Consider the Turkey

» November 22nd, 2012

“Humans,” Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has written, “seem to take a perverse pleasure in attributing stupidity to animals when it is almost entirely a question of human ignorance.” This dictum seems especially apt on Thanksgiving day. No animal, after all, has been more actively dismissed for its purported stupidity than the turkey.

The old legend about turkeys turning their gullets upward and drowning during rainstorms is reliably rehashed every November, almost as if to assuage some repressed collective doubt we have over killing 45 million maligned fowl in order to honor a tradition that, at its inception, had nothing to do with turkey.

Turkeys are neither moronic nor prone to chronic downpour suicides. In their undomesticated state they are, as the naturalist Joe Hutto has written, remarkably attentive and intelligent creatures. Hutto carefully observed a flock of wild turkeys for many months, recounting his experiences in Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey. He became particularly attached to a bird he named Turkey Boy.

“Each time I joined him,” Hutto wrote, “he greeted me with his happy dance, a brief joyful display of ducking and dodging, with wings outstretched and a frisky shake of the head like a dog with water in his ears.” Hutto, a longtime turkey hunter, was charmed, even reformed. The bird, he explained, “would jump at me and touch me lightly with his feet.”

I’m well aware that most non-vegan readers will deem Hutto’s account as shamelessly anthropomorphized, if not just plain silly. I’m frequently reminded of our reluctance to fundamentally rethink the way we eat and consider the possibility that animals deserve better. I recently sat at a communal table at a vegan restaurant and listened to a jovial conversation about killing chickens and deer. At a vegan restaurant (granted, in Texas). You learn, after a time, to develop a measure of perspective on such things.

But our perspective should never omit the fact that animal scientists have documented complex patterns of turkey behavior. This is especially true when it comes to memory and geography. Wild turkeys return to the exact location of a baiting station an entire year after feeding. They scratch and sniff and circle the exact spot for that unforgettable free lunch even though the trough has been moved. Animal behaviorists agree that this return is notable. The Humane Society rightly characterizes it as “evidence of hitherto unappreciated intelligence.”

Should you relegate this impressive example of turkey recollection to mere instinct, should you convincingly reduce it to a habitual “skill” that’s pre-programmed into the birds’ mindless genetic repertoire, think again. The emotional and social lives of turkeys (wild and domesticated) speak to an active and adaptive cognition.

Turkeys need each other, and in more than just a safety-in-numbers sort of way. Researchers have found that when an individual turkey is removed from his flock, even in domesticity, he’ll squawk in obvious protest until reunited with his posse. Turkeys have a refined “language” of yelps and cackles. They mourn the death of a flock member and so acutely anticipate pain that domestic breeds have had epidemical heart attacks after watching their feathered mates take that fatal step towards Thanksgiving dinner. They clearly feel and appear to understand pain.

There’s been a heated back-and-forth about how to categorize animals with respect to our supposed right to eat them. Is a pig objectively smarter than a dog? Well then don’t kill him. Is a pig less acculturated to human companionship than a dog? Well then kill him. These exchanges have been more than a little thought-provoking. But ultimately they get bogged down in nuanced shades of distinction while missing the transcendent question: Are animals worthy enough creatures to deserve our ultimate respect, a respect that requires that we choose not to kill them for food we don’t need?

As a historian I recognize that history is marked by a discordant combination of radical change and ceaseless continuity. Acculturated practices—practices that seem as normalized as breathing—eventually change. Not only do they change, but contemporary human societies look back on these once entrenched behaviors and wonder how we ever allowed them to happen. But what never changes, what will always be, is that humans are, no matter how hard we try to conquer the world’s complexities, ultimately humbled by its mysteries.

Turkeys, for those who have taken the time to look, are mysteries. All animals are. Do they anticipate and feel pain? Do they enjoy social relationships and feel the loss of companions? Do they think, remember, and conceptualize the future? We can debate these questions forever. But the fact that there’s even room for debate suggests that we should err on the side of humility. And we might begin by giving some thought to our unthinking decision to eat turkey on Thanksgiving.

10 Responses to Consider the Turkey

  1. Karen Messier says:

    Stripes and Tires are the equivalent of Bill and Lou. It’s all so difficult to comprehend. And so sad for these beautiful and trusting animals.

  2. Layne says:

    I’m glad that, living in Canada,
    “Turkey Day” is long behind us. Thanks for a beautiful essay.

  3. Krista says:

    Thank you for this.

  4. Barbara Beierl says:

    Thank you for posting this blog. I cannot understand, for the life of me, why anyone would deny that nonhuman animals feel pain. If you’ve got nerve endings, you feel pain! Furthermore, animal consciousness is an accepted fact in scientific circles. Why don’t we popularize the idea. Most people have no access to sources which will inculcate scientific ideas. Each one of us should be telling others of these unalterable facts whenever we can. Tell everyone all the time! It’s the only way people will learn. Don’t let anyone bully or intimidate us into passivity about self-evident truths! Barbara Beierl

  5. Karen Davis says:

    I urge people who want to learn about, and appreciate, turkeys more deeply to read my book MORE THAN A MEAL: THE TURKEY IN HISTORY, MYTH, RITUAL, AND REALITY (Lantern Books, 2001). My book is a goldmine of information and analysis of turkeys as individuals and as social, familial & ecological beings and in their relationship with human beings including Native American, British and European cultures.

    MORE THAN A MEAL contains fascinating accounts of wild turkeys written by the European invaders of the Americas in the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. It describes the hundreds of miles turkeys often were forced to walk to slaughter, in England and in the United States, herded by “drovers,” into the 1930s. It includes my personal experiences at our sanctuary with turkeys bred for the meat industry, a chapter on the history and significance of the annual Presidental “Pardoning” Ceremony in the White House, and much more, including a discussion of Joe Hutto’s book Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season With the Wild Turkey (1995).

    MORE THAN A MEAL includes an insightful chapter on “The Mind and Behavior of Turkeys” and why the turkey became the carnivalesque figure of torment and ridicule opposite the piety of Thanksgiving in America.

    MORE THAN A MEAL is available in print and is also posted on our Website page at

    Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns.

    • CQ says:

      I just now went to your turkeys page, Karen, and from there clicked on and read Kathryn King’s heartwarming (and heartwrenching) story of Peeper.

      I empathize with how torn she was between protecting him from ingesting harmful objects and giving him freedom to roam, and hope she is not condemning herself for doing the best she knew at the time. She gave more love to (and received more love back from) one deserving turkey than most human-bred turkeys are “allowed” to get and give in a lifetime.

      We’re all learning, every day, how to think better of and do better toward all our brothers and sisters — human and nonhuman. As long as our hearts stay humble and honest, we will keep growing in our understanding of how to treat our fellow-beings and meet their needs.

      I’m not sure what Kathryn’s intent was in purchasing the poults, nor do I know what became of Peeper’s siblings, but I trust that she, like the rest of us on this journey toward realizing the rights of all animals, would now never buy or raise or eat a single turkey . . . or chicken . . . or any creature.

      I’ll be reading the other articles on your site, as well as your PDF book; thank you for writing and compiling the wealth of true facts and figures and feelings, Karen.

      • Karen Davis says:

        Kathryn King’s story of Peeper caused me to weep when I read it. I felt (and feel) Peeper’s life and his relationship wiht Kathryn so strongly, and the thought that an X-ray might have saved him . . .

        I know how she felt leaving Peeper behind in the veterinarian’s office only to learn almost immediately afterward that he had died upon their parting, and knowing she would never see or hold him or comfort him again.

        I’m grateful to Kathryn for writing Peeper’s story and for sharing it with us for publication. I hope many people will read it and share it with others.

        Karen Davis, United Poultry Concerns
        Turkeys United With Chickens for Peace

  6. Karen Davis says:

    Remembering Turkeys at Thanksgiving
    By Karen Davis, President of United Poultry Concerns

    To understand the complex suffering of turkeys raised for “food,” it helps to know that in nature, young turkey siblings stay close to their mother for four or five months after they are born. She is the center of their universe. Although turkeys raised commercially never see their mothers, the expectation of her is alive in their genes. In nature, when the maternal family is on a stroll, if one of her poults starts peeping distress, the mother bird clucks reassuringly and, if the peeping persists, she rushes to comfort her little one.

    When her youngsters grow cold and tired, they tell her so, and she crouches to warm and comfort them under her great, enveloping wings. If when the family are traveling together through the woods and fields, a little one strays, intent on his own pursuit, upon discovering that he (or she) is alone, the poult straightens up, looks keenly about, listens intently, and calls out anxiously to his mother. This is known as a “lost call” – the call of a frightened young turkey, perceiving that he is alone, for his mother. When she answers his searching cry, he calls back to her in relief, opens up his wings, flaps them joyfully once or twice, and runs to rejoin his family.

    In nature, baby turkeys start talking to their mother hen while they are still inside the egg, all nestled with their brothers and sisters in the deep warmth of her feathers and knowing her and her voice long before they hatch. Whenever I think of baby turkeys in the mechanical incubators, hatchery mutilation rooms, filthy sheds, terrifying trucks, and slaughterhouses, I imagine the lost calls of all the turkeys in the world that will never be answered. For them there will never be a joyous flapping of wings or a vibrant turkey family reunited and on the move.

    Turkeys rise into our consciousness at Thanksgiving, and then they are almost completely forgotten until the next year comes around, yet turkeys are being slaughtered every day – many more than for Thanksgiving. For them, every day is “Thanksgiving,” an endless harvest of horror. Let us not forget them. Let us remember all the turkeys and advocate for them and their liberation in January and July, as we do in November.

    • CQ says:

      Just finished reading, while dining on “Wheat Roast” by Austin-based White Mountain Foods, Elsie Reinmenschneider’s “Tina Turkey Pours Her Heart Out.” I hope lots of compassionate flesh-eaters read and heed Tina’s plea for justice and mercy.

      Where Elsie writes (on behalf of Tina): “Promise you won’t capture me and eat me, . . .” I would add, were I speaking for Tina, a few more “won’ts”: “. . . breed me . . . sell me . . . kill me . . . purchase me . . . make fun of me . . . advertise my body for sale . . . . bowl with my carcass . . . teach others how to kill me . . . blog about my misfortune . . . .”

      No human who is knowingly part of turkeys’ betrayal gets off the hook.

  7. Bea Elliott says:

    What a beautiful essay – It should (and will) become a Vegan holiday tradition to refer to it for all the future that exists while the carnist world still views these lovely creatures as “just a meal”.

    And thank you Karen Davis for writing and making generously available your informative book MORE THAN A MEAL.

    It is so true that the worst is not over for these precious birds… “ThanksKilling” goes on for them 365 days in the lust for turkey-dogs, turkey-bologna, and of course “sliced” turkeys. I stay constantly baffled and saddened – We could all live so well without harming anyone and yet the hurting has no end in sight. (yet…)

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