Contrary to popular beliefs that turkeys are “dumb”, turkeys are intelligent, curious and highly social, birds who have been known to play games in a group. When not imprisoned on factory farms, they spend their days caring for their young, building nests, foraging for food, taking dust baths, preening their feathers and roosting in trees. They are playful and exploratory animals, with the ability to remember the geographic content of an area over 1,000 acres in size. Turkeys have unique personalities and recognize one another through their voices. Chicks stay with their mothers for up to five months and the females are very bonded to their young.
Humans accustomed to the awkward waddle of domesticated turkeys and their desperate attempts to fly – usually running along the ground while flapping their wings in vain – interpret these behaviours as indications that turkeys are “dumb”. Both of these characteristics are the result of direct human intervention in the form of genetic manipulation, which has left turkeys with distorted, abnormal body shapes. Wild turkeys can fly at speeds of up to 55 km/h.
On the Factory Farm
Turkeys reared for meat suffer a fate similar to that of “broiler” chickens – being raised in overcrowded, windowless sheds and genetically altered to grow abnormally large in the shortest possible time. As a result, domesticated turkeys can’t fly like their wild counterparts; through selective breeding, humans have robbed them of this avian characteristic. Many suffer lameness due to their muscles and joints being unable to support their unnatural weight and body shape.
Their abnormal size has also robbed them of the ability to breed naturally. Chicks are bred through artificial insemination – a process which is undoubtedly painful and stressful, and which female breeder turkeys are subjected to as often as once a week until they are slaughtered at approximately two years of age. Both breeder turkeys and turkeys raised for meat are kept in the barren, overcrowded conditions, the only difference being that turkeys raised for meat are killed at a younger age.
Factory farms deprive turkeys of natural behaviours such as dust bathing and normal flock life. The stress of being crammed into buildings with two feet or less of space per bird results in aggression expressed through pecking. Instead of giving them more space, farmers respond by forcing the birds to live in darkness (darkness minimizes aggression) and cutting off their beaks with a heated blade or powerful laser beam, to minimize pecking-related damage. Beaks are cut without anaesthetic, despite the process causing acute pain, due to the beaks being richly innervated. As the beaks heal, the nerve fibres in the amputated stump form tiny neuromas – the same nerve growths implicated in phantom limb pain in human amputees. According to Guelph university poultry science professor Dr. Ian Duncan, both neurophysiological and behavioural evidence confirms that debeaking results in chronic pain, including studies showing that debeaked birds feed, drink, preen and peck less frequently than their non-debeaked counterparts.
Although turkeys can live up to ten years, they are typically slaughtered at the age of 12-26 weeks. Bruising, broken bones and internal injuries due to rough handling are common among turkeys caught for transport. The birds are forced to endure lengthy journeys to slaughterhouses in all types of weather and, by law, are allowed to be deprived of food and water for up to 36 hours before they are killed.
By the time they are slaughtered, turkeys weigh up to 28 kg each. They are shackled upside down by their legs while fully conscious on the slaughter line, with their weight adding to the pain of their lameness and transport-related injuries. In theory, their heads are supposed to be immersed in electrified water prior to slaughter, resulting in the birds being “stunned” and unable to feel pain. This mechanized process is far from perfect and many birds are improperly stunned prior to having their throats slit by a rapidly turning blade similar to a circular saw. Differences in size and positioning mean that the throat slitting is inefficient and many turkeys are still alive and conscious when they reach the next stage of the slaughter process – immersion in the “scalding bath” of boiling water, which is used in the feather removal process. In short, many turkeys are killed by being boiled alive.
Over 21 million turkeys were slaughtered in Canada in 2013.
CCFA – Turkey Fact Sheet
Big Birds, Big Cruelty – Artificial Insemination
OSU animal scientist debunks dumb turkey myth
Turkeys: much smarter than you think
The Hidden Lives of Turkeys
Under the Feathers: The Curiosity, Intelligence and Personality of Turkeys
Debeaking: Poultry Researcher Speaks Out
Killing Methods for Poultry
Annual Poultry Slaughter Report