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10 Things Everyone Should Know About Free-Range Turkeys

by Angel Flinn & Dan Cudahy on November 19, 2010

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Over 280 million turkeys are slaughtered annually for human consumption in the United States, despite the fact that such consumption is unnecessary for humans and absolutely horrifying for turkeys. 45 million of those deaths occur for the ritual of Thanksgiving alone.

Increasingly, as consumers are becoming more aware of the extreme cruelty of animal farming, free-range, organic and ‘natural’ animal products are gaining popularity. What many people don’t realize, however, is that animals raised under these labels frequently suffer through much of the same torment as those in standard factory farming operations.

1. According to the USDA, the terms “free range” and “free roaming” can be used to describe animals that “are allowed access to the outside for 51% of their lives”. There are no other requirements, including the amount of time spent outdoors or the quality and size of the outdoor area. For this reason, contrary to popular belief, “free-range” facilities are generally no more than large sheds in which tens of thousands of turkeys are crammed together on filthy, disease-ridden floors, living in their own waste. The conditions are often so poor that many turkeys die simply from the stress of living in such an environment.

2. Lighting is often kept dim to discourage aggression, since birds can engage in feather plucking and even cannibalism when they become highly stressed. Low lighting can cause reduced activity levels and result in abnormalities in growth, such as in the eyes and legs.

3. When raised for food, turkeys (even those described as free-range) are genetically modified to grow abnormally large — often twice their normal size — for producer profits. This genetic modification causes severe health problems, but since turkeys are generally slaughtered five months into their natural life span of 10 years, most are killed prior to the heart attacks or organ failure that would otherwise occur after six months. (This becomes apparent when genetically modified turkeys are rescued and allowed to live out the rest of their lives in sanctuary situations.)

4. “Natural”, “free range,” and “organic” turkeys are routinely subjected to debeaking, which is intended to prevent overcrowded birds from pecking at each other. Debeaking involves slicing off about one-third of a bird’s beak with a red hot blade when the turkey is around 5 days old (or often even younger).

5. To prevent cannibalism due to stressful conditions, turkeys sold under the above labels are just as likely to be subjected to detoeing. Detoeing is a very painful procedure which involves cutting off or microwaving the ends of the toes of male turkeys within the first three days of life.

6. Free-range, organic and natural operations are also allowed to practice desnooding, which consists of the cutting off of the snood (the fleshy appendage above the beak). Desnooding is an acutely painful procedure, and is often done with scissors, or using methods that are too brutal to describe here.

7. By the time the birds are sent to slaughter, as much as 80 per cent of the litter on the floor of the shed is their own feces. This results in a buildup of ammonia, causing turkeys to develop ulcerated feet and painful burns on their legs and bodies.

8. When they reach market weight, free-range turkeys generally undergo the same horrifying conditions on their way to slaughter as does any factory-farmed animal. Workers gather these birds up to four at a time, carrying them upside down by their legs and then throwing them into crates on multi-tiered trucks. During transport, they are at the mercy of the elements, sometimes enduring extreme cold, and are denied access to food or water.

9. After transportation, free-range turkeys arrive at the same slaughterhouses as turkeys from any other facility. In these places, workers often torture the turkeys – kicking them, throwing them into walls, and breaking their necks and bones.

10. Even when turkeys are not intentionally tortured during transportation or at the slaughterhouse, the killing process itself would certainly be considered torture if done to a human being. The birds are hung upside down by the legs, and dipped in an electrical bath that is supposed to “stun” them, but often only causes convulsions and terror. If they miss the stunning bath, their throats are slit while they’re still conscious. Sometimes, because they are flailing around, they miss both the bath and the blade, and end up alive in a scalding tank designed to remove feathers.

As anyone familiar with animal sanctuary operations will tell you, turkeys are intelligent, social beings who nurture and protect their young and thrive in their natural habitat. Even when they are stressed and confined in “free-range” concentration camps, they have an amazing will to live, as do all sentient beings.

In the extremely rare cases where turkeys are raised gently in someone’s backyard, slaughter by any method is intentional killing of the innocent and clearly unnecessary for humans, and is therefore wrong and logically indistinguishable from murder.

Instead of practicing the primitive ritual of making the sacrifice of a turkey the focus of Thanksgiving dinner, consider giving thanks for all life by having a vegan thanksgiving. Being vegan inspires a new sense of self-esteem which comes from not contributing to the unnecessary and heartless killing of those who simply want to live their lives, as you do.

image: Wanda Embar

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