“Her Face Is Half Gone!” Why Baby Turkeys Are Starving On The President's Farm

11/22/2016 12:49 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2016
Distressed birds filled the barns at the White House’s turkey farm. We named this one Avery.
Distressed birds filled the barns at the White House’s turkey farm. We named this one Avery.

“My god, what happened to her face?”

It’s the middle of the night, and I’m with a team of activists from the Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) Open Rescue Network on the White House’s turkey farm. And we’re all in shock at what we’re seeing. The top half of the little bird’s face is flattened, as if pounded in with a sledge hammer. Her beak, which birds use the way we use our hands, is a shriveled stump covered in scars.

“How has she survived?” I whisper. “Can she even eat?”

She is a midget, just one fourth the size of the other birds. Her slow movements show the toll of malnutrition. This baby bird is starving to death. And it’s all happening at a “free range” Whole Foods turkey farm.

Disturbed by what you’ve read? Sign the petition asking President Obama to pardon all the White House turkeys!

Mass mutilation and starvation are the dark secrets of our Thanksgiving turkey. And these practices occur, not just at Walmart or Costco, but at Jaindl Farms, supplier to the White House and Whole Foods. President Obama has sung Jaindl’s praises. Whole Foods touts Jaindl’s turkeys as “free range” and “global animal partnership certified.” Even major animal welfare organizations have been duped into applauding Jaindl’s supposed commitment to animal welfare.

But here’s the truth.

Every baby turkey born at Jaindl is greeted into this Earth the same way, by burning her face. The industry must do this because the alternative is even worse: birds with intact beaks tearing each other to pieces as they go insane from confinement. (Even on so-called free-range farms, 25 pound birds typically get less than 2.5 square feet of space each, about the size of a small floor mat.) Around ten percent of the birds die before they reach slaughter, often starving to death because they are in too much pain from debeaking. But, to the industry, this is better than losing 100% from the birds cannibalizing one another. Indeed, death from starvation is so common that the industry has a term for it: “starveout.”

Avery was starving and just one fourth the size of the other birds on the farm.
Avery was starving and just one fourth the size of the other birds on the farm.

How is this possible at a supposedly “humane” farm? Quite simply, because no one bothers to check that anything the industry says is true.

This is partly a self-inflicted injury. Influenced by corporate grants from giants such as Whole Foods, animal advocates have moved towards self-regulation -- i.e. voluntary corporate commitments to implement more “humane” practices, such as cage-free eggs -- despite compelling evidence that, well, self-regulation doesn’t work. To the contrary, from finance to coffee, corporations have used self-regulation as a tool to ward off real regulation and co-opt progressive movements. “We’ve got the problem solved,” the CEOs say. “No need for you to worry any longer.” But with no accountability, progress is just an illusion. A prior DxE open rescue found that a certified humane Costco farm was, in fact, filled with rotting animals and cannibalism. And deceptive “humane” marketing has been accompanied by the largest increases in per capita meat consumption in 40 years.

Fraud in animal welfare is also a failure of government. Voters do not want animals tortured, or to be deceived when they are shopping. Yet the rules of the game have been set up to ensure those outcomes. Turkeys, for example, are not even considered “animals” under federal animal cruelty law. (One wonders how USDA officials passed first grade biology.) And the Meat Inspection Act bars consumers from taking action to stop fraud at stores like Whole Foods. (Courts have held that ‘misbranding’ of meat products is the exclusive domain of the federal USDA, pre-empting other parties, even governmental bodies, from taking action.) Government, in short, is not just asleep at the wheel but complicit in the fraud.

We built a wheelchair for Avery, but most sick or injured birds receive no care.
We built a wheelchair for Avery, but most sick or injured birds receive no care.

But most of all, the failure of animal welfare is one of our culture. We all look at violence against animals with disgust. And we look at the Thanksgiving turkey feast with joy. Yet those two scenes are flip sides of exactly the same coin. We cannot have one without the other. Only years of socialization under bizarre cultural norms -- norms that abhor violence against animals… unless it’s for dinner -- allow this tension to be ignored.

But a house built on a weak foundation will eventually fall. Philosophers have found that inconsistent moral beliefs are almost always resolved, over the long run, in the direction of truth -- what John Rawls called “reflective equilibrium.” And as more pressure and attention is placed on animal agriculture, people are reconciling their conflicting beliefs on animals by showing increasing support for animal rights. Indeed, a remarkable 32% of Americans now say that animals should have “the same rights as people.” That is higher than support for marriage equality just 20 years ago.

Avery, re-learning to walk and stand. When Americans meet birds like Avery, they fall in love and want them protected from ha
Avery, re-learning to walk and stand. When Americans meet birds like Avery, they fall in love and want them protected from harm.

A generation from now, then, perhaps activists will no longer have to sneak on farms to save a handful of dying animals from the President’s turkey farm. Because, as a movement for animal rights grows, and truly effective legal protections (including a constitutional bill of rights for animals) are passed, all the slaughterhouses in the nation will have disappeared. And our nation will finally have a truly “humane” Thanksgiving feast -- one where no animals are killed at all.

Want to take action? Sign the petition asking President Obama to cut ties with Jaindl and spare all the White House turkeys!

CONVERSATIONS