Consider the Turkey

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"Humans," Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has written, "seem to take a perverse pleasure in attributing stupidity to animals when it is almost entirely a question of human ignorance." This dictum seems especially apt with Thanksgiving arriving tomorrow. No animal, after all, has been more actively dismissed for its purported stupidity than the turkey.

The old legend about turkeys turning their gullets upward and drowning during rainstorms is reliably rehashed every November, almost as if to assuage some repressed collective doubt we have over killing 45 million maligned fowl in order to honor a tradition that, at its inception, had nothing to do with turkey.

Turkeys are neither moronic nor prone to chronic downpour suicides. In their undomesticated state they are, as the naturalist Joe Hutto has written, remarkably attentive and intelligent creatures. Hutto carefully observed a flock of wild turkeys for many months, recounting his experiences in Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey. He became particularly attached to a bird he named Turkey Boy.

Turkeys have a refined "language" of yelps and cackles. They mourn the death of a flock member.

"Each time I joined him," Hutto wrote, "he greeted me with his happy dance, a brief joyful display of ducking and dodging, with wings outstretched and a frisky shake of the head like a dog with water in his ears." Hutto, a longtime turkey hunter, was charmed, even reformed. The bird, he explained, "would jump at me and touch me lightly with his feet."

I'm well aware that most readers will deem Hutto's account as shamelessly anthropomorphized, if not just plain silly. I'm frequently reminded of our reluctance to fundamentally rethink the way we eat and consider the possibility that animals deserve better. I recently sat at a communal table at a vegan restaurant and listened to a jovial conversation about killing chickens and deer. At a vegan restaurant (granted, in Texas). You learn, after a time, to develop a measure of perspective on such things.

But our perspective should never omit the fact that animal scientists have documented complex patterns of turkey behavior. This is especially true when it comes to memory and geography. Wild turkeys return to the exact location of a baiting station an entire year after feeding. They scratch and sniff and circle the exact spot for that unforgettable free lunch even though the trough has been moved. Animal behaviorists agree that this return is notable. The Humane Society rightly characterizes it as "evidence of hitherto unappreciated intelligence."

Should you relegate this impressive example of turkey recollection to mere instinct, should you convincingly reduce it to a habitual "skill" that's pre-programmed into the birds' mindless genetic repertoire, think again. The emotional and social lives of turkeys (wild and domesticated) speak to an active and adaptive cognition.

Turkeys need each other, and in more than just a safety-in-numbers sort of way. Researchers have found that when an individual turkey is removed from his flock, even in domesticity, he'll squawk in obvious protest until reunited with his posse. Turkeys have a refined "language" of yelps and cackles. They mourn the death of a flock member and so acutely anticipate pain that domestic breeds have had epidemical heart attacks after watching their feathered mates take that fatal step towards Thanksgiving dinner. They clearly feel and appear to understand pain.

There's been a heated back-and-forth on this site lately over how to categorize animals with respect to our supposed right to eat them. Is a pig objectively smarter than a dog? Well then don't kill it. Is a pig less acculturated to human companionship than a dog? Well then kill it. These exchanges have been more than a little thought-provoking. But ultimately they get bogged down in nuanced shades of distinction while missing the transcendent question: Are animals worthy enough creatures to deserve our ultimate respect, a respect that requires that we choose not to kill them for food we don't need?

I'm the first to admit that I have no hard scientific evidence as to why I think the answer is yes. But as a historian I at least recognize that history is marked by a discordant combination of radical change and ceaseless continuity. Acculturated practices—practices that seem as normalized as breathing—eventually change. Not only do they change, but contemporary human societies look back on these once entrenched behaviors and wonder how we ever allowed them to happen. But what never changes, what will always be, is that humans are, no matter how hard we try to conquer the world's complexities, ultimately humbled by its mysteries.

Turkeys, for those who have taken the time to look, are mysteries. All animals are. Do they anticipate and feel pain? Do they enjoy social relationships and feel the loss of companions? Do they think, remember, and conceptualize the future? We can debate these questions forever. But the fact that there's even room for debate suggests that we should err on the side of humility. And we might begin by giving some thought to our unthinking decision to eat turkey on Thanksgiving.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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