Many people think of turkeys as little more than a holiday centerpiece, but turkeys are social, playful birds who enjoy the company of others. Anyone who spends time with them on farm sanctuaries quickly learns that turkeys are as varied in personality as dogs and cats.

When not forced to live on factory farms, turkeys spend their days caring for their young, building nests, foraging for food, taking dustbaths, preening themselves, and roosting high in trees.

Turkey Factory Farms

Every year in the United States over 270 million turkeys are killed for their flesh. More than 45 million of these turkeys are killed for Thanksgiving alone, and over 20 million are killed for Christmas. Almost all of them spend their entire lives on factory farms and have almost no federal legal protection from cruelty.

Turkeys raised on factory farms are hatched in large incubators and never see their mothers or feel the warmth of a nest. When they are only a few weeks old, they are moved into filthy, windowless sheds with up to 25,000 other turkeys, where they will spend the rest of their lives until they are sent to the slaughter plant. To keep the birds from killing one another in such crowded conditions, parts of the turkeys' toes and beaks are cut off, as are the males' snoods (the flap of skin under the chin). All this is done without any pain relievers — imagine having the skin under your chin chopped off with a pair of scissors. Turkeys who are debeaked and detoed are believed to experience chronic pain. Millions of turkeys don't even make it past the first few weeks of life in a factory farm before succumbing to "starve-out," a stress-induced condition that causes young birds to simply stop eating.

Turkeys are bred, drugged, and genetically manipulated to grow unnaturally large as quickly as possible to increase profits. According to one industry publication, modern turkeys grow so quickly that if a seven-pound human baby grew at the same rate, the infant would weigh 1,500 pounds at just 18 weeks of age. Turkeys are now so obese that they cannot reproduce naturally; instead, nearly all the turkeys who are born in the United States today are conceived through artificial insemination. Their abnormally large size also causes many turkeys to die from organ failure or heart attacks before they are even six months old. According to an investigative report in the Wall Street Journal about the miserable conditions on turkey farms, "It's common in a rearing house to find a dead bird surrounded by four others whose hearts failed after they watched the first one ‘fall back and go into convulsions, with its wings flapping wildly.'" When they grow so obese that their legs can't even support their own weight, turkeys may become crippled and as a result some of these birds die from thirst within inches of water.

When turkeys fall ill because of the conditions or become crippled under their own weight, farmers walk through the shed to kill the slow-growing animals, so that they don't eat any more food. An undercover investigation in Minnesota, the number-one turkey-producing state in the country, revealed that the manager of the farm repeatedly used a metal pipe to bludgeon 12-week-old turkeys who were lame, injured, ill, or otherwise unsuitable for slaughter and consumption. The injured birds were thrown onto piles of other dead and dying birds then tossed into a wheelbarrow for disposal. Birds who were overlooked were kicked or beaten with pliers or had their necks wrung.

Transport and slaughter

Close to 2,000 turkeys can be loaded onto a single truck headed for the slaughterhouse. The turkeys are collected by workers, who grab them by their legs and throw them into large crates. Many birds suffer broken bones in the process. The crates are then loaded onto trucks, and the birds are shipped through all weather conditions without food or water to the slaughterhouse. Millions of turkeys die every year as a result of heat exhaustion, freezing, or accidents during transport. At the slaughterhouse, turkeys are hung upside-down by their weak and crippled legs before their heads are dragged through an electrified "stunning tank," which often immobilizes them without rendering them unconscious. Many of the terrified birds are fully aware when their throats are slit. If the knife fails to properly slit the birds' throats, they are scalded alive in the tank of hot water used for feather removal.

You can help

The best thing that you can do to help animals is to stop eating them. Meatless gravy and stuffing and fabulous faux turkey dishes like Tofurky and Unturkey are easy to find in supermarkets and health food stores. These soy- and wheat-based roasts are kind and delicious alternatives to eating turkey flesh. Visit for hundreds of mouthwatering recipes, helpful tips, and thought-provoking information, photos, and video clips.

Contributed by Nathan Runkle, Mercy for Animals

Mercy For Animals (MFA) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit Ohio animal rights organization. MFA is dedicated to promoting nonviolence towards all sentient beings through public education campaigns and demonstrations, undercover investigations, and open rescues. Mercy for Animals, PO Box 363, Columbus, OH 43216

Appears in Issue: