It's a week before Thanksgiving, but Tammy Parker is already stuffing her turkey -- not with breadcrumbs, celery and onions but with a twice-daily dose of antibiotics to treat an infected left foot. Forcing a sick dog to swallow a pill is child's play compared to getting a plastic syringe into the beak of a squirming, 40-pound gobbler.
"Supposedly, you can roll turkeys over on their backs and they get kind of hypnotized so you can do this to them, but I haven't really tried that yet," Parker explains, struggling with the uncooperative bird. Her first squirt of the pink, milky fluid splatters on his feathers and the barn floor. But with a deft maneuver, her second shot scores a direct hit, right down the gullet. Parker smiles and gently strokes the animal's puffy white chest. Once released from her grasp, the turkey struts away nonchalantly.
This particular male, who is named Sparkler, Acorn or Elijah -- Parker admits she sometimes has trouble telling her turkeys apart -- was rescued from a commercial turkey farm in Pennsylvania. He is one of four she adopted as pets shortly before Thanksgiving last year from Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York, the nation's largest shelter for abused and neglected farm animals. Each year during the holidays, Farm Sanctuary runs an Adopt-a-Turkey program. Though Parker had never before raised birds, let alone poultry, she figured she would just, well, wing it.
"It's funny how people make a separation between farm animals and these kinds of animals," Parker says, petting her golden retriever, Jack. "People let their dogs and cats sleep in their beds and eat off their plates and [they] buy them ice cream cones in the summer. But yet a farm animal they think nothing of."
Parker, a 33-year-old vocational rehab counselor, lives in Monkton on a six-acre farm that has practically become an animal sanctuary of its own. In the last few years she has adopted six rabbits, four goats, two sheep, two miniature donkeys, three cats and two dogs, many of which were rescued from abuse or neglect. But when Parker took in the turkeys, she quickly realized that it's not easy caring for animals most people think of as entrees.
For example, she discovered that local feed stores only carry turkey food formulated to grow them rapidly or fatten them for slaughter. These particular turkeys, which were genetically engineered to be oven roasters, grow abnormally large breasts so rapidly that they have trouble standing up under their own weight. If a human infant grew at the same rate, within 18 weeks it would weigh 1500 pounds. In fact, their breasts get so large that the males of this breed can no longer reproduce naturally -- they are physically unable to mount the females.
As a result, these ungainly fowl are susceptible to a host of health problems, such as respiratory infections and heart failure. They're kept in their own pen because a mere jostle from one of Parker's pygmy goats could break their legs or joints. In the last year alone, Parker has shelled out a few hundred dollars in medical bills trying to rid them of lice and bacterial infections.
One day shortly after she adopted them, Parker went out to the barn and discovered that Finnegan, one of the four turkeys, had fallen over and couldn't get up. She knew right away he would have to be put down.
"I called a few vets but no one knew how to euthanize a turkey, because people just don't do it," Parker recalls. "They just slaughter them." Eventually, she found a vet clinic that knew the procedure, but it took several attempts because they didn't have a needle long enough to pierce the turkey's thick breast and reach its heart. Adding insult to injury, when Parker later asked someone to help her bury it, he suggested, half-seriously, that he take it home for dinner instead. Parker was not amused.
By now, she's accustomed to all the dinner jokes about her birds, though they've gotten a bit old. More importantly, Parker says, she's developed a new respect for these goofy-looking but affectionate creatures.
"They're very social and very sweet," she says, adding that in larger broods, turkeys establish a complex pecking order and can recognize dozens of other turkeys by the various sounds they make. Parker says her turkeys will gather along the fence and watch her play fetch with her dogs, occasionally letting out a loud gobble gobble gobble during the game. She recalls one time when the turkeys gobbled whenever her friend revved the motor on his hedge clippers. He laughed so hard he almost fell off his ladder.
Watching these white, bulbous birds strut clumsily around the barn on their skinny legs, balanced as precariously as volleyballs on golf tees, it's easy to see why some people have trouble thinking of them as pets. Their dark, piercing eyes and red, wrinkled heads -- which turn dark blue when they're agitated -- make them look like disgruntled old men. And the black, stringy beards protruding from their barrel chests feel about as soft and cuddly as a frayed rope.
Still, Parker points out that turkeys do make good pets. They quickly learn to recognize their owners, don't mind being touched -- unlike some pet birds -- are good with children and don't smell, as long as their pens are cleaned regularly.
Anyone who has ever visited, or even driven past, an industrial turkey farm would wrinkle their nose skeptically about that last claim. Those facilities can pack tens of thousands of genetically identical birds into crowded, putrid sheds, often with no more than three square feet of standing room for each bird, and limited access to fresh air and water. To keep the turkeys from pecking and scratching each other to death, their toes and beak tips are sliced off, a procedure done without anesthetics. As a result, those that find eating too painful simply starve to death. The rest can spend the rest of their lives mired in their own waste, which gives off ammonia fumes that burn their eyes and lungs.
When the turkeys finally reach slaughter weight, they can be transported live for hours, even days, without access to food or water, since turkeys are specifically exempt from federal animal-abuse protections. The entire process, from artificial insemination until slaughter, inflicts a host of other painful, cruel and unsanitary procedures on these creatures.
Some people dismiss such concerns as the sentimental nonsense of bleeding-heart city-dwellers -- incidentally, Parker grew up next door to her grandfather's cattle farm in Bridport, "nursing calves and stealing kittens from the haymow." But even the most vociferous carnivores cannot ignore the considerable environmental and public-health consequences created by industrial poultry farms.
Ironically, the rapid proliferation of factory farming in the United States has occurred largely because of the widely held belief that turkey meat is inherently healthier than red meat. In 1970, Americans consumed, on average, only about 6.5 pounds of turkey per person annually. Thirty years later, that number had more than tripled. Today, somewhere between 260 million and 300 million turkeys are slaughtered in the United States each year -- 45 million just before Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service notes that both the number and size of food recalls have increased dramatically in the last decade. Between 1993 and 1996, the number of "Class I" recalls -- that is, meat and poultry products that could have caused serious illness or death -- totaled about 1.5 million pounds annually. For the period from 1997 to 2000, however, that number had jumped to 24 million pounds.
Admittedly, some of those increases can be attributed to stricter food-safety laws and better inspection and detection methods. But the fact remains that food-borne illnesses and deaths in the U.S. are on the rise, largely due to the assembly-line nature of poultry production. Food safety experts now warn that as much as 90 percent of all American poultry is contaminated with salmonella and/or campylobacter, both of which can cause deadly food poisoning. Not surprisingly, at least 5000 people die and another 76 million get ill in this country from food-borne contaminants each year.
As for the ethics of eating animals, Parker, a vegetarian, doesn't pass judgment on other people's dietary choices. "I don't like to preach to people and say what you should or shouldn't do. If you want to eat meat, that's your business," she says. "But when it comes to abusing an animal, I have a hard time with it."
Instead, Parker simply believes in giving people the facts and letting them decide for themselves. Lately, she's been trying to develop a business that teaches people, especially children, about the humane treatment of animals, from responsible pet ownership and dog-bite prevention to making informed choices about the food they buy. As she puts it, quoting Gandhi, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."
With the holidays upon us, Parker is prepared for the gentle ribbing she'll get from the hunters and meat-eaters in her family. And while some of them might believe there's room for all of God's creatures right next to the mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, Parker says she's making progress. This year, for example, her mother agreed to buy an organic, free-range turkey for Thanksgiving, even though it cost her twice as much. "One step at a time, I guess."