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Farmed Animal Welfare: Turkeys

Selective Breeding On the Farm In the Slaughterhouse Fun Facts

Beyond Thanksgiving: In Defense of Turkeys

In the United States alone, approximately 250 million turkeys are killed yearly for meat. These birds rarely live past the age of five months, and never see beyond the cages of factory farms.

Bred for Meat, Not Health

Most turkeys raised for meat are selectively bred, a process perfected over many generations to produce the most meat on a bird in the shortest period of time and using the least amount of feed necessary. Turkeys have been domesticated since at least the early 17th century in North America. For many years, turkey farmers bred their own small-breasted turkeys. In the last half-century, however, the breeding industry has become so integrated and intensified that almost 90 percent of all the turkeys in the world are heavy-breasted varieties supplied by only three primary breeding companies. This control allows for breeders to hatch turkeys with only the desired genetic traits, the most important of which is fast growth.

If a human baby grew at the same rate as modern turkeys, it would weigh 1,500 pounds by the age of 18 weeks. Similar to the welfare issues that exist in the chicken and egg industries, the abnormal weight and size of turkeys lead to numerous welfare problems. Many turkeys suffer from abnormal gait, hip lesions, and skeletal disease. While the meat content of turkeys has increased over the years, their bone structures have not, and the birds often have problems standing. These leg disorders cause turkeys to spend most of their lives lying down, where they contract other lesions, blisters and burns. The more deformed turkeys also have a high risk of being trampled to death by the other turkeys still able to walk. Fast growth has consequences even beyond bone disorders, including lowered immune performance, muscle disease, ascites, hemorrhaging, heart disease, and aortic rupture.

Some turkeys are born to be “breeders,” kept alive longer but subjected to the same abuses and genetic manipulations as those raised for meat. Like their offspring, breeder turkeys have been selectively bred for fast growth, and consequently suffer from similar skeletal disorders and heart diseases. If fed unrestricted diets, few of these turkeys would survive to sexual maturity. Therefore, turkey breeders are given as little as half the amount of food they would eat if they were raised for meat. Even still, the male turkeys develop such large breast muscles that natural mating is physically impossible. All turkeys are bred solely through artificial insemination in modern turkey production. While breeders do get to live longer than five months, that added time is torture and painful.

On the Farm

Turkeys raised on factory farms are hatched in large incubators, without the warmth of a nest or a mother. After a few weeks, they are moved to large, warehouse-like sheds. They are stocked in such high densities that they are unable to express many important natural behaviors, such as the ability to roost or even flap their wings.

These sheds, called “grower houses,” confine thousands of turkeys together. Grower houses are usually windowless, with temperatures controlled through forced ventilation. To prevent the turkeys from injuring one another in such tight quarters, parts of their beaks and toes are removed without anesthesia. Millions of turkeys do not survive the first few weeks of factory farm life, succumbing to “starve-out,” a condition in which young birds simply stop eating, presumably due to stress.

Physical/Behavioral Effects

The environment created by grower houses is detrimental to the physical well-being of turkeys. The confinement of large amounts of turkeys in inadequate space results in the rapid deterioration of air quality within the sheds. Turkey excrement accumulates quickly on the floors, and as bacteria break down the litter, the air becomes polluted with ammonia, dust, and fungal spores. High ammonia levels can cause painful skin conditions, respiratory problems, pulmonary congestion, swelling, hemorrhage, and blindness. During winter, when the ventilators are closed to conserve heat, ammonia levels may reach 200 parts per million; healthy ammonia levels should never surpass 20 parts per million.

Psychological Effects

Sometimes, the psychological stress of living in grower houses is more damaging than disease. The unnatural environment forces turkeys into a vicious cycle. Turkeys become increasingly aggressive living in such close quarters; to curb the consequences of this increased aggression, farmers perform more surgeries, resulting in increased stress.

In the Slaughterhouse

In about five months, turkeys reach market weight. More than 2,000 turkeys can be loaded onto a single truck headed for the slaughterhouse. For the birds, the journey to the slaughterhouse is physically and psychologically abusive. Catching teams load the turkeys at rates of up to 1,500 birds an hour, injuring many in the process. From dislocated hips and broken wings to internal hemorrhaging, the turkeys suffer from the process. During transport, the turkeys are not given food, water, or appropriate shelter. The crates are often improperly covered, and the birds are exposed to high winds and cold temperatures. Many turkeys die during the trip from hypothermia, or from heart failure associated with stress.

Turkeys and other poultry are not protected by federal regulations during slaughter, meaning they are not required to be rendered senseless before they are killed. Some are stunned through the use of an electric water bath, but this method is not perfect. Many turkeys are not successfully rendered unconscious prior to slaughter, and are burned and/or drowned alive.

Many turkeys are slaughtered without being stunned at all. In the processing plant, turkeys are shackled by their legs and hung upside-down. The turkeys’ throats are slit on a circular blade before being placed in a scalding tank meant to loosen feathers. If turkeys are not properly stunned, they often miss the blade. This means that the turkeys enter the tank conscious and are boiled alive. Many alternatives to these inhumane slaughterhouse practices exist, from the use of mechanical harvesting or herding, to a more caring and gentler way of manually catching turkeys, but the prevailing economic arguments encourage the continued use of inhumane methods.

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