We work hard each year to make Thanksgiving dinner express the very best of us. We cook all day, festoon our tables and even put up with our extended families.
At Thanksgiving dinner, more so than any other meal, we are deliberate about “good eating and good thinking,” in the words of Jonathan Safran Foer. And more than any other dish, says Foer, the Thanksgiving turkey exemplifies the paradox of eating animals. Our treatment of the 45 million turkeys that spend their entire lives on factory farms and go on to serve as our Thanksgiving centerpieces is perhaps as cruel as any act man has committed against animals. Yet, puzzlingly, sharing the taste of turkey with our loved ones, feels to so many of us, as Foer points out, “good and right.”
The best traditions should be thoughtful — and it’s time we rethink the ritual of eating turkey.
We eat turkey, first and foremost, to honor tradition. Yet, if our Pilgrim and Indian forefathers were to be reincarnated this Thanksgiving Day, they would not recognize the feasts, or the turkeys, on our tables.
It is unlikely, though possible, that wild turkey was served at the first Thanksgiving dinner, which was shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag in the autumn of 1621. Indeed, turkey did not become the centerpiece of American Thanksgiving until the 1860s, when poultry companies saw a profit opportunity in sentimentalizing the bird.
It wasn’t long until poultry companies saw an opportunity in producing the birds as efficiently as possible, too. Our forefathers would undoubtedly not recognize our modern turkeys.
Turkeys — natural turkeys — are magnificent animals. They are far smarter than most of us imagine, according to Tom Savage, a poultry scientist at Oregon State University. They exhibit complex behavior, partake in intricate courtship, form strong social bonds, speak a refined language of cackles and protect their young. But with the exception of the negligible number of humanely raised turkeys, these animals are not the turkeys that we eat today. Factory farming has transformed these animals into commodities.
Factory-farmed turkeys are selectively bred to be an average of 29 pounds — 121 percent greater than the average turkey in 1929. (According to one report, modern turkeys are grown so rapidly that if a 7-pound human infant grew at the same rate, the infant would weigh 1,500 pounds in less than five months of age.) Their beaks are clipped without pain relievers in order to prevent them from hurting each other in confined spaces, a behavior induced by the psychological stress they experience in factory farms. Unlike the wild birds of yesteryear, they are unable to fly or even bear their own weight due to their size and swollen legs. They are incapable of reproducing naturally. They have never breathed fresh air. They live a fleeting 140 days, rather than the wild turkey’s average lifespan of 10 years.
On our Thanksgiving plate rests an animal that has never received a second of human kindness.
Knowing this, we must now consider whether to eat turkey this Thanksgiving. Would forgoing this tradition compromise the special holiday? Or, as Foer writes, would our Thanksgiving be enhanced?
“One of the greatest opportunities in life to live our values — or to betray them” lies in the food we eat, he writes. This is, after all, what Thanksgiving is at its core about. We reflect on the principles that guide us and reaffirm, with the people we love, what we value most deeply. If we value treating sentient creatures with basic decency, we should start applying these principles to what’s right in front of us.
I believe deciding whether to eat turkey at Thanksgiving is therefore not a problem, but an ethical opportunity we should each act on. Next week we each will have the opportunity to demonstrate our character, to add kindness to the world or to add anguish.
We will all say grace. But oh, how much more powerful it is to show it.
Viveca Morris is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .