Consider the Turkey

» November 27th, 2014

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 with Thanksgiving arriving tomorrow. 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 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 on this site lately over 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 it. Is a pig less acculturated to human companionship than a dog? Well then kill it. 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?

I’m the first to admit that I have no hard scientific evidence as to why I think the answer is yes. But as a historian I at least 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.

9 Responses to Consider the Turkey

  1. Carol Chidley says:

    Regarding the response to memory intelligence in animals as being mere instinct or something in their genetic code and therefore not real intelligence..my response to that bit of nonsense is to look at our own species. How many times do you hear your mate ask for help in finding keys, or some food item in the cabinet, or any number of items about the house? Are we lacking some “instinct” or “genetic code” leaving us without memory intelligence? In regards to memory, is the turkey (and what of the elephant?) smarter than man?

  2. Teresa Wagner says:

    Thank you for such a perfect article for Thanksgiving. May you have a wonderful one ~

  3. Les Roberts says:

    As a committed vegan, I naturally don’t eat turkey at Thanksgiving—or at any other time. But the “big” November day is worse than the rest of the year. A steak, for instance, does not look like a cow, nor does a pork chop resemble a pig. But to see a cooked turkey, beheaded, de-feathered and missing its legs, is a particularly disgusting and enraging sight. Another reminder that I should kick myself in the butt, HARD, for all those years before I became a vegan. Thank you once again, James, for a thoughtful and very emotionally moving article. I’m off to eat my VEGAN feast.

  4. John T. Maher says:

    The point JMC makes concerning human cognition reminds me of what John Gray wrote in The Silence of Animals: “If there is anything unique about the human animal, it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience.”

    My interpretation of the sermon today is that it concerns the difference between the mechanistic views of behavioral studies and cogitative ethology. Cognitive ethology rejects behaviourist dogma against “attributing subjective states of awareness to nonhuman animals, offered the prospect of increased scientific support for the claim that animals are conscious in the ways that matter ethically” (Bortolotti and Sandis ‘With power comes vulnerability’ citing Allen and Bekoff). I gave a talk on exactly this topic once and the audience was split between those who were offended and those who saw a new set of possibilities in animal jurisprudence.

    James takes a Heideggerrian turn with “All animals are” which is sort of like the discussion of ditches and concepts and Dasein when H writes about Sachverhalt und Begriff and where he write “Being is becoming”. I was expecting more of a historical observation concerning Thanksgiving today and JMC did not disappoint when he wrote “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” I completely disagree as capitalism and technology see only the ability to monetize and weaponize mystery. More accurate was the observation that history is characterized by “discordant combination of radical change and ceaseless continuity” which sums op deconstruction’s view of history. Being is becoming indeed.

    On the other hand the ongoing discussion in this blog referenced as “There’s been a heated back-and-forth on this site lately over 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 it. Is a pig less acculturated to human companionship than a dog? Well then kill it. These exchanges have been more than a little thought-provoking.” is actually not that interesting as all human animal struggles seem ultimately rooted in the SAMO ontological border disputes I wish would just go away.

    And yes, one hears all kinds of offensive, weird stuff at vegan restaurant communal tables. Looks like kale and potatoes today.

  5. I have had numerous people wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving this week, and many added to their wish by saying “…and eat lots of turkey.” How sad, and tragic, that people mindlessly accept that this is what one does on Thanksgiving.

  6. Susan Hanson says:

    As a followup, I would recommend “My Life As a Turkey,” the PBS video that was re-broadcast last night on “Nature.” It followed Joe Hutto as he hatched a clutch of turkey eggs and then spent a year learning to communicate with and understand the birds. An amazing film, it shows just how intelligent and affectionate the birds are.

  7. Nayanika says:

    Debates and exchanges are indeed thought provoking. Yes the fact that we can debate and there is room for a solution is indeed humbling. It seems like Utopia, because even as Vegans and with a strict no-no to non vegetarian food, we are killing, by removing them from Mother Earth and the process to which, they are by right entitled to as God’s creatures…:-)

    On a more serious note..we struggle with our innermost animalistic nature…hunger, eating and all gastronomical gourmets’ parleys fit into this paradigm ..we have a lot to consider and mull over..

    Amen

  8. Cindy Koczy says:

    Thanks James for the well written article.
    It’s been the past week as I have shopped for Thanksgiving dinner food.Many store workers have mindlessly asked if I have bought my bird.I retort back and say…”YOU EAT BIRDS!” OR “I don’t eat animals or THEIR products.It opens up a small window to state some facts about why we should not be eating them.It seems it makes them at least…think for a moment.

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