A Tale of Two Turkeys
Domestic and wild turkeys share sanctuary; not much else.
It’s 7 a.m., a cock crows, and dawn breaks at Animal Place, a sanctuary for farm animals located in the hills west of Vacaville, California. As Animal Place cofounder Kim Sturla approaches the turkey barn, she can hear the 12 birds inside bustling around, ready for their breakfast and another day.
Released from their sleeping quarters, the turkeys waddle outside to investigate the grounds, curious to see if anything has changed overnight. Then they race (as best they can) to the gate, and greedily gobble down a mixture of romaine lettuce, corn, grapes and other fresh produce.
The domestic turkeys who live at Animal Place are lucky birds. Rescued from factory farms, they have escaped their fate as someone’s deli sandwich or Thanksgiving centerpiece. Unequipped for life in the wild, they live here in freedom and safety from predators, spending their days hanging out, preening, displaying, and occasionally strutting their stuff. It’s an uneventful but peaceful life, and the turkeys seem content.
George, a large tom turkey, came to the sanctuary almost a year ago, following his rescue from a big turkey farm in northern California. Like all new arrivals, he was initially hesitant, but soon found ease in his new quarters. “Most of the animals who come here are a little timid at first,” notes Sturla. “Animal Place is like nothing they’ve ever known before. Eventually they start to open up, to explore, to enter more of a comfort zone. Then one day, it seems that they just know that this is their new home – and their permanent home. Watching their levels of comfort and independence grow is one of the greatest rewards we have here.”
Side By Side
The “official” turkey residents of Animal Place live in proximity to their unofficial wild neighbors. “Until a few years ago, we had only periodic sightings of small flocks of mother wild turkeys and their chicks,” says Sturla. “Now there are literally dozens of these wonderful birds living on and near the sanctuary. I have to think they really feel protected here. With hunting season upon us once again, this truly is a refuge for them.”
All turkeys are intelligent, curious, social beings. They have a wide range of vocalizations, and at times the air around Animal Place is filled with the soft clucking and chirping of the females – and the familiar gobble-gobble of the males. This turkey talk rises in volume whenever humans who are working near their pen need to communicate with each other. “The moment we start to talk,” Sturla says, “they join in the conversation – as loudly as they can!” Sturla says that the turkeys all have their own personalities. “Some are sweet, some shy, some bossy. As a group they’re funny and precious – and sometimes very annoying!”
The factory farming industry has created a domestic bird vastly different from the natural turkey. Wild turkeys spend their nights roosting in trees and foraging the ground by day for grubs, insects, roots and seeds. They breed annually, and their strong wings allow them to fly many miles. They are truly magnificent birds, with strong, long legs and lean, slim bodies. Their movement can actually be described as delicate. When the sun hits their dark brown feathers, they shine with iridescent greens, blues, and reds.
In contrast, “generations of domestic turkeys have been bred for an ever-larger breast to fulfill the market’s demand for white meat,” says Sturla. To support this weight, the birds have developed thick legs and bulky feet. Their immense size makes congestive heart failure, lung disease, engorged coronary vessels, liver disease and heat prostration common; most suffer from arthritis and other joint ailments, as well. Because of this, they spend much of their time sitting down. While wild turkeys live an average of eight to 10 years, a domestic turkey who makes it to two is considered old. The majority are slaughtered between 12 and 18 months of age.
What You Can Do
Each year, approximately 312 million turkeys are slaughtered to provide a traditional Thanksgiving feast. Countless others are slaughtered throughout the year. But every year, more and more Americans give thanks with compassion – by serving a turkey-free meal or naturally raised birds.
To support George and the other turkeys at Animal Place, write to 3448 Laguna Creek Trail, Vacaville, CA 95688; or visit http://www.animalplace.org.
Turkeys raised for meat are handled just twice: when they are caught and crammed into cages bound for the slaughterhouse, and shortly after arrival there, when they are placed on the conveyer belt to be killed. Speed is of the essence in this high-stress environment, and from the turkey producer’s perspective, mutilating the birds is necessary to prevent them from scratching, cutting, or biting themselves, other birds, or the workers. Thus the beaks of the Animal Place turkeys were trimmed with hot blades when they were still very young, and the first digits of their big toes and their snoods (the fleshy appendage below the upper beak) were chopped off. These procedures were performed without benefit of anesthesia or pain relief.
Domestic turkeys are no longer able to breed naturally (they are artificially inseminated on the factory farm), so females and males at Animal Place share the same space. While the sanctuary attempts to recreate a natural environment for them, their size and deformed bodies make many natural behaviors impossible. They cannot dust-bathe or forage or scratch for food, and are much too heavy to fly. While they can preen, their blunt beaks don’t allow them the meticulous preening of their wild cousins, and their dull white feathers remain rough and in poor shape. “Seeing the wild and the domestic turkeys so close to each other, it’s shocking to realize how drastically humans have altered this once-noble bird,” says Sturla.
As night falls, the turkeys are herded back into their barn. While their wild cousins will spend the night roosting high in the oak trees that dot the California hillside, the Animal Place birds will sleep on fresh hay that’s been spread on the barn’s floor and piled into small heaps to help cushion their weight.
Marianne Skoczek is a freelance writer based in Vacaville, California.
ASPCA Animal Watch – Winter 2002
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