The Life of a Thanksgiving Turkey

by | Nov 5, 2020

This year, more than 49,000,000 turkeys will be served as part of Americans’ Thanksgiving feasts. This will be the end of a short and miserable life for a bird that was once referred to by Benjamin Franklin as a “respectable bird” and a “bird of courage.” Turkeys, like chickens, are some of the most abused animals on the planet as part of the world’s food system. The average lifespan for a wild turkey is 10 years, yet domesticated turkeys, such as those on factory farms across the country, are killed at the age of 5 or 6 months. These birds do not live comfortable lives before they are slaughtered, either. Instead, they are taken from their mothers, kept in large sheds with very little light, and fed so much so quickly that many times their legs break under their own weight. Dead birds are discarded, but injured and diseased birds are still deemed safe for human consumption. This, after the birds spend their time on earth living on floors covered with feces, dead birds, and other waste. There is no benefit in keeping these areas clean on factory farms, because the turkeys are nothing more than a commodity. As noted by the Food Empowerment Project:

In industrial animal factories, turkeys know nothing of a natural life. The goal of industrial farming is to manipulate an animal’s nature to make them grow as fast as possible with the least expense. For turkeys, this flawed equation involves intense confinement, genetic engineering and a series of painful mutilations. Turkeys raised for “meat” bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors. The industry has no regard for the animals’ instincts or general well being-they are treated strictly as a commodity.”

The following are some facts about turkeys, courtesy of One Kind Planet:

  • The modern domesticated turkey descends from the wild turkey.
  • Individual turkeys have unique voices. This is how turkeys recognize each other.
  • Turkeys have the ability to learn the precise details of an area over 1,000 acres in size.
  • Like peacocks, male turkeys puff up their bodies and spread their elaborate feathers to attract a mate.
  • Wild turkeys are able to fly at up to 55 mph, however only for relatively short distances. Most domestic turkeys however are unable to fly due to being selectively bred to be larger than would be suitable in wild circumstances.
  • The male is substantially larger than the female, and his feathers have areas of red, purple, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence. Female feathers are duller overall, in shades of brown and grey.
  • The area of bare skin on a turkey’s throat and head vary in color depending on its level of excitement and stress. When excited, a male turkey’s head turns blue, when ready to fight it turns red.
  • The turkey is believed to have been sacred in ancient Mexican cultures. The Mayans, Aztecs and Toltecs referred to the turkey as the ‘Great Xolotl’, viewing them as ‘jewelled birds.’


Turkeys are intelligent and affectionate animals, who enjoy having their feathers stroked and are able to recognize the faces and voices of people. They have multiple ways to communicate, utilizing different sounds to vocalize to other turkeys. This behavior is very similar to that of dogs, but we would never think of making a dog the centerpiece of a holiday gathering. Tradition is one thing, but clearly the cruelty inherent in the farming of these beautiful creatures is something that should be considered when planning a meal. This year, why not consider an alternative? There are numerous commercial products that mimic the taste and texture of turkey without the cruelty, from companies such as Tofurkey, Gardein, and Trader Joe’s, to name a few:


Aimee Douglass is the Director of Compassionate Living. Aimee works in the healthcare industry and has a bachelors degree in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and a masters degree in Communications with a health care focus from Southern New Hampshire University.

Abhi Nadendla is a blogger at HAP and has been volunteering at the organization since late 2022. She is a student at the University of Pittsburgh and loves spending her free time helping out at animal shelters.

Hannah Lewis is a grant writer and blogger from Pittsburgh’s North Side who has been with HAP since 2020. In addition to writing and advocating for animals, she enjoys hiking, cooking plant-based meals, bouldering at her local climbing gym, and curling up with a good book and her long-haired cat, Freyja.

Kelly Frantz has recently joined the HAP family as a blog writer. She is passionate about animal protection and is excited to educate the community about animal welfare.