Whilst not quite the Christmas gift I had imagined, the early morning call to advise that our Christmas presents were at the front gate set me off with a spring in my step, excited anticipation in my heart and a whisper of sleep in my eye. With the sun still thinking about making her ascent, and through the fading moonlight, two very large boxes greeted me. As I stared quizzically at them, my attention was diverted by the sound of tyres crunching gravel as a car sped off down the road and ten glorious, chirping baby turkeys came into my world.
Soon each one of them was lifted from the box, weighed, feet soaked in disinfectant, bodies sprayed for parasites and a kiss bestowed on each of their fuzzy, sweet heads—and I was yet again reminded of just how much I love turkeys. While their warm bodies with their soft feathers warmed my heart, the sight of the crippled stumps of their feet that once held their toes made me want to weep. How could we? How could our society allow for such a painful disfigurement of baby animals, which only added to the woes, their tiny beaks having been seared off when they were just days old.
Over the coming days, we would introduce the turkeys to many things: sunshine, watermelon, a new home for two of the dear babies and, needless to say, kindness. While at first the turkeys feverishly huddled together, with backs hunched and little interest in the world, this persona soon gave way to curious, forthright and confident birds, whose sole aim was to explore every inch of their new world, determining which parts were edible and which parts demanded climbing (the later being quickly identified as people’s laps). Turkeys really are an animal who needs to be met to be fully appreciated. Their wide-eyed wonder, gentle innocence and proud dignity are certain to leave you in no doubt they are so much more than the centrepiece of a Christmas feast. One of my greatest regrets in life is not having met a turkey sooner, as I am sure both the turkey and I would have been better for the meeting.
Despite these lucky turkeys being spared the grizzly fate that is certain to meet their siblings, we were, alas, unable to save “Wee-one” from the ravages imposed upon her kind through selective breeding, which sees “farmed” turkeys far removed from their wild cousins, so much so that these birds are unable to breed naturally. Human intervention not only gives these magnificent beings their stark white colour (a camouflage-less colour that bestows no survival advantage to the bird, only a pleasant sight to our sensibilities) but also a rapid growth rate that their immature bodies struggle to cope with. One of the tragic spin-offs from this are health and welfare issues that beggar belief. In the case of Wee-one, it was tumours, several of which had invaded her abdominal cavity and advanced in growth to such an extent her intestinal system could not do its job and no amount of surgical intervention was going to be able to persuade it to do so.
It is a sad fact that for turkeys such as these, industry and consumer demand ensures that every inch of their lives is as unnatural as it is controlled. Living en masse in over-crowded sheds with thousands of other birds, their frustration peaks. Combatting this is routine debeaking and foot trimming. Artificial lighting distorts normal sleeping and feeding patterns and a total lack of enrichment and nesting/bedding opportunities ensures nothing is natural about their short and miserable lives (most turkeys are killed at 10 to 14 weeks). Hock and breast burns can manifest from contact with the faeces-ridden and ammonia-rich litter that is their world. Weakened immune systems struggle to cope—and our animal protection legislation does little to help.
On the latter, there comes a glimmer of hope, with a recent announcement from the Victorian Government of a range of animal welfare reforms, including a new public sector group called Animal Welfare Victoria, a new Animal Welfare Action Plan, and a review of the state’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, with changes to recognise the sentience of animals, based on strong evidence that animals fear and feel pain. We also greatly welcome the long-awaited review of the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry, which is currently at the public consultation stage, and trust the spirit of Victoria’s reforms will influence our national standards. To have your say and speak up for turkeys and all our feathered friends during this consultation period, please visit http://www.animalwelfarestandards.net.au/poultry/
Beyond heartbreaking is the necessity to euthanise critically ill baby animals like Wee-one, simply because of the way our species has bred them. While such a circumstance never ceases to both enrage and sadden us, it also empowers us to share with the world the stories of these stoic animals, gives us hope because someone chose to follow their heart and save them, and reminds us that the greatest gift we can possibly ever give—one that has no monetary value but lingers far longer than most things imaginable and is welcomed by all, transcending species—is the gift of kindness.