When I was growing up, eating turkey on Thanksgiving was just… “normal.” I didn’t give it a second thought, except maybe when my Grandma took the insides of the turkey out so she could put the stuffing in.
That all changed on my 30th birthday, which happened to fall on Thanksgiving. I had read Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet, and I had learned so much about how animals suffer: chickens locked in tiny cages, pigs mutilated without pain relief, and fish suffocated on commercial fishing vessels. So I went vegan.
This Thanksgiving, 45 million turkeys will be killed across the country. Now that I’ve taken the time to actually meet turkeys and learn about them, that statistic breaks my heart.
I remember one rescued turkey in particular. I met him at Farm Sanctuary, a shelter for abused and neglected farm animals. His name was Turpentine, and he loved to be held and petted—just like a dog. As turkeys like Turpentine ate from my hand, I saw how these social, loving animals truly do have personalities all of their own.
"This Thanksgiving, 45 million turkeys will be killed across the country. Now that I’ve taken the time to actually meet turkeys and learn about them, that statistic breaks my heart."
In nature, turkeys happily spend their days tending to their young, dustbathing, and hanging out in the same trees they sleep in at night. Every morning before descending from their branches, wild turkeys utter a sequence of soft yelps just to make sure their flock mates are OK. Mother turkeys are so protective that they will readily die defending their young from predators. This is partly why baby turkeys stay with their mothers for the first five months of their lives.
But virtually all turkeys raised for food are factory farmed and slaughtered at around five months old. In fact, the turkeys we eat are bred to grow so unnaturally large in such a short time that many suffer hip joint lesions and heart problems. And the nightmare doesn’t stop there. Deeply empathic animals who often mourn the deaths of flock mates, turkeys sometimes have heart attacks when they witness the violent deaths of fellow birds. Those who live long enough to be slaughtered are often scalded alive; production lines move so fast that workers frequently can’t kill the birds before they’re dropped, completely conscious, into feather-removal tanks.
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Unfortunately, this horrific suffering is considered standard and acceptable by the animal agriculture industry. But the cruelty goes even further. I know this because my employer is Mercy For Animals, an animal protection charity working to expose and stop animal abuse at factory farms and slaughterhouses.
MFA’s undercover investigations into Butterball resulted in the first-ever felony conviction for cruelty to factory-farmed birds after we documented workers punching, kicking, and throwing turkeys. These tragic investigations revealed toes and beaks cut or burned off of unsedated turkeys, baby birds ground up alive in giant macerators, and wounded animals left to die slow, painful deaths. But when it comes to factory farming in America, Butterball is the rule, not the exception.
So this holiday, I must ask: Why take part in animal abuse when you don’t have to, especially when eating meat increases risk of high cholesterol, antibiotic resistance, heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes, hormonal imbalance, and premature death?
Thankfully, Thanksgiving might be the perfect day to start eating cruelty-free; your traditional sides, like mashed potatoes, string bean casserole, and stuffing are just as delicious and easy to prepare vegan. Replace turkey with whichever cruelty-free centerpiece you prefer—stuffed squash, vegan wellington, and a plant-based roast are all great options. (My top recommendations are Field Roast’s Celebration Roast and Gardein’s Holiday Roast.) Options abound at your local Safeway or Whole Foods and at my favorite Denver vegan shop, NOOCH.
I’m proud to say that about 80 percent of the family I join for Thanksgiving is now also vegan. We learned the truth about factory farming as a family, and once we did, choosing compassion brought us closer together. Now we celebrate life on Thanksgiving.