Each year a litany of sarcasm accompanies the sentimentality of Thanksgiving
by Karen Davis, Ph.D., president, United Poultry Concerns
“Nothing so unites us as gathering with one mind to murder someone we hate, unless it is coming together to share in a meal.” – Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner, p. 33.
The turkey & the eagle in American myth
The turkey is not America’s official national bird; the bald eagle of North America was adopted by the U.S. Congress in 1782. However, the turkey has become an American symbol, rivaling the eagle in actual, if not formal, significance. The turkey is ceremonially linked to Thanksgiving, the oldest holiday in the United States. Yet, unlike the eagle, the turkey is not a symbol of power and prestige.
Nor, despite frequent claims, is there any evidence that Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) seriously promoted the turkey as the national bird –– more “respectable” than the bald eagle –– except as a passing jest in a letter to his married daughter, Sarah Bache, on January 26, 1784, two years after Congress had already adopted the bald eagle.
While the wild turkey has a long history of involvement with Native American, Colonial American, and European cultures, today the bird is invoked primarily in order to disparage commercially raised factory-farm turkeys. Little has changed since the consumer newsletter Moneysworth snarked on November 26, 1973:
“When Audubon painted it, it was a sleek, beautiful, though odd-headed bird, capable of flying 65 miles per hour. . . . Today, the turkey is an obese, immobile thing, hardly able to stand, much less fly. As for respectability, the big bird is so stupid that it must be taught to eat.”
Each year, this litany of sarcasm accompanies the sentimentality around Thanksgiving. Each year, the media ridicule the Thanksgiving Day bird. If yesterday it was certain ethnic populations and foreigners we insulted –– a bigotry resurgent in the 21st century –– today we can count on the likelihood that, as usual at Thanksgiving, turkeys will be exposed to humiliation and insult.
Strange mixture of honor & hatred
Thanksgiving has other functions, but one thing it does is to formalize a desire to kill someone we hate and make a meal out of that someone. In this role, the turkey dinner is not far distant from a cannibal feast, in what Eli Sagan called that “strange mixture of honor and hatred” in which not a few cultures in history have disposed of their enemies and relatives in ceremonial fashion.
Many people to whom I mention this “hatred of the turkey” idea say they never noticed it before, or if they did, they gave it no thought. Such obliviousness illustrates, in part, the idea that the “most successful examples of manipulation are those which exploit practices which clearly meet a felt – not necessarily a clearly understood – need among particular bodies of people,” according to Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger on page 307 of The Invention of Tradition.
In the case of Thanksgiving, the need is not so much to eat a turkey, a patriotic obligation that many people reject, but to rationalize an activity that, despite every effort to make the turkey seem more like a turnip, has purposely failed to obliterate the bird into just meat. To do so would diminish the bird’s dual role in creating the full Thanksgiving experience.
“Performance of killing” must be “seen” to be real
To affect people properly, a sacrificial animal must not only be eaten by them; the animal’s death must be “witnessed by them, and not suffered out of sight as we now arrange matters.”
But since this is how we now arrange matters –– the current do-it-yourself slaughter fetish notwithstanding –– attention must somehow be “deliberately drawn, by means of ritual and ceremony” to the reality of the animal’s life and the “performance of killing,” observes Margaret Visser in her survey of eating customs from prehistory to the present, The Rituals of Dinner.
This is why, to be ritually meaningful, the turkey continues to be culturally constructed as a sacred player in our drama about ourselves as a nation, at the same time that we insist that the bird is a nobody, an anonymous “production animal.”
For Visser, what is meant by “sacrifice” is literally the “making sacred” of an animal consumed for dinner. No wonder that mentioning cannibalism in connection with eating turkeys or any other animals provokes a storm of protest, since as she says, cannibalism to the Western mind is “massively taboo,” more damnable than incest.
However, cannibalism, transposed to the consumption of a nonhuman animal, is a critical, if largely unconscious, component of America’s Thanksgiving ritual.
America knows at some level that it has to manage its portion of humanity’s primeval desire to have “somebody” suffer and die ritualistically for the benefit of the community or the nation, at a time when the consumption of nonhuman animals has become morally problematic in the West, as well as industrialized to the point where the eaters can barely imagine the animals involved in their meal.
It is ironic, Visser says on page 32, that “people who calmly organize daily hecatombs of beasts, and who are among the most death-dealing carnivores the world has ever seen, are shocked by the slaughtering of animals in other cultures.”
- In nature, baby turkeys are taught how to forage for food by their mothers. Deprived of the maternal care and teachings they evolved to experience in the company of their mothers for their first five months of life, newborn turkeys suffer unimaginably on factory farms. Not only are they bereft of their mothers; they are declawed and their beaks are painfully mutilated with blades or lasers as soon as they hatch in the mechanical incubators from which they proceed to a life of merciless, bewildering misery for three to five months, until those who survive the ordeal are murdered in a slaughterhouse. A turkey researcher summed up the newborn turkeys’ experience in the first hours of hatching: “Essentially, they have been through major surgery. They have been traumatized” (Donaldson). These “major surgeries” are inflicted on the turkeys without anesthesia or post-surgical pain killers.
2) Margaret Visser writes on page 33 of The Rituals of Dinner that myths about sacrifice “often tell us that the animal killed and eaten takes the place of the original sacrificial offering, a human being. . . . Animals, according to this apprehension, are surrogates, substitutes for members of our own species whom we once joined in killing.” Visser notes also the traditional “eliciting of signs that the animal does not mind dying to feed us.” On the one hand we relish the exertion of absolute power over an animal who does not want to die. On the other hand we like the idea that an animal desires to suffer and die for the sake of the “superior” species.
Karen Davis. More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality. New York: Lantern Books, 2001.
William E. Donaldson, et al. “Early Poult Mortality: The Role of Stressors and Diet.” Turkey World (January-February), 27-29. See p. 138 of Karen Davis’s More Than a Meal.
Eric Hobsbawn, and Terrence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
“The Light and Dark Sides of Thanksgiving Turkey.” Moneysworth: The Consumer Newsletter 4.4 (November 26, 1973), 1-2.
Matt Novak. “Did Ben Franklin Want the Turkey to Be Our National Symbol?” GIZMODO, November 20, 2014.
Eli Sagan. Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form. New York: The Psychohistory Press, 1974.
Margaret Visser. The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.
Karen Davis says
Once again, I thank you for publishing an article I have written about turkeys and their experiences, both on their own terms and in terms of their depictions by people for whom they
tend to serve as projections for all sorts of bizarre rituals and attitudes that I hope are starting to shift toward more caring and accurate understandings. I particularly want to thank Beth Clifton for her arresting artwork. Beth’s collages and photographs vivify the stories and situations that I and others represent on Animals 24-7. Thank you, Merritt and Beth!
Karen Davis, President, United Poultry Concerns http://www.upc-online.org
Jamaka Petzak says
Sharing with gratitude and, as always, hope that reading will lead to thought and even to a change in attitude and practices.
According to my neighbors who buy baby turkeys and raise them, some chicks are included with the turkeys to teach them to eat. As the turkeys get bigger than the chicks and annoy them, the chicks are removed.
You mentioned declawing turkeys. Which claws are removed? Why is this done?
I personally don’t think the turkeys are being bred and raised to be obese. Rather, they are bred to have enormous breast muscles. It’s those same enormous breast muscles that prevent turkeys from breeding naturally. All of these turkeys are the result of artificial insemination. That has been true for many decades.
It’s my understanding that turkey breeders have attempted to breed turkeys with better legs because if the turkey is unable to walk, it is condemned. Obviously that is a financial loss to the producer.
Karen Davis says
The turkey industry uses the term de-toeing to describe cutting off the birds’ toe nails so they can’t scratch one another in case of a panic or for whatever reason they could be driven to pile up on each other and get scratches or injuries that could mar the skin. It isn’t for the birds’ welfare, but to have a marketable product.
We’ve adopted several turkeys over the years from factory-farming backgrounds, and they’ve all been declawed/de-toed, making it harder from them to walk normally on the ground and to forage, since they can’t get a grip, and their balance is affected.
Many turkeys bred for breast muscle tissue can’t walk, or barely. Many move by walking on their wing tips. I doubt the large number of lame turkeys would be condemned for human consumption, since that would be a huge percentage of the turkeys who have been fed already, and feed is the highest cost of raising them, about 70 percent.
As you say, turkeys (like chickens and Pekin ducks) are bred for breast muscle. but the breedina affects every part of their bodies adversely including adding to the number of fat cells they have, compared with normal turkeys.
Karen Davis, President, United Poultry Concerns http://www.upc-online.org/turkeys
Marilee Meyer says
Thank you, Karen, for this article. I usually enjoy Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, but the other night he indulged in a lengthy monologue of exactly the kind of mocking, ignorant, and hateful description of turkeys that you describe. I felt sickened, hurt, and offended. It’s not bad enough, apparently, that our species treats other beings with such extreme cruelty and disdain. but we also make things worse by making them the butt of our grotesque sense of humor. Thanks, Karen, for being a voice of compassion, and thank you to Merritt and Beth for sharing this.
Karen Davis, PhD says
Thank you, Marilee, and Animals 24-7 for re-sharing my article on the plight of turkeys in human society. I didn’t see Stephen Colbert’s mocking monologue on turkeys, and don’t want to.
I was motivated to write my book “More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality” (Lantern Books, 2001) by becoming acquainted with several rescued turkeys in our sanctuary, and by the mean sarcastic and obscene media foreplay leading up to and including TG Day each year in the U.S. Nothing has changed in 21 years since then that I can see. In fact, there was a certain spate of media interest in the 1990s, in sanctuaries feeding turkeys instead of eating them, that seems to have dissipated since then. Probably in part because the conventional media want only bland “human interest” stories as a kind of “balance” to the standard fare.
A few days ago, I was interviewed by a journalist with a semi-conventional publication who wanted to know how or what I thought a turkey thinks about the experience of “participating” in the Presidential Pardoning Ceremony each year. A big question looking for a quick answer, then on to “can you put me in touch with a poultry researcher,” presumably to balance with “science” the view of an animal advocate – “fact” versus “emotion.”
Look at the footage on our homepage of a county in Indiana taken by a local resident of the massive turkey production complexes in that county, and the truckloads of turkeys caged on the flatbed trucks in freezing temperatures whizzing along the roads. http://www.upc-online.org
It won’t help our victims, but a Day of Reckoning is long overdue that predictably will never come to pass.
Marilee, I’ve seen Samantha Bee do the same thing. Ironically, the rest of her monologue was a passionate defense of progressive ideals, but as soon as she brought up turkeys, it’s as if her attitude was yanked backwards multiple generations.
It seems this sort of “humor” seems to be a fallback for commentators who come from a political POV especially. It’s as if they are trying to make common cause with not only their fans, but those who disagree with them on all other topics: “Hey, we’re constantly fighting with each other on everything else, but to hell with farm animals, am I right?!”
S Chinny Krishna says
Dear Dr. Davis
Thank you for an extremely well written and reasoned piece.
Laurella Desborough says
I like turkeys and all birds. A friend sent me a dozen new hatched Eastern wild turkeys, which I raised. All of them DID know how to eat without a problem. So I have to wonder if the DOMESTIC bred turkeys are the ones who do not know how to eat as chicks OR if those observing them expect them to be eating soon after hatching. That is not what happens with most birds. Some do not eat for the first 24 hours after hatch. In the case of this dozen wild turkey poults, they proceeded to eat their food just fine. They were interesting to raise and fun. The males at just a few weeks old would drop their wings and raise their tiny tails and march around just as the adult males do. These turkeys were NOT raised for food, but for living their lives and that was their destiny. I don’t raise or kill creatures for food. I don’t even kill spiders and snakes! I think maintaining the network of life on the planet is very important.
Though the elders in my family did this just like their peers, I have not “celebrated” “thanksgiving” since becoming aware of its history and meaning; and as before, I am sharing with gratitude and hope, however slight, that some, at least, will read thoughtfully and make compassionate and informed changes.
Doris Muller says
Animals-as-food “may” have started out of need, but it continues out of GREED and SELFishness. In today’s values, and knowledge, animals-as-food is strictly business for PROFIT. Thanks”giving” has become a National Day of Turkey Slaughter! And, unfortunately, many give “thanks” for the freedom to do Satan’s work.
In all U.S. states, animal cruelty is a violation of law unless the cruelty and slaughter are necessary for a business to PROFIT. Government will not outlaw this faction of enormous, intense animal cruelty because it would demand for this type of business to cease–heaven knows that a PROFIT business is more important than the life of an innocent victim.