Many of us twenty-somethings celebrate Thanksgiving with some ambivalence. We know the sweet story we grew up on—about the legacy of cooperation and friendship between Native Americans and pilgrims—is a load of bull. Some of us wonder about the morality of a tradition based on a feast which (assuming it even happened) is insignificant in comparison with the cruelty and abuse we find when we look back on that period of history. Still, taking the time to be thankful is a worthy activity, something we don’t do enough. The same can be said for visiting cousins and making sweet potato pie. In spite of ourselves, we love that fourth Thursday in November—it gives us a chance to feel the holiday warmth before the pressures of Christmas kick into full gear. I think we are right to re-claim Thanksgiving from its violent past instead of rejecting it altogether. Rather than assuming the work is done, though, I argue we should examine the darker side of our Thanksgiving present. What I am about to say may initially strike readers as comical, which I don’t intend, but can’t find a way around: we should take seriously the plight of farmed turkeys.
In the US, 300 million turkeys are killed each year, around 45 million for Thanksgiving specifically. The vast majority of these turkeys spend their lives in unimaginable suffering. Their living quarters are so cramped they have trouble breathing and become so stressed that they peck at and fight the turkeys next to them. In order to stop the birds from killing each other, farmers will burn off their toes and beaks, without using anesthetics. Eating with mutilated beaks is so painful to many turkeys that they starve to death. The birds are pumped with hormones to the point where they are three times their natural size. Often, their legs break beneath the weight. They are no longer capable of natural mating, and so people artificially inseminate turkey hens by shackling them upside down and shoving tubes inside them. At the end of their lives, turkeys are supposed to be stunned and killed before being dropped into a pot of scalding water that removes their feathers. However, many turkeys are unintentionally boiled alive because their neck misses the automatic blade. These abuses toward turkeys are only a few on a list of atrocities I could include, and even these I have watered down to be more palatable.
Many people will say, “But what about turkeys that are free range, organic, humane certified, etc.?” Some of these labels don’t mean much. “Free range” means a bird can at least occasionally walk outside—but outside can be a tiny, fenced-in patch of dirt covered in feces. Free range and organic turkeys are still debeaked and de-toed. However, I don’t doubt that there is a handful of farms where turkeys lead happy and healthy lives before being slaughtered in a fashion that is less horrific than it could be. If spending extra time and money acquiring one of these turkeys is your contribution to a more humane Thanksgiving future, I don’t want to minimize that. It is much better than nothing. However, I do want to question it.
Just as I still occasionally buy clothing from a store or brand known to have sweat shops (“Could this beautiful dress that makes me feel so amazing really be the product of child labor? Besides, is buying fair trade and used all the time really a practical option?”), I wonder if many of us are asking ourselves if a holiday tradition that makes us feel so happy and cozy and connected to our loved ones could really be as bad as it sounds. As a child chomping down on my old favorite treat, a bacon cheeseburger, I used to tell myself that killing a cow or a pig must not be as sad as it seemed. I only thought it was horrible because the only animals I had ever interacted with were cats and dogs, but cats and dogs were—somehow?—special. My self-appeasing argument stopped there because I had run out of material. Now, as an adult, I make the opposite argument and never run out of material.
It seems most animals are lovable when you get to know them. I have never gotten to know a turkey, but others have had that privilege and report that turkeys are playful, curious, cuddly, and affectionate—with each other and with human companions. They are fiercely protective, not only of their young, but of their turkey friends. They are also intelligent—they have the ability to remember the geographic content of a space over 1, 000 acres and recognize one another by voice. Again, I am giving you the short list. There are endless reasons why we should keep turkeys off our plate this Thanksgiving, the next, and the one after that.
As someone known for being more than a little serious about holiday traditions, I know how hard this can be at first. I got over the hump by focusing on other classic Thanksgiving concepts, like the notion of harvest time. Thinking about how the earth provides us with such an abundance of food at this time of year made plant-based Thanksgiving dishes seem more festive than turkey or ham. If this essay resonates with you at all, and if you end up choosing to do meat-free Thanksgivings (and other days of the year), I can almost promise that you’ll get to a point where you don’t mind it very much. Eventually, you’ll reach a moment when you’re trying not to make rude faces when your relatives bring out the turkey—what seems to you to be a tacky and morbid interruption to an otherwise lovely day together.Tweet This