I”m the one-woman Turkey Liberation Front: Liz Jones rescues two birds from what would be an unspeakable fate. Daft…or could she have a point
This time of year always makes me feel a bit low.
The prospect of not having children of my own to spend time with; the pressure to spend money on things no one wants; but above all the greed, those heaving trolleys of food we think we need in order to have a good time…all conspire to get me down.
But above all, I cannot bear the fact that millions of animals are this week being slaughtered for Christmas Day lunch.
Off the menu: Liz Jones with Sonny and Cher. The turkey meat business is now huge: 15 million are killed a year in the UK alone
It’s like an orgy: every TV cookery show, every TV advert features the bronze, glistening breast of a turkey being heaved out of an oven to accompanying gasps of delight.
Have you noticed how a ghastly Frankenstein’s monster offering is now commonplace, too: the ‘three-bird roast’, where one is stuffed inside the other.
I blame Heston Blumenthal and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for bringing this nadir of medieval gluttony back into fashion.
But my depression is nothing compared with the doom and gloom hanging over the heads of these poor birds.
When I was a child, we always had a capon at Christmas: this was, I later learned, a large male chicken. We simply couldn’t afford turkey.
Now, though, the turkey is commonplace, and it has to be bigger than ever before, with more white meat. This has resulted in serious welfare issues.
Turkeys are forced to grow very large, very fast, resulting in lameness, joint pain and heart disease.
The slaughtering process is never pain or stress-free, no matter how ‘organic’ or farm-fresh your bird. They are hung upside down from shackles, causing them pain and distress. They are then moved to the stunning bath, where their heads are immersed in electrified water.
I”m going to have to buy a wooden shed that will fit them both in since turkey houses don”t exist – only turkey slaughterhouses
Often, though, the birds flap frantically, meaning their wings dip in the bath, giving them a painful shock before they are stunned.
In commercial conditions, one survey found 80 per cent of turkeys had received pre-stun electric shocks.
Their necks are then cut. But the sheer speed of the process means some birds are still conscious when they are plunged into the scalding tank, which loosens feathers.
Turkeys on small farms may be killed by having their necks dislocated, which does not always cause unconsciousness. Some turkeys are gassed, but Compassion In World Farming has found the gas can cause distress before the bird passes out.
And so this year I decided to launch a rescue mission: I would save not one turkey but two — they are sociable animals and like companionship — and adopt them as pets, to see if they really are the beady-eyed, stupid creatures we have all been told they are, fit for nothing but the table.
I refuse to say that I am following the lead of Barack Obama, who gives a Presidential ‘pardon’ to one turkey at Thanksgiving in a tradition going back to Harry Truman. You can pardon someone who has committed a crime. These birds have done nothing wrong other than to be born.
Rather, I am liberating a turkey in a bloodless coup.
I start off by doing some research. Where does a turkey live, and what does he or she eat
I have kept chickens in the past: I rescued six former battery hens. They were 18 months old, and had spent their lives in wire cages the size of an A4 piece of paper.
They were almost bald, and very thin. Their beaks had been trimmed so they could not, out of boredom and frustration, peck each other, but most had bloody wounds.
I remember releasing them into their new home — my orchard — and am not exaggerating when I say they had joy written all over their scrunchy little faces.
I’m also going to have to buy a wooden shed that will fit them both in since turkey houses don’t exist — only turkey slaughterhouses. I also look up turkey food online, but find only fattening pellets.
These are intelligent creatures. They are actually quite beautiful
I call an animal feed merchant.
‘What do I feed turkeys who are not being fattened up’
‘What do you mean’
‘Well, these will be turkeys who just need to be healthy, to live long, happy lives.’
Iam met with gales of laughter. I eventually settle for chicken feed, grain, sweetcorn and bread.
Next, I have to find my turkeys. I phone a farm in Somerset.
‘Can I buy two turkeys from you’
‘They are not dressed yet.’
I thought for a moment they might wear coats when allowed outside, but sadly, this is not what the farmer means.
‘Dressed’ means slaughtered.
I tell the farmer I want to buy them, alive, for a photo shoot.
‘Well, OK, but you’d better come quick. They should be hung for ten days before Christmas.’ Ye gods.
And so I set off in my Land Rover with a dog cage in the back, lined with straw. I have little bottles of Evian in case they get thirsty on the journey.
I arrive at the farm in a blizzard.
Italways amazes me, now I live in rural Somerset, how farms look so lovely from a distance.
Only when you get close do you see the vast sheds. A farm near me currently has cattle in a small pen, mud up to their knees. I suppose if an animal is to be slaughtered no one worries about them shivering, or developing foot rot, or being unable to lie down.
I’m shown to a big, modern barn. Inside, it’s bright (lights are kept on to encourage growth) and very warm. Before me is a sea of birds: 240 turkeys, bronze and white, foraging in the straw.
These birds are relatively lucky: they have room to move, it’s very clean, with old music CDs dangling on strings to give them something to play with (a requirement for free range birds).
Their beaks have not been trimmed, a painful practice performed by secateurs. They had been born in early summer. They are already enormous, like ostriches, waddling around, their legs at extreme angles, unable to bear the huge weight of their breasts.
I say I’d like a man and a woman turkey, and can tell by now the farmer is getting a bit suspicious, especially as I am exclaiming how ‘sweet’ they all are. I’m kneeling down, blowing kisses at them.
The farmer grabs a male, after much beating of beautiful black wings (he is really like a giant owl), binds his huge orange feet with twine, hangs him upside down and attaches him to the scales: ‘22 pounds’.
I’ve never bought an animal by weight before, and I can’t help but wonder that these birds are treated and handled as if they are already dead.
The female is caught next: she weighs a bit less.
‘That will be 100.’
It doesn’t take a mathematician to work out the return on less than six months’ work is very great indeed.
The turkey meat business is now huge: 15 million are killed a year in the UK alone, with more than 70 per cent of these reared in industrial farming conditions, in windowless, cramped sheds with little stimulation.
We carry the birds to my Land Rover, the snow now coming down very thick indeed. The birds’ black eyes are blinking frantically, as they have never been outside before.
With them safely locked inside, I make our great escape. The birds are now eerily quiet, when inside they had been clucking and gobbling. They know something is up, and proceed to mist my windows with their frantic, panicked breathing.
After an hour, I get them home, shielding the cage from the Christmas lights on my barn. I’d been told by an animal charity that they need to be warm, and kept indoors at night. I deposit them in a stable, but they refuse to budge from their cage.
Only later do they venture out to roost on top of the cage, huddled together, necks straining to look over the door.
After two days, they are still not eating, although they are now launching themselves, with much wing-flapping, from the cage to the floor, their eyes wide like novice bungy jumpers.
The female, whom I have named Cher, finds it very difficult to walk more than a few steps. The male, Sonny, is more adventurous, and has started to enjoy corn on the cob, as long as I hold both ends while he chomps away on it.
We carry the birds to my Land Rover. The birds” black eyes are blinking frantically, as they have never been outside before
Cher is looking a bit gaunt in the face: she will need a lot of low-calorie fruit and vegetables to stop her getting hungry, and to try to shift that extra weight she’s carrying.
The vet came to check her over not long after she arrived, as I was worried about her breathing.
‘I’ve never treated a turkey before!’ she said cheerfully.
Finally, on a bright crisp day, I decide to release them into the orchard to get some exercise.
To my amazement, they follow me, so trusting and eager to see new things. They seem to look forward to my visits, and seek out my attention.
Cher will now eat out of my hand, while Sonny has learned to come into the kitchen and ask for scraps.
These are intelligent creatures. They are actually quite beautiful, too.
They already know their routine, eager to come in at night and snuggle down in their straw beds.
So turkeys are very far from being ‘bird-brained’. They have been proven to have powers of memory, creativity and humour, and Sonny and Cher are starting to be bolder, to explore, to display humour (they love to peck at a bent-over bottom).
I asked the vet how long a turkey can live. She told me she has no idea. No one does.
Of all farmed animals, to me the turkey seems the most maligned, the most misunderstood, the least appreciated. They are very gentle birds, always taking care not to nip me when they raid my pocket for treats.
Cher hides behind Sonny when she is nervous, and on more than one occasion (mostly when my collies emerge barking from the house) he unfolds his giant wings, as if to protect her.
We underestimate these creatures, and yet still we farm them and roast them and stuff their cavities with not a thought for the creatures they once were.
I for one will be enjoying my signature nut roast with spicy sauce come Christmas Day.
And I expect by then my turkeys will be joining me at the table, spearing sprouts with their razor-sharp beaks: they absolutely love sprouts — so long as they are not boiled, or swimming in gravy . . . or served with turkey.