Except for the mass slaughter of millions of helpless birds, it’s a very nice holiday
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on November 20, 1995 in The Diamondback, the daily newspaper of the University of Maryland, College Park. The opinions, dated political references and poor grammar expressed here do not necessarily reflect the writer’s current opinions, knowledge and journalistic skill.
One year ago this week, I became a vegetarian. Just days before Thanksgiving, I went cold turkey on eating animals. If you’ve been thinking about ending or decreasing violent eating habits, this holiday is a good time to do it.
About 45 million of the 300 million turkeys raised and eaten in the United States this year will end up on Thanksgiving dinner plates.
Except for the mass slaughter of millions of helpless birds, it’s a very nice holiday — families getting together and every one thinking about what they’re thankful for in life. And we don’t like to think about the death and pain experienced by the traditional main course.
I’m reminded of a telling story about Leo Tolstoy. His sister often complained that her vegetarian brother offered her no meat when he made dinner. So one night, she came over, and Tolstoy had tied a live chicken to a chair and gave her a knife. She was too horrified with the idea of having to kill her own dinner, so she never complained again.
Very few of us would be willing to slaughter all the animals we consume, but we pay others to do it for us without thought. As vegetarian Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Fate, “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”
The life of a commercial turkey is frighteningly dreadful. The birds have their beaks and toes cut off at considerable and lifelong pain to keep them from fighting each other in insanely crowded warehouses. They spend their entire lives in cramped unsanitary factory farms, caged with thousands of other birds, and they have a personal roaming area the size of a TV dinner tray.
A feral turkey can live as long as 15 years, but a factory-farmed tom is about four months old when it is packed off to the slaughterhouse. Shackled upside-down on a conveyer belt, their heads are lowered into tanks of electrified bile to be stunned before their necks are cut and bled to death.
Often though the birds are improperly stunned and therefore fully and painfully conscious as they slowly die, and many factories don’t stun at all. There is no federal protective legislation to provide for the humane slaughter of turkeys. In fact, the poultry industry is exempt from a 1958 law requiring all animals be rendered “insensible to pain” before they are killed. This is outrageous considering 7.5 billion fowl are slaughtered every year, compared to about 200 million cows, pigs and sheep annually killed for our personal use and abuse.
Contamination and bacterial disease are the biggest problems to factory farmers. In turkey warehouses, ammonia fumes and cramped conditions cause the birds to develop respiratory diseases, foot ulcers and even ammonia blindness. Bred and fed to become disgustingly and unnaturally obese, many turkeys collapse under their own weight, and many birds’ hearts explode because of oxygen deprivation and extreme stress. And according to the USDA, nearly 40 percent of the nation’s largest poultry plants have serious sanitation problems.
Most people who claim to love animals are actually quite selective with that love. The thought of killing pets and endangered species is outrageous but cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, mice, rats, frogs, fish and turkeys are relatively worthless.
This is a position of paradox and ignorance. All animals are beautiful and special in their own way, and all are equally entitled to have a life without pain or premature death.
The turkey, for example, has a reputation as a stupid and slow animal. But actually it’s a very loyal and loving bird, as anyone who keeps one as a pet can attest. They’re splendid, majestic, resilient creatures and overly protective of their offspring. Interestingly, the wild turkey was Ben Franklin’s. choice for our national symbol, not the bald eagle.
There are many reasons for an apostasy against eating animals; you just have to decide why you want to convert and how far you want to take it. You may hold an ethical belief about the sanctity of life or think it is morally wrong to bring great pain to other animals for little pleasure to yourself. You may want to improve your health and your heart while reducing your risk of getting cancer. You may want to save precious natural resources and help solve the world hunger problem.
Whatever your reasons, and there are many to choose from, act now. When you sit down for dinner on Thursday, pass over the decapitated turkey carcass and reach for some yummy sweet potatoes, corn, biscuits, meatless stuffing and gravy, carrots, squash, green beans, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and don’t forget the apple and pumpkin pie!
And if anyone asks why you aren’t munching on a leg stump or a charred, lifeless wing, tell them what George Bernard Shaw once said about his eating habits. “Animals are my friends,” he said, “and I don’t eat my friends.”
David G. Allan is a senior journalism and philosophy major. His column appears on alternate Mondays.