Opinion: Obama’s pardoned turkeys aren’t the only ones deserving of a more humane Thanksgiving

Karen Dawn blow drying a rescued turkey
Animal welfare advocate Karen Dawn bathes and blow dries a turkey she rescued this Thanksgiving season.
(Matt Washil)

Once again, President Obama has pardoned two turkeys using  “executive action” (ha-ha) on Thanksgiving eve, ensuring that neither will be the centerpiece on anyone’s holiday table.   The White House asked Twitter followers to vote on which of the turkeys with incredibly cute names  (Mac and Cheese) should get the title of officially pardoned bird.  (“Are you on #TeamMac or #TeamCheese?”)  Cheese won. But both of the birds, nearly 5 months old, will spend the remainder of their lives on the grounds of a Virginia estate. 

Their time on that farm is probably short because most of their pardoned predecessors in  recent years died young, the National Journal reported last year. Last year’s winner, “Popcorn,” dropped dead this past summer. The real problem is that turkeys are simply bred to be overweight, all the better for eating but not for health.  

It’s nice that presidents rescue turkeys (they hardly need to be “pardoned” for anything they did) once a year.  And Obama noted this year that he liked the tradition because it was a chance, in the midst of “all the tough stuff that swirls around in this office” to take a moment and wish everyone Happy Thanksgiving.

But what’s beyond pardonable are the factory farming conditions of poultry in this country. I don’t know the conditions under which Mac and Cheese were raised, but most turkeys  are raised under gruesome conditions,  literally packed into barns, their beaks painfully trimmed, transported in crates without food or water to slaughterhouses where they are electrically shocked into unconsciousness (hopefully) before their throats are cut.  Think that’s too “graphic a description?  Read the report on the turkey industry by the Humane Society of the U.S.: “The Welfare of Animals in the Turkey Industry." 


The U.S. Department of Agriculture exempts poultry from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act -- even though we kill far more birds for food than we do other land animals,  according to Paul Shapiro, who oversees farm animal protection campaigns for the Humane Society.  “In other words,” says Shapiro, “ the typical way turkeys and chickens are slaughtered in the U.S. is so cruel that if the victims were pigs and cows, it would be illegal.”

Animal welfare advocate Karen Dawn does her own annual Thanksgiving turkey rescue each year when she manages to get two live turkeys, takes them to her Pacific Palisades house, bathes and blow dries them, and lets them hang out at her home during her vegan holiday dinner.  (I visited once for a story I was writing on Dawn. The turkeys I met were fluffy and well-behaved.)  Neighbor kids come by to see and pet them. After Thanksgiving,  Dawn will retire the birds to Farm Sanctuary in Orland, Northern California. “I do this as a fun way to send a serious message,” says Dawn about the lack of anti-cruelty standards for poultry.




Nov. 26, 8:28 p.m.: An earlier version of the article stated that animal welfare advocate Karen Dawn buys two live turkeys for her Thanksgiving turkey rescue. She does not buy the birds.


Most of us won’t go as far as Dawn does.  And most of us probably won’t forgo turkey on Thanksgiving.  But if we ate less turkey and less meat of all kinds, that would lessen the demand for those animals and the number of animals being slaughtered.  Above all, it’s unconscionable not to have higher standards for the treatment of factory farmed poultry.  We could start by simply making those farms humane. Just because an animal is destined to be food on your plate does not excuse torturing the animal before it gets to your plate.  

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