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Save the 78! Turkey Story That’s Full of the Right Stuff

The Washington Post

The turkey story of the year for 1988, at least of the feathered variety, began innocently enough at 8:15 p.m., one week before Thanksgiving. Sallie Gant was driving along I-35 in north Austin when her 2-year-old son spotted an enormous truck up ahead that had a bunch of caged turkeys inside. The truck carried 2,000 turkeys, to be precise, and they were on what was supposed to be their first and only out-of-town trip, from the farm in Gonzales to the processing plant in Waco.

The littlest Gant said he wanted a better look at the gobblers, so his mother sped up slightly, angled over to the right lane and pulled alongside the movable feast, a maneuver that went unnoticed by the truck driver, who momentarily decided to take the right lane for himself. This did not work. In the crash that ensued, mother, son and trucker all escaped without injury, but the tractor-trailer was turned on its side and scores of birds died before ever gracing a table. Scores more flew the coop and escaped into the darkness of the interstate.

Central Characters

As these freedom birds huddled, confused, by the side of the road, little did they realize that they had become the central characters in a holiday drama evoking pathos, comedy and, depending on one’s perspective, a certain amount of heroism or vegetarian zeal. Remember how the whales got trapped in the ice? What happened here was a fowl version of that saga, proving once again that the American appetite for white meat, legs, gravy, sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie might be exceeded only by the appetite for anthropomorphic animal stories.

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When police arrived at the accident scene, the roadway was a peculiar mess. It is not every day that a turkey truck overturns. After chasing a few dazed hens and toms around, the officers sought help from animal rescue experts at the local Humane Society. “I, fortunately, was at home, and my people didn’t call me,” said Doyle Nordyke, executive director of the Humane Society shelter. “But they said it was quite a task. Cages were ripped apart, mangled and messed up, turkeys were strutting around, horns were blaring, brakes were screeching, diesel fuel was leaking--it was kind of comic and dangerous at the same time.”

The roundup took three hours, and the white-breasted body count went like this: about 1,600 turkeys were still caged and ready to continue the trip to Waco as soon as a replacement truck arrived from Plantation Foods. Of the rest, 78 were alive, captured and bound for the animal shelter. They were housed overnight in an outdoor pen that had been built for the shelter’s three peacocks, who generally preferred to hang out in the parking lot on the hoods of visitors’ cars.

Fate of the Turkeys

The next morning’s paper featured a front-page account of the fiasco. The writer, appreciating the story’s potential, chose to humanize the birds, characterizing the accident as a break for freedom and a serendipitous reprieve from the executioner’s blade. The tureys’ fate moved immediately into the realm of civic concern. The Humane Society started getting calls.

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What’s going to happen to the poor little creatures?

Good question, thought Nordyke.

He called Plantation Foods, the turkey people who design, raise, process and sell 6 million birds a year. An official there said it was not worth it for the company to send a truck for only 78 birds. In a gesture of expediency and good will, Plantation officials told the Humane Society to keep the turkeys and donate them to a worthy Austin charity for Thanksgiving. Nordyke and his assistants worked the phones for a few hours, and after being rejected by the Salvation Army and most of the homeless shelters (they had no way to care for or process what Nordyke described as “these live, very live, birds”), they found just the right place--the Skyline Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center, a nonprofit residential facility on a farm about 12 miles southeast of town.

Alas, 25 of the turkeys never made the trip; they were in such bad shape that the Humane Society felt obliged to euthanize them, as they say in the animal shelter business. Unsuitable for eating, these dead birds were trucked out to the landfill and buried. The favored 53 made it out to the rehab center by late that Friday afternoon and took up residence near the duck pond.

Still, the sophisticated citizenry of the capital city of Texas wanted to know: What’s going to happen to the poor little creatures? Skyline officials were stunned by the public interest.

What About Humans?

“It was ridiculous,” said Kay Tillman, assistant director of the treatment center. “Here we’ve been out here for five years housing, clothing and feeding people in need of help, and no one has ever paid any attention to the human plight. Then all of a sudden we end up with some turkeys and we are flooded with questions and phone calls about their well-being.”

Perhaps this is an appropriate time to consider the delicious ironies of this situation. Every Thanksgiving Day, according to the National Turkey Federation in Reston, Va., Americans consume 45 million turkeys. Last year, the nation’s turkey companies raised and killed 246,237,000 turkeys--one turkey born, bred and processed for every one of us. These turkeys are genetically bred to be eaten. They usually reach the processing plant after only 20 weeks of life. In their brief lives, they never leave their environmentally controlled turkey houses, which are much like henhouses, where they generally get about two square feet of space per bird. They grow more than a pound per week, and their bodies become outrageously fat in comparison with their legs.

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There is no sentimentality in the food industry. Turkey producers think of the gallinaceous bird as a product, not as a spiritual creature. “The fact is that everything the American consumer eats is killed at one time or another,” said Karl Miller of Plantation Foods. “That is the very essence of our whole food cycle.”

But it is the very essence of human nature to be contradictory in matters large and small. That is why humans can pollute the oceans and threaten the extinction of whales at the same time that they devote their attention and millions of dollars to the plight of three trapped whales. And it is why they can delight in the freedom of 53 live turkeys at the same time that they carve up 45 million dead ones.

As soon as the word went out that Skyline might send the turkeys to a meatpacker and use them as a year’s worth of food for the 60 clients at the rehabilitation center, the calls started again. The first caller, Tillman said, implied that she was a bad person for even thinking of using the birds as food.

Campaign Started

Then the animal rights groups in Austin moved into action and started a save-the-turkeys campaign. They were motivated by their distaste for carnivorous behavior in general and the factory-style treatment of commercial turkeys in particular.

Skyline officials, caught in a situation that bewildered them, eventually agreed to give 40 of the turkeys to leaders of groups known as Creature Comforts and Animal Rights Kinship, who said they would find adoptive homes for the birds where they could live out their lives in peace and security. The other 13 turkeys already had been promised to other social welfare groups for Thanksgiving dinners, so they were headed for the processing plant Wednesday morning.

As part of the deal, the animal-rights groups offered to provide a full Thanksgiving meal for the clients at Skyline. What would it be? Soybean? Tofu? Nope. “It’s going to be turkey and dressing,” Tillman said. “We would have an awful lot of disappointed people if it wasn’t. Someone comes in here to sober up, and Thanksgiving is pretty special, but it’s not as special if there isn’t a big fat turkey on the table.”


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