York: This Thanksgiving, consider the turkey

Something in me came unglued one Thanksgiving day. My mom tried to serve me a Cornish game hen, a little bird. But I loved my dog, and I questioned why I should love one animal but eat another. So I became a vegetarian. I was only 5 years old.

As a vegetarian kid, it was easy to feel like an outsider, even within my own family. The worst day was usually Thanksgiving. It was horrible and sad, on multiple levels, watching the people I loved and respected eating an individual who'd wanted to live.

What I intuited as a child is true: These birds are deeply feeling and social animals being denied a normal life. Instead of spending their days as they would in the wild — caring for their babies, foraging for food, napping on tree branches, and roaming the hundreds of acres they typically inhabit — turkeys at factory farms are trapped in a living nightmare.

Many of the turkeys Americans eat have been selectively bred to grow so big so fast that they commonly suffer deformities, debilitating leg pain, and heart defects. Often immobile, they are made to lie in their own filth in crowded sheds. These animals are sensitive and intelligent beings — in the wild, they even mourn the deaths of flockmates — so is it any wonder that many have heart attacks while watching their fellow birds being slaughtered? If the turkeys manage to survive until slaughter, their nightmare continues. Production lines move so fast that some turkeys are scalded to death when workers can't kill the birds before they are dropped, completely awake, into feather-removal tanks.

Disturbingly, everything I'm describing is considered standard practice and is totally legal in the U.S., where farmed animals are the victims of legal loopholes that leave them few protections. What's more, the cruelty doesn't end there.

I'm now a lawyer at Mercy For Animals, an animal protection charity working to end animal abuse at factory farms and slaughterhouses. MFA's undercover investigations into Butterball, the nation's largest turkey producer, documented workers punching, kicking, and throwing turkeys. These heartrending investigations exposed birds having their toes and beaks cut or burned off without sedation and baby birds being ground alive. These abuses, many of which went beyond what is legally permitted at factory farms, resulted in the first-ever felony conviction for cruelty to factory-farmed birds. Unfortunately, the abuse at Butterball is not unique in the world of factory farming.

But change is possible.

These days, Thanksgiving with my family is held at my house. We celebrate the holiday with traditional dishes like mashed potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts, cornbread, stuffing, and pumpkin pie—all of which can easily be made vegan. As for the turkey itself, that's simple to replace with any centerpiece we want—stuffed squash, a vegan Wellington, or a plant-based roast are all great options. My top recommendations is the Celebration Roast by Field Roast and Gardein's Holiday Roast. My family members never leave the house hungry; that's for sure.

You can easily order vegan Thanksgiving alternatives for delivery online, or check out some of my favorite local shops in our area, like Brattleboro Food Co-op and Dottie's Discount Foods. Your local Price Chopper or Shaw's will also have everything you need to put together a plant-based feast.

In the end, I believe that veganism can go beyond how we see our relationship with animals and our food. It has the power to change the way we understand our relationship with each other and the world. We can move away from equating abundance with death and domination, and instead feel lucky that we have the power to come together in peace. This Thanksgiving, we can reconsider what gratitude means to us — and whether someone really has to die for that feeling to be achieved.

Meg York is a staff attorney at Mercy For Animals. She lives in Guilford. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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