11/23/2011 10:39 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2012

Turkeys and the Farce of the Presidential Pardon

Thanksgiving may be the loveliest of our national holidays -- a truly American tradition that anyone can be a part of regardless of faith. Yet, it has a dark side that haunts me every year: Turkeys, 40 million of them, are slaughtered for this holiday. And slaughter is only the gruesome end to a turkey's short and miserable existence.

Punctuating my dismay is the annual National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation to the president. In times past, the president was not obligated to pardon the turkey given to him. When President Reagan was asked in 1981 what he would do with a gifted turkey he replied: "Eat him."

In 1989, the peculiar tradition of pardoning turkeys officially began. Ironically, the to-be-pardoned turkey (and its alternate) are given to the president by the National Turkey Association, a "national advocate" for the turkey industry, i.e. by those who lobby in Washington to "increase demand" for turkeys.

It is an incongruous and bizarre ritual, the camera-friendly exception that only serves to prove the rule. It is a moment of false mercy sponsored by those in the business of being increasingly merciless in the pursuit of profit. A farce designed to make us, as a nation, feel the brief high of witnessing a seemingly compassionate act.

But what about all of those other turkeys that get served up at the White House Thanksgiving dinner? What about the millions and millions of Thanksgiving turkeys without faces, those we don't see until they are dead, naked and neatly wrapped in plastic?

The presidential turkey pardon reminds me of a butcher shop sign with a grinning pig in its logo.

The life of a turkey is brief and wretched. While the natural lifespan is up to 12 years,
turkeys are typically slaughtered within 5 months. According to PETA, most of them spend their lives:

[O]n factory farms, where thousands...are packed into dark sheds with no more than 3.5 square feet of space per bird. To keep the extremely crowded birds from scratching and pecking each other to death, workers cut off portions of the birds' toes and upper beaks with hot blades... No painkillers are used during these procedures.

Due to genetic engineering, antibiotics and hormones, factory-farmed turkeys end up so big -- often 35 lbs, compared to a natural weight of around 18 lbs -- that many can't even walk, let alone fly. They also can't naturally reproduce, meaning that all of them must be artificially inseminated. And then it's off to the slaughterhouse where, according to a Humane Society report, turkeys are:

[H]ung upside-down on shackles that pass over an electrified water bath.... The birds are given an electric shock that is meant to render them unconscious and immobile while their necks are cut. However, when shackled turkeys are conveyed through the water bath, they may experience electric shocks before they are stunned into unconsciousness, because their wings, hanging lower than their heads, may touch the water before their heads are submerged. Additionally, not all birds are stunned adequately prior to exsanguination and are conscious while their throats are cut.

Not to mention those poor turkeys unfortunate enough to still be alive at this stage who "are scalded to death in boiling-hot defeathering tanks."

We make fairly arbitrary distinctions between the animals we revere and those we eat. In fact, Benjamin Franklin wanted America's national bird to be the turkey. He said it was 'a bird of courage' and 'a true original native of America.' The thought of eating a horse, a dog or a cat might disgust you. But, it is no different than eating a pig, a cow or a chicken. Somewhere along the way, our society decided which animals we would eat, but they are all sentient beings with personalities, intelligence, fear, joy and pain.

The majority of people are conditioned to quickly disassociate the living, breathing, feeling animal from the meat they eat. We are so readily ignorant of where our food comes from that we even rename some of it: pork not pig, beef not cow, veal not calf.

Paul McCartney famously said: "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian." Whether that's true or not, knowledge of the conditions in which our livestock live and die could help us - at a minimum - to rally for vast improvements to those conditions. And hopefully garner some vegetarians along the way. Glass walls might be impractical, but we could start with mandatory video cameras in all livestock facilities.

Every year, when our president lets two lucky birds off the hook (literally), let us think of all of those that aren't so lucky, including the turkeys the president and his guests later feast on. The hypocrisy of this tradition must be acknowledged. If the pardon really means something, if it is more than the empty gesture of a photo-op, then the president must lead by example and expose the brutal and greedy tactics of an industry insufficiently held accountable. Perhaps one year, we will have a president principled enough to pardon all of the animals that would otherwise end up on his plate and instead celebrate a vegetarian Thanksgiving at the White House.

And as we sit with our loved ones on Thursday, let's remember that the turkey in front of us - beautifully and thoughtfully displayed on the table - was not thankful. He had absolutely nothing to be thankful for.


Want ideas for vegetarian Thanksgiving recipes? Check out "A Vegan Thanksgiving: 12 Recipes That Could Change Your Holiday" or Food and Wine's "Vegetarian Thanksgiving Recipes"

Learn how you can sponsor a turkey and make a difference: "Thanksgiving Turkeys: How You Can Support Ethical Treatment"