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November 2006
“ Humanely Raised” Turkeys?
By Rae Sikora

Thanksgiving is fast approaching and many progressive and socially conscious types have already ordered their “organic,” “pasture raised” turkeys, allowing them to eat the traditional meal without the guilt of supporting factory farming and chemical laden agriculture. However, most good intentioned people won’t look any further to discover the truth behind their meal.

This year a friend and I visited a local, organic farm with a good reputation for environmental and humane standards. The farm’s reputation seemingly held true. Their 1,000 birds are raised in large outdoor hoop-houses with green pasture surrounding. Their feed is organically grown on the farm and hangs from accessible feeders. They even slaughter the birds right on the farm, avoiding transport to a large slaughterhouse facility.

Yet even under “better than average” conditions, the turkeys suffer. Most people ordering organic birds assume they are not genetically bred for weight gain. On the contrary, at about 18 weeks, organic turkeys become so obese their legs cannot handle the weight of their bodies. In fact, many birds are completely lame by two months.

Some of the turkeys we saw were stuck in the straw, unable to get up, and struggling to make it to food and water. While others, already dead, were being removed.

Our tour guide, the farm manager of 11 years, was kind and open with us. He told us he was proud of the facility and happy to show us around. In the slaughter building we were introduced to a worker he nicknamed “the killer.” The manager chuckled and said they actually, “refer to him as the ‘harvester.’” I asked the young harvester if his job was difficult. Thoughtfully he replied, “It was hard at first, but it gets easier.”

They then described the procedure. The birds are “gently” pushed into wall mounted funnels head first and upside down. With their heads hanging below an opening at the base of the funnel, the “harvester” slices the major arteries on the bird’s neck. A bucket catches the blood below. In the words of the harvester, “I slice with a clean hundred dollar surgical knife. I am careful not to cut the airway. We need them alive, breathing and bleeding to drain all the blood out or it gets too messy in the next step. It is very fast. It only takes two minutes. They are breathing the whole time and their legs are kicking, but it is mostly just nerves.”

I stood there struck by his words, “only two minutes.” I recently led a workshop where I wanted people to guess how long a minute is. Everyone closed their eyes. I told the participants to open their eyes and raise their hands when they thought a minute was up. I timed them. Almost everyone had their eyes open and hands raised in about 30 seconds. A minute is a long time. Two minutes of hanging upside down with your major arteries sliced open and bleeding is a really long time.

After touring the entire facility, from pasture to the freezer filled with hundreds of tidy packaged birds, we walked slowly back to my car. We were in shock. I have met many “used-to-be vegetarians” who have turned to a meat diet again because of the availability of animal products labeled “humane.” I think everyone who chooses to eat animals labeled “humane,” “organic” or “free-range” should visit the facility providing their meat. I know most would stop supporting these industries. They will realize these labels give people permission to turn their backs on the violent reality of eating living beings.

This Thanksgiving please consider the most humane choice, a feast without meat.

As founder and director of Simply Enough, Rae Sikora supports individuals and groups in creating peaceful community respecting all life. She co-created the nation’s first humane education certification and masters programs. For over 30 years, Rae’s innovative critical thinking programs have redefined personal power and the ability of one person to make a difference in the world.