populations. Due to their size many turkeys suffer spontaneous fracture and skeletal diseases alone account for between 2.7 and 4% of mortality due to their being unable to reach food and water, or being trampled on by other birds. The situation was self-described by the ‘poultry’ industry in 1991:
Turkeys have been bred to grow faster and heavier but their skeletons haven’t kept pace, which causes ‘cowboy legs.’ Commonly, the turkeys have problems standing…and fall and are trampled on or seek refuge under feeders, leading to bruises and downgradings as well as culled or killed birds.
Their body weight also exceeds their cardiovascular capacity and as many as 6% die of heart failure. This symptom is, appallingly, regarded in the industry as a sign of “good flock health and fast growth rate as in the case of sudden death syndrome (flip-over) in broiler chickens.”
This is how members of industries that exploit sentient non-human animals justify their cruel treatment of them:
“The situation has forced growers to make a choice. Is it more profitable to grow the biggest bird possible and have increased mortality due to heart attacks, ascites, and leg problems, or should birds be grown slower so that birds are smaller, but have fewer heart, lung and skeletal problems?…A large portion of growers’ pay is based on the pound of saleable meat produced, so simple calculations suggest that it is better to get the weight and ignore the mortality.” 
John Webster, who specialises in animal welfare, regards the burden of skeletal disorders as follows: “we must conclude that approximately one quarter of the heavy strains of broiler chicken and turkey are in chronic pain for approximately one third of their lives. . . . [T]his must constitute, in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.”
Their unnatural growth rate causes yet more health problems such as reduced immunity and susceptibility to infection, muscle disease, focal myopathy, ascites (waterbelly) which involves retaining so much fluid that they cannot walk, perirenal haemorrhage syndrome, cardiomyopathy (“round heart” disease), and aortic rupture. Mortality from these causes is at least 10%.
In comparison to the free lives of wild turkeys who forage over great distances, eat foods of their own choosing, exercise their instinctual need to run, fly, sunbathe and dust bathe, and where the habitat has the space and variety for normal social interaction, including the need for personal boundaries, the life of a domesticated turkey is under complete human control. Unsurprisingly, their lives are dictated by the minimum investment necessary to maximise profits for the meat industry. For the turkey this translates into living in overcrowded facilities, sometimes with thousands of other turkeys, with little space to move. They are fed an unnatural diet; they rarely, if ever, see daylight, or feel the sun on their bodies, or the earth beneath their feet. They cannot flap their wings, never mind dust bathe. The floor of their housing becomes increasingly filthy, and the quality of the air they are forced to breath is such that humans entering these facilities can only do so when protected with face masks.
These environmental conditions cause foot pad lesions, breast blisters, ulcerative dermatitis, and hock burns, which are all painful conditions, and which can lead to fatal bacterial infections. The accumulation of ammonia, dust, bacteria and fungal spores in the environment causes respiratory irritation, ammonia induced conjunctivitis, and respiratory infection.
Their close confinement results in frustration and aggression and they cause injuries to each other in their distress. They do not even have enough space to sleep without disturbing each other. The cruelty that is inflicted on these exceptionally sensitive, sentient beings in the name of profit is illustrated in an industry manual as follows:
‘Limiting the floor space gives poorer results on a bird basis, yet the question has always been and continues to be: “What is the least amount of floor space necessary per bird to produce the greatest return on investment.’”
That is not the question.
The question is how we stop inflicting suffering, of Holocaust proportions, on equally sentient other animals.
The question is how we stop exploiting them?
What about Free Range or Organic?
The term ‘free range’ means that turkeys are given access to outdoors. The frequency, duration, or quality of their outdoor access is largely unregulated. A University of California-Davis ‘poultry’ specialist comments on the euphemisms as follows:
‘Most free-range birds are still fenced in corrals, though people like to imagine the birds are out roaming the range. They’re not out exercising. These birds are raised much like the regular turkeys.’ 
The term ‘organic’ refers much more to the apparent quality of human food than to the living conditions of turkeys.
Both free range and organic turkeys face the same death by slaughter as their factory farmed colleagues. They face the same health consequences of being bred to be human food as outlined above.
What is the answer to these horrendous conditions?
Are Sanctuaries the answer?
Several years of experience as a sanctuary director permits me to offer the following personal opinion on the benefit of sanctuary to non-human animals. Sanctuaries can only accommodate an insignificant number of the population of non-human animals who are exploited in industries such as animal agriculture. Although their rescue is far from insignificant to the animals whose lives are spared, it is my belief that not even sanctuaries are an adequate solution to the problem of our use of them. Sanctuaries cannot be repositories that mop up the vastness of the atrocity perpetrated upon non-human animals by the demands of humans for their use in food, entertainment, clothing and research. Nor should they even attempt to be. Regardless of how well run they are, or how respectful sanctuary workers are to the animals residing with them, they can rarely, if ever, replicate the liberty of the natural environment that belongs to those in the wild. The non-humans living in sanctuaries will carry the burden of being domesticated for the rest of their lives.
There is only one answer to ending these horrendous conditions for turkeys and for all the non-human animals who suffer for us. Their suffering will cease and they will be liberated if we stop demanding their use in our lives. Our compassion and our sense of justice can only end their exploitation if it is translated into the action of veganism. Their suffering will not stop until we stop breeding them into lives of abject misery at the outset.
We must learn to relinquish our control of other animals.
They do not belong to us.
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