The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving

By Lisa Towell 

Turkeys are so closely associated with Thanksgiving that some people simply call the holiday “turkey day.” Thanksgiving-themed art features smiling cartoon birds in Pilgrim hats or plump roasted turkeys on platters. 

But we never see the real lives of the birds who become our holiday meals. Virtually all of the 45 million turkeys consumed in the U.S. every Thanksgiving live lives of constant suffering. 

Cruel conditions on factory farms frequently make the news, but I wanted to see for myself, so I recently visited a typical turkey farm. 

I saw thousands of birds crowded into a vast sunless shed, most with missing feathers and raw patches of skin. Nervous and noisy, the birds ran away in fear and trampled each other when I approached. All the birds had been debeaked without being given painkillers. (Debeaking is a procedure in which the sensitive tip of a bird’s beak is cut off to prevent stress-induced fights.) The birds were living in their own accumulated waste, breathing noxious fumes 24 hours a day. 

Wild turkeys live close to my home. I’ve watched them forage for food, roost in trees and care for their babies. Farmed turkeys aren’t able to engage in any of this natural behavior. Bored, frustrated and sick, they struggle to stay alive until they are slaughtered at just 5 or 6 months of age. 

Turkeys are imprisoned not just in the sheds but also in their own bodies. Genetically manipulated for extremely rapid growth, the birds have heart attacks and are crippled by their own weight when they are just a few months old. Because of high consumer demand for white meat, turkeys are bred to have such large breasts that they can’t even reproduce naturally. Your Thanksgiving turkey is the product of artificial insemination. 

At the turkey farm, I saw birds living in unnatural conditions and constant discomfort. What goes on behind the scenes is even worse. Many turkeys will die on the farm, and none of them will be humanely euthanized by a veterinarian. Sick, crippled and slow-growing birds are often beaten to death by factory-farm workers. At the slaughterhouse, many birds’ bones are broken as a result of rough handling. The turkeys move so quickly through the assembly-line slaughter process that some enter the scalding-hot water of the defeathering tanks when they’re alive and still conscious. 

I have visited rescued turkeys at animal sanctuaries. Each bird has a unique personality. Friendly and curious, the more outgoing birds approached me and allowed me to stroke their soft heads and necks. These gentle animals are no less worthy of humane treatment than the dogs and cats we share our homes with. 

For many people, eating a turkey is an essential part of the Thanksgiving tradition, but is tradition more important than treating animals with compassion? Historical evidence suggests that wild turkeys were eaten at the 1621 harvest celebration in Plymouth Colony—but that feast probably also included eels and acorns, which were commonly eaten by the Pilgrims at the time. Clearly, the definition of “traditional Thanksgiving food” has evolved since then. For everyone who is opposed to cruel treatment of animals, it’s time for another change to the holiday menu. Would it really be so difficult for us to stop eating a food that most people eat only once a year? 

My family has a Thanksgiving ritual in which we go around the table sharing things that we are grateful for. Over the years, we have expressed our thankfulness for health, for family and friends gathered together, for financial security and for a delicious dinner. When I stopped eating turkey at Thanksgiving, the essence of the holiday was not lost. Thanksgiving is about the joy of breaking bread with the people I love and the pleasure of a tasty, lovingly prepared meal. And now I am grateful for something else—that by choosing not to eat a turkey, we have spared an animal from lifelong suffering. 

Lisa Towell is a writer on animal issues in California. She wrote this for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

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