Animals exploited by agriculture suffer all year round, but there are a few who suffer more because of the existence of seasonal customs that are the main justification for the high numbers they are exploited. In Western cultures, the winter season is associated with religious and historical traditions that involve the sacrifices of animals to be consumed during celebratory feasts. In Anglo-Saxon countries, and in particular in the US when such feasts happen on separate occasions (Thanksgiving in November and Christmas in December), one of such animals is the turkey. 

Although farming turkeys for food happens every month, the demand for turkeys for the winter holiday season (winter in the North Hemisphere, that is) has increased the production of turkeys from late Summer to a very high level (although not as high as the annual production of chickens). In countries such as the US, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, England, Lebanon, and Australia, roast turkey is the favourite meal for Christmas, but in the US is also the almost-unavoidable meal for Thanksgiving. Consequently, these birds have now been relinquished to mass-produced holiday commodities bred in factory farms in several countries, but in much higher numbers in the US. According to the American National Turkey Federation, about 45 million to 46 million turkeys are consumed each Thanksgiving, and In 2021, the US consumption of turkey flesh was 5.1 billion pounds (15.3 pounds per capita).

The reality of farming turkeys is a dark cloud that overshadows cultural traditions and taints holiday celebrations with the blood of millions of innocent victims.   

Who are the Turkeys?

Wild turkeys displaying in the winter By Todd Boland via Shutterstock (507573277)

Turkeys are North American large birds of the genus Meleagris, the family Phasianidae, and the order Galliformes, and currently there are two wild species, the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) of eastern and central North America and the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. 

Female turkeys are called “hens” and males are called “toms” (they have more colourful plumage), and the chicks are poults or turkeylings.

The males of both turkey species have a snood (fleshy wattle) that hangs from the top of the beak, and functions in both intersexual and intrasexual selection (females prefer males with longer snoods). When the turkey is in a relaxed state, the snood is pale and 2–3 cm long, but when the male begins strutting (the courtship display), the snood becomes redder and elongates several centimetres, hanging well below the beak. Around the head and neck, turkeys have caruncles, which are small, fleshy excrescences, and the big one attached to the underside of the beak is known as a wattle.

In the warmer months of spring and summer, turkeys mainly feed on grains such as wheat, corn, and on smaller animals such as grasshoppers, spiders, worms, and, lizards. In colder months, wild turkeys consume smaller fruits and nuts such as grapes, blueberries, acorns, and walnuts. 

Dusting, sunning, and feather preening are common grooming behaviours found in turkeys. In dusting, turkeys get low on their stomach or sides and flap their wings, coating themselves with dust. Sunning involves bathing in the sunlight, for their top and bottom halves. In feather preening, turkeys remove dust and bacteria and remove non-durable feathers.

Turkeys can see the same colours we can see,  but they have generally better vision than humans. Turkeys are social, playful birds who enjoy the company of others. In nature, they stay with their mothers for up to the first five months of their lives.

Wild turkeys fly for short distances, but they are better adapted to walking. They only fly to avoid danger or to roost in a tree. Wild turkeys can fly at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour and run at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.

Maturing males often engage in sexual displaying, which involves fanning the tail feathers, drooping the wings and erecting all body feathers, including the beard (a tuft of black, modified hair-like feathers on the centre of the breast). The skin of the head, neck, and caruncles becomes bright blue and red, and the snood elongates. The birds “sneeze” at regular intervals, followed by a rapid vibration of their tail feathers. 

Turkeys are highly vocal and known to produce more than 20 distinctive vocalisations (both male and female turkeys gobble). A high-pitched trill indicates the birds are becoming aggressive which can develop into intense sparring where opponents leap at each other with the large, sharp talons. However, in the wild, turkeys spend most of their days caring for their young, building nests, taking dust baths, foraging for food, preening themselves, and roosting high in trees.

The natural lifespan of wild turkeys is up to 10 years, but the average is between three and four years — on the other side, domestic turkeys on factory farms are slaughtered when they are just five months old.

The Domestication of Turkeys

Flock of Turkeys By Tertman via Shutterstock (70177906)

Indigenous peoples of Mexico were the first to farm turkeys from at least 800 BCE. They created the domesticated versions by selective breeding of the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, and these domesticated turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo domesticus) were the ones taken to Eurasia by the Spanish after they landed in America. Modern studies suggest that the turkeys of the Southwest were domesticated independently from those in Mexico. 

Compared to wild turkeys, the genetically modified domestic turkeys are much larger, both because of their genes and also because those bred commercially are fed high protein feeds to increase their size quickly (often corn). Because of this, the domestic turkey is the eighth largest living bird species in terms of maximum mass at 39 kg (86 lbs), and when they are mature, adults cannot fly anymore. A mature male wild turkey weighs approximately 10.8 kg but domestic turkey males can easily surpass twice that weight. As with broiler chickens, their legs are often unable to carry the weight of their ballooning bodies and they collapse and die due to their inability to reach food and water.

In modern production, due to the large size of the males, all factory-farmed turkeys are bred through artificial insemination to make production as efficient as possible. Commercial turkey operations use up to 25,000 breeding hens, each laying between 80 and 100 eggs in the traditional 25-week breeding cycle (more than they would lay in the wild). On factory farms, after 28 days of incubation in incubators (in 2022, there were over 27 million turkey eggs in incubators in the US), the hatched poults are sexed and taken to the grow-out farms. The hens are raised separately from toms because of different growth rates. 

Initially, East Anglia was the centre of turkey production in the UK for many years, using the Norfolk Black and the Norfolk Bronze breeds. Then, from the late 1940s onwards, factory farming of turkeys became the norm, so turkeys became cheaper to buy. In the UK, when they are between one and seven days of age, chicks are placed into small 2.5 m (8 ft) circular brooding pens, and they are kept under constant light for the first 48 hours (to force them to feed all the time). For their first six weeks, turkey chicks eat a mashed mixture composed primarily of corn, wheat offal or bran, groundnut cake and soy meal. Chicks who are sick or deemed too small, are considered waste and are often ground up alive in a machine called a macerator, as happens with all male chicken chicks of the egg industry.

For those who are not killed straight away, after several days, the brooding pens are removed, allowing the birds access to the entire rearing sheds, that are crowded with tens of thousands of birds. They are then fed a “grower” mixture with added palm kernel cake (high in fat and protein). After several weeks of frantically eating, they are transported to another unit. Most turkeys are reared indoors in purpose-built windowless buildings that can be very large and may contain tens of thousands of birds as a single flock. The flooring substrate is usually deep litter such as wood shavings, but this cannot prevent ulcerated feet and hock burns caused by the birds having to live their lives standing in litter covered in their excrement.

The Cruelty of Farming Turkeys

Turkey in a dark factory farm by Glass Walls / We Animals Media In late 2016, HPAI was discovered in the poultry flocks of several kibbutzim and moshavim in Israel’s western and southern areas. According to World Organization For Animal Health reports, the 2016 outbreak in Israel was a new HPAI strain and the tenth outbreak since the virus was first reported in the country in 2006, with outbreaks occurring nearly annually in the ensuing ten years. Despite Israeli authorities killing more than 329,000 domestic poultry birds in 2016 to stop the spread of the virus, HPAI returned to the country several more times in subsequent years, with authorities blaming migrating wild birds for its repeated occurrence.

In farms, turkeys may show abnormal behaviours that are indicators of difficulties in coping with their captive life, such as feather pecking, which occurs frequently amongst commercially reared turkeys and can begin at one day of age. To reduce feather pecking, turkeys are often beak-trimmed, in a process known as debeaking in which up to two-thirds of each bird’s sensitive beak is burned off with a hot blade without the use of anaesthetic. Another abnormal behaviour we can find is head-pecking, which becomes more frequent as they sexually mature — and can lead to death even in small groups of just ten birds.

Farmed turkeys are often kept in crowded conditions. Turkeys kept at commercial stocking densities (8 birds/m2) exhibit increased welfare problems such as increases in gait abnormalities, hip and foot lesions, bird disturbances, and decreased body weight. These turkeys have a higher incidence of hip lesions and foot pad dermatitis than those reared at 6.5 or 5.0 birds/m2. At high densities, there are also more agonistic encounters that can cause injury, and heat stress is more likely.

Domesticated turkeys in factory farms often peck and pull at the snood, causing damage and bleeding, which sometimes results in cannibalism. To prevent this, some farmers practice “de-snooding”, which is cutting off the snood when the chick is young. Detoeing, or toe clipping, also takes place a day after chicks hatch, to prevent injury from aggressive behaviours.

Around 5-15% of birds in the turkey industry die in sheds each year (more than a million turkeys in the UK alone) due to being unable to reach the food and water, disease or growing too quickly.

The stress caused by intensive production methods makes them more susceptible to infectious diseases, which are more easily transmitted under the overcrowding conditions the animals are kept. In 2007 there was an outbreak of avian flu in the UK that decimated the turkey farming industry, and there is another one happening right now as the conditions have not improved.

In 2020, the vegan charity Viva! released shocking footage from an undercover investigation into three British intensive turkey farms that supply major supermarkets in the UK. During this investigation many birds were found to be so overweight they struggled to stand after falling over. Several turkeys were also found with broken wings, and workers were recorded brutally kicking helpless birds.

In 2021, a PETA investigator worked for Plainville Farms, a New Oxford, Pennsylvania-based company that claims to produce “humane” turkey in a “stress-free environment.” The PETA’s investigator found the following: “Workers attack birds to instil fear, vent frustration, or relieve boredom. They kicked, stomped on and threw birds through the air by the wing, neck, head, and snood. They tied their snoods together and laughed as the terrified birds were jostled around in the packed confines of the chute. They hit them with an iron bar and stood on their heads. They choked and throttled them, and they wrung and broke their necks. They used the turkeys’ bodies to mimic sex acts.” 

Hens are killed at about 14–16 weeks and toms at about 18–20 weeks of age when they can weigh over 20 kg (44 lb). When sent to a slaughterhouse, turkeys would be hung upside down, stunned by electrified water, and then have their throats cut. In the UK, the law allows them to be hung for up to 3 minutes before stunning, causing considerable suffering. USDA records have found that nearly one million birds are unintentionally boiled alive each year in US slaughterhouses as the slaughterhouse workers rush them through the system. During winter, due to the high demand, turkeys are often killed in smaller “seasonal” slaughterhouses or on-farm facilities, sometimes done by neck dislocation performed by untrained staff.

Although the production of turkeys in the US has been declining since 2008, more than 270 million turkeys are killed for food each year in the US, with approximately 87 million of them slaughtered and eaten for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, and around 45 million of them only for Thanksgiving (which means that, every year, Americans consume 1.4 billion pounds of turkey flesh to say “thanks” to their gods). The US is the world’s largest turkey producer and exporter and the second-largest consumer of turkey products after Israel. In 2021, 549 million pounds of US turkey were exported (mostly to Mexico, followed by Canada and China). According to USDA, the top turkey-producing US states are Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, Virginia, Iowa and California. In the UK, around 10 million turkeys are killed each year just for Christmas dinners. 

Celebrating by Killing and Feasting 

Happy man bringing roast turkey at the table during Thanksgiving dinner By Drazen Zigic via Shutterstock (2216209757)

The tradition of feasting with dead turkeys during cultural celebrations is quite old. In England, throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, goose or capon was commonly served for Christmas, and the wealthy sometimes feasted on peacocks and swans. However, turkeys appeared on Christmas tables in England in the 16th century, and the tradition of turkey at Christmas rapidly spread throughout the country in the 17th century. The 16th-century English navigator William Strickland is generally credited with introducing the turkey into England. By the 19th century, the roast turkey had become the typical English dish for Christmas (in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit had a goose before Scrooge bought him a turkey).

Thanksgiving is a national holiday celebrated on various dates in the United States, Canada, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Liberia, and unofficially in countries like Brazil, the Philippines, the Dutch town of Leiden and the Australian territory of Norfolk Island. It started as a day of giving thanks for the blessings of the harvest of the preceding year, but in the US it evolved into an annual celebration which probably started in 1619 in what is now called the Commonwealth of Virginia, where 38 English settlers aboard the ship Margaret arrived at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia on December 4, and they celebrated their successful landing with a feast. However, a meal shared in late 1621 between Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth colony (in what is now Massachusetts) and Wampanoag people is the one considered the “first Thanksgiving” celebration. Since then, it has become a formal celebration, and since 1941, it has been officially celebrated in the US on the fourth Thursday in November. 

However, historians now do not think that turkey was eaten during the first Thanksgiving feasts, and seeing it as a traditional meal is simply a powerful myth promoted by literature and the turkey farming industry. It is believed that, in the first celebrations, the Wampanoag brought deer, and the Pilgrims provided wild “fowl”, but this was probably ducks or geese. Nevertheless, by the turn of the 19th century, roasted turkey flesh had become the most popular food for Thanksgiving, as it was a much more common big bird in the American continent (at least 10 million turkeys in America at the time of the European invasion), was big enough to feed an entire family, and they were not kept alive for egg production (as the chickens the Europeans imported were).  

For those vegans who still want to keep the tradition as close as possible to what most people of their culture do, since 1994, the American entrepreneur Seth Tibbott has been selling his famous Tofurky products (now trading for at least $50 million), which imitate turkey roast but use tofu instead of the birds — so there are no longer excuses to continuing killing turkeys for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Benjamin Franklin called the turkey “a bird of courage” and “a true original native of America. Perhaps because of that, one of the 45 million turkeys executed every year is pardoned by the US President (just one!). It is believed that the first presidential pardon for turkeys started when Abraham Lincoln’s son pleaded that the bird intended for Christmas dinner had a right to live just like any other creature, but not until 1989, during George H.W. Bush’s administration, that the official pardoning ceremony started. 

Who will be the first US President to pardon all the turkeys? And not just them, but also all the other birds and mammals still bred and killed for cultural and religious celebrations, which only reminds us of how cruel humans can be, and how primitive our costumes still are.

We hopefully will evolve into civilised societies. In the vegan world of the future, no celebration will include any sacrifice of a sentient being, and turkeys will finally live in peace in the wild.

“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.