We go to the heart of poultry production as Viva!’s Tony Wardle investigates the fate of the ‘festive’ turkey…
Once upon a time, middle class people would ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ at a roast goose in the centre of their Christmas dining table. For the working class it was a chicken – just one. And then something happened and everyone fell in love with turkey.
As sales rocketed, a bit of macho one-upmanship came into play:
“Show me yours and I’ll show you mine – a fifteen pounder!” That scramble for bigger is better, combined with cheaper, had one agonising result – it condemned nearly all turkeys to a life of constant torture.
It’s some years since I first went inside a turkey farm – and I use that word advisedly. It was a shed – a huge, windowless, B&Q-style industrial shed plonked in the countryside. Long before I reached it I knew we were in the right place because of the cloying, sickening stench of excreta, carried on what would otherwise have been a balmy night breeze. When the moon peeked out I could see 20-30 other sheds stretching into the dark distance.
They were owned by one of Europe’s biggest turkey producers, which spends oodles of money telling consumers how wonderful its birds are. Along with a TV camera crew we walked through an unlocked door to see for ourselves. If you want to have an early preview of hell, go into a turkey shed not long before slaughter time when the birds are at their biggest. It was lit, but dimly so. Sheds are lit for more than 23 hours a day to unnaturally encourage feeding, but as the birds grow the lights become dimmer to reduce aggression. Why only 23 hours and not 24? Because if the light was constant and if a power cut ensued, panic would be the result and deaths from crowding would be certain. And so a little break from electric light, constant eating and high-protein food was not there to benefit the birds but to acclimatise them to darkness.
Above the constant thrumming noise of extractor fans swelled the gobbles of perhaps 25,000 voices emanating from a vast, shifting carpet of white, so dense that no bird could move without pushing his or her way between other birds. When one stretched his wings and flapped in frustration, clouds of acrid dust billowed up and hung in the air. The stench was almost choking – a sickening, pungent, cloying, pervasive aroma from weeks of accumulated faeces soaked into the floor litter. It was a scent that would permeate my clothes for days.
There was nothing anywhere in the place that was natural to any living creature, apart from the rats, who came and went as they chose. The turkeys had never been nurtured by a mother – had never even seen her, just an incubator. No fresh air, nowhere to roost, never a glimpse of sunshine, no rain to splash on grimy feathers, no search for morsels to eat as the pellets in the shed-long trough were the same, day in and day out.
All this was nothing compared to the state of the birds themselves. Some simply sat there looking mournful, incapable of movement, their joints crumbled from excessive weight and there they would likely die, incapable of reaching food and water. They would join the other mounds of dark, decaying carcasses who had already starved to death – the dead left amongst the living.
Top beaks were truncated, mutilated, supposedly to prevent feather pecking, so sensitive are they that it compares to having your fingertips sliced away. And then there were the ammonia burns from the sodden floor; open wounds, gashes and ulcers suppurating, pus dripping silently to the floor. But most of all there was the utter dejection of intelligent animals whose only relief will ever be the slaughterhouse knife before decorating a table to celebrate a deity’s promise of peace and goodwill. Hypocrisy comes wrapped in tin foil.
How did we as a species ever allow this to happen? And how can politicians and turkey producers peer from our TV screens and tell us we have the best animal welfare standards in the world, with all the earnestness of a Mormon missionary? Our network broadcast of these horrendous conditions was followed not by the turkey owner’s remorse, but by 18 months of legal warfare by a battery of lawyers. We were responsible for the injuries, deaths, damage in order to strengthen our story. Of course, people who dedicate their lives to helping animals are bound to mutilate them, aren’t they?
The outcome? An import investigation in the public interest concluded the complaints body – case dismissed. And turkey sales plummeted. But that was then and this is now – and almost nothing has changed except that turkey sales have remained down as other Viva! investigations have acted like an aide memoire, piercing through the conscienceless Christmas hype.
Gerty’s Great escape
And before you reach for a ‘free-range, organic, prize-winning bronze’ bird, on that same night we visited just such a farm owned by a big producer. Another, different shed with access to a small muddy paddock during daylight hours, providing it wasn’t raining. There are few daylight hours in midwinter and it tends to rain a lot. It was just as sickening.
I once had a bronze turkey as a companion – Gerty, probably the most famous turkey in Britain. She was the living Christmas dinner won in a raffle by a vegetarian who did not want her killed. Instead, he handed her over to Viva! for safe keeping amidst the glare of TV lights and reporters camera flashes. Like a be-feathered pop star, her image appeared all over Britain. She joined with rescued chickens to forage across our acres. When in need of comfort, she would approach, lower herself to the ground, partially extend her wings and shimmer. The instruction was clear – stroke me! And when you did, she closed her eyes and appeared to be transported to turkey heaven.
One day, she sat in the garden and did not move for the whole afternoon and as the sun descended failed to seek the night-time safety of the stables. With an effort, I lifted Gerty into a wheelbarrow and transported her to the comfort of thick straw. In the morning she was dead in exactly the same position – her organs having given up on the thankless task of trying to service her bloated body.
Who would ever imagine that she was a very close cousin of wild birds who still live in North and Central America who can run at 25 miles an hour and fly short distances at up to 50mph? Perhaps when I stroked her that’s where she went in her imagination, back to being her wild self where she could indulge all those instincts that had been so cruelly denied her as she was fattened up for someone’s table. At least she had known freedom for just a few months.
Poor Gerty – and the other 17 million turkeys who are killed in Britain each year. Not long ago, many millions more suffered a similar fate but we are slowly winning the war to bring compassion to the dining table. A merry vegan Christmas to you all.
About the author
Tony Wardle is an author, journalist and associate director of the vegan campaigning group, Viva! See viva.org.uk/turkeys and go to at viva.org.uk/xmas for Christmas ideas.