Winter 2014 Poultry Press NEXT
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Turkeys Are Too Neat to Eat
By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns & author of
More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality. Order Now!
Karen & Florence at UPC
Photo by John H. Sheally, The Virginian-Pilot
Karen & Florence at UPC

I grew up in Blair County, Pennsylvania, where sport hunting was expected of men and boys. Schools closed on the first day of deer season, and probably still do. My father, a trial lawyer and Blair County District Attorney, hunted rabbits as well as ring-necked pheasants who were pen-raised and handfed strictly to be released and shot, helpless and bewildered, in the woods for sport. My father said he didn’t hunt deer because he didn’t want to have to lug them to the car. His defense of rabbit hunting was “everything hunts the rabbit.”

My father and his friends hunted grouse, squirrels, and small birds, but I don’t recall anything about turkeys. Maybe they were “too big.”

My first encounter with turkeys took place in the 1980s at a sanctuary in Avondale, Pennsylvania, where I worked one summer as a volunteer. The turkeys I met at the sanctuary were not wild. They all came from the meat industry. There was a flock of white turkey hens, about twenty, and two bronze turkeys named Milton and Doris.

One of the things that impressed me then, and has stayed in my mind ever since, was the way the turkeys’ voices, their “yelps,” floated about the place in what seemed like an infinitely plaintive refrain. Another was how one or more of the turkey hens would suddenly sit down beside me in the midst of my work, rigid and quivering, with her wings stiff and her head held high, awaiting my attention.

The faces of turkeys are fine-boned, and their eyes are large, dark, and almond-shaped. Doris, the bronze hen, wandered about the farmyard all day by herself like an eternal embodiment of a “lost call,” the call of a young turkey who has strayed from its mother to locate and rejoin the family. Doris had a large, soft breast that felt sad to me whenever I picked her up. Milton, the male turkey, followed me and others around the yard on his thick gouty legs and swollen feet. (One of the many cruelties of turkeys bred for the meat industry is that they can hardly walk due to the overweight pressing on their legs and hips, yet turkeys evolved in nature to walk and run speedily on their long, strong legs up the sides of mountains, over meadows and straight across streams. Wild turkeys are swimmers as well!)

Milton’s dark eyes watched us from inside a bristling armor of iridescent brown feathers and pendant, heavily wrinkled pouches of folded head and facial skin of varying, shifting colors of emotion that to this day makes me think of a body with its soul imprisoned deep inside. He plodded behind people, stopping when they stopped, resuming his ponderous tread as they took up their feet again. He would stop before you, or appear unexpectedly at your back, manifesting himself almost scarily at times, decked out in his full array, his tail in a fabulous wheel, his wing ends dragging stiffly.

Like the hens in their starched white wing skirts, crouched and quivering exactly where you were shoveling the muck, he awaited your response, and like them he would try, try again, patiently holding his ground until attention was paid. This was how I came to know turkeys and become their advocate.

Karen Davis

turkey swimming
Turkeys Can Swim!
Winter 2014 Poultry Press NEXT