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Wednesday, 30 November 2011 21:10

Serving up a heaping helping of internal turmoil

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I helped raise three turkeys this year. They were named Thanksgiving, Christmas and Extras. These turkeys were intended as the centerpieces for dinners on those festive occasions, plus one was targeted to fill a particular corner of the freezer.

There was trouble with this plan from the beginning.

Turkeys, I discovered to my dismay, are very personable. They took to greeting me happily with great joyful noises whenever I appeared in the barnyard. These shouts of delight were irrespective of whether I had food for them or not — they seemed to recognize me as an actual individual. And an amazingly wonderful, perfect individual at that, perhaps the most wonderful, perfect individual in the whole world, or maybe even the entire universe.

The turkeys’ effusive hellos, no matter how bad the day, always cheered me and provided nice boosts to my self-esteem.

Made a mistake in a newspaper article and wrote a correction that day? The turkeys didn’t care — I was AMAZING in their eyes. Got in a quarrel with a coworker and showed my … well, you know. In turkey land, all was forgiven — I was that WONDERFUL human being they loved beyond all others. Forgot an important appointment? No problem, the turkeys still shouted undying love when I, that PERFECT person they ADORED, came into eyesight.

This in total contrast to the chickens: Despite having helped raise them from tiny chicks to large hens or roosters, these ungrateful creatures still eye me untrustingly, like I’m a potential predator. They stay well out of reach and squawk hysterically when I draw near. I’m merely a food-dispensing machine, and a scary one at that, to the chickens.

And, as much as I enjoy the goats, sometimes I’m suspicious that is all I am to them, too — the person put on this earth to bring them food and water and to scratch places they can’t reach.

Not the turkeys: they visibly enjoyed having their heads petted. They would squat in front of me, making conversational noises while I rubbed their great ugly crowns, almost purring in happiness. I never knew that birds could enjoy affection and seek it out — but these three turkeys did just that.

I believe the turkeys came, via mail order, in April. Until Thanksgiving was almost upon us I successfully pretended to myself that I would be able to harvest them. (Harvest, you understand, means to chop the turkeys’ heads off, and pluck them or skin them, and generally ready them for the dinner table. “Harvest” is a nice euphemism for the word “murder.” Or for clear-cutting trees, for that matter — the word harvest has a sustainable sound that softens the actual deeds for the doers.)

At some point, just before Thanksgiving, I faced up to the fact that I wasn’t going to harvest these turkeys. That left three problems to solve:

One, we wouldn’t have a turkey for Thanksgiving. But that wasn’t too big a deal — we bought a turkey instead, and will probably do the same for Christmas.

Secondly, I don’t need and can’t afford turkey “pets” in the barnyard. Frankly, I wanted to keep them very badly, which leads directly into problem three — and this was a problem that couldn’t be solved without significant distress.

This particular breed of turkey was specifically selected, genetically, to gain weight quickly. This means the turkeys convert their feed to meat in a hyper-efficient manner. When you farm or homestead, heritage breeds are a nice concept, but the reality is the longer you feed an animal intended for the table, the more money you spend and the less you make. It is easy to end up on the losing end unless you opt for these newer, fast weight-gaining breeds.

Ironically enough, we hadn’t actually intended to get meat-specific bred turkeys. But the order was mixed up and our heritage turkeys went to someone else, a friend we’d placed an order with to save on shipping. By the time the situation was sorted out we were too attached to our individual turkeys to consider switching them.

Our turkeys, the meat-specific bred ones, were by Thanksgiving having increasing difficulties walking. Their bodies were too large for their legs. This meant I could keep them as pets, yes, but only at a great price to the turkeys. They would suffer, and one day soon, they likely wouldn’t be able to walk at all.

This left me with one single, unhappy solution. Since I couldn’t kill them myself, someone else would have to kill them. The three turkeys were given to friends in Balsam who raise and slaughter chickens and turkeys for a living. We carted them over there and said our goodbyes to the trio — Thanksgiving, Christmas and Extras — this past Saturday.

I know they planned to kill the turkeys the next day. I’ve not been able to block the realization that my turkeys are, by now, very dead.

There’s absolutely no doubt that the turkeys were killed in a humane and quick fashion. But dead is dead, and my hands are no freer of their blood than if I’d killed them and cooked one up for Thanksgiving — I just ate a turkey that I didn’t know on an individual basis, that’s all.

And by choosing to skirt the actual deed I took the cowardly way out.

So here’s what I got out of keeping turkeys — a whole heaping on my Thanksgiving plate of internal turmoil. Here’s hoping your experience this year was less dramatic than mine.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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