Humane Turkey? Take A Closer Look

humane turkey

Photo from a “humane” turkey slaughter shot by Unparalleled Suffering Photography. See the full sequence here

Humane Label Turkey Slaughter

In the U.S. and elsewhere, turkeys, chickens and other birds are intentionally excluded from so-called humane slaughter laws, which otherwise require that farmed animals be “stunned”— rendered insensible to pain— before their throats are slit. This means that at most commercial slaughterhouses, turkeys are merely dragged headfirst through electrified water carrying enough current to paralyze them, to make it easier to slit their throats. (One well-documented result of this is that, every year, millions of insufficiently-stunned turkeys and other birds who miss the automated throat-cutter are dumped fully conscious into a vat of scalding water that loosens their feathers for removal. They literally drown to death while being boiled alive.)

But for a handful of third-party “humane certified” labels, birds too must be stunned before slaughter. Here is what that looks like in the best case scenario. Note: the following footage is from an episode of chef Gordon Ramsay’s show The F-Word, in which he publicly broadcasts the slaughter of animals he has raised, using what are widely considered the most humane slaughter methods in practice. This video was chosen because even the most rigorous and seemingly transparent humane labels, as well as the farmers who supply them, don’t often make footage of their slaughter practices publicly available.

Please keep in mind that the idea of humane in this instance is being falsely reduced to a choice between shoving a metal prod into an animal’s mouth and electrocuting him, or shoving his head through an inverted cone and slitting his throat. When we can also choose to not kill and eat animals at all, it is misleading to call the choice to harm them anyway humane.

Small, Local, Pasture-Raised Turkey Slaughter

On many small farms, including those that advertise themselves as humane, turkeys, chickens and other birds are killed without prior stunning via the “kill cone” method; birds are inserted head-first and upside-down into a cone or funnel-type device, with their heads poking through the small end. Once they are fully restrained, their throats are slit with a sharp blade and they bleed to death (often with blood pouring over their eyes and running out of their mouths).

Here’s another well-publicized video of so-called humane turkey slaughter from a respected small farm:

The above footage represents what most small-scale humane farming advocates would consider a “high welfare” death, a best practices slaughter that “exhibits respect and care,” with appropriate solemnity for the gravity of the deed. And while there’s little doubt this turkey had a nice life (albeit a breathtakingly short one), this doesn’t change the fact that her death was unnecessary, violent, and cruel— that in her last moments of life she was frightened, confused, overpowered, and brutally killed by someone she trusted.

See my full commentary on this video here.

On the Gross Misuse of the Term “Humane”

It’s important to know that there is no legal definition of the term “humane.” Under USDA-approved welfare labels, farms and producers decide independently what practices they will call “humane,” and the USDA merely verifies that the company follows its own arbitrary standards.

Some private humane certification labels require third-party auditors to verify compliance with their standards, but even among these programs the term “humane” is not consistently defined or enforced, and some programs give certification despite gross violations.

For example, in 2014, independent farm animal welfare certifier, American Humane Certified, awarded humane labeling certification to Butterball Turkey, one of the most notorious for animal cruelty producers in the United States. Consider that only a few months earlier, an undercover investigation at Butterball hatcheries (facilities that incubate and hatch millions of turkeys for Butterball) revealed horrific abuse and mutilation of newborn turkeys. Consumer Reports has noted that American Humane Certified standards for animal treatment are in many cases practically indistinguishable from the hazy, loophole-riddled regulations that govern factory farms.

Then there are the small-scale and backyard producers, who have their own definition of what is humane. Take for example this video uploaded to youtube by a small-scale farmer posting it as a demonstration of what he thinks of as humane turkey slaughter; a video in which the turkey is, quite literally, tortured to death.

What all of these iterations of “humane” fail to take into account is that the meaning of the word humane is fundamentally opposed to harming others for unnecessary reasons.

Humane: 1. “Having or showing compassion or benevolence.” 2. “Characterized by kindness, mercy, or compassion.”

People— including doctors and health advisors all over the world— are finally beginning to catch up with what many have known for centuries: that humans have no biological need to consume animal products, and that a plant-based diet is optimal for human health. When we have plentiful access to nutritious plant-based foods, and a choice between sparing life or taking it — the only truly humane choice is the one that refrains from harming those we have no need to harm at all.

So Where Can I Find Truly Humanely Treated Turkeys?

At places like this. These turkeys were just rescued from slaughter and are shown here exploring and enjoying their first true days of freedom at Woodstock Farm Sanctuary.

About Hildy, a turkey rescued by Farm Sanctuary and featured in the clip below, Susie Coston has written, “Prevalent in our society are some deep misconceptions about turkeys: that they lack intelligence, that they don’t have personalities, that there can be no kinship between humans and these animals who appear so very different from us. For eight years, Hildy walked up to people bearing such assumptions and completely disarmed them. No one who met this bright, charismatic bird could doubt that turkeys are individuals with minds, feelings, and unique characters – individuals with whom we can have connections, individuals with whom we can share friendship.”

Better Choices

There is a wide variety of delicious turkey alternatives that can take center stage at any holiday table. Whether you’re looking for store-bought, order-online, or make-your-own options, it’s easy and delicious to veganize your favorite holiday dishes. For a great list of options, check out:

Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary’s Guide to Turkey Alternatives and Other Delicious Main Dish Ideas

One Green Planet: The Best Meatless Turkey Alternatives for Thanksgiving

Buzzfeed: 27 Vegan Thanksgiving Dishes That Will Make Meat-Eaters Drool

The Gentle Chef’s Holiday Recipes

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