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Could a Better End Await Next Year's Turkeys?


It's too late — way too late — to help the millions of turkeys and other fowl that are about to be stuffed and served for Thursday's Thanksgiving Day celebrations across the United States. But there is news that could make the demise of next year's crop of birds a bit more merciful.

Earlier this week, a federal district judge in San Francisco heard arguments from those who seek legal protection for the approximately ten billion turkeys, chickens, and other birds that are processed for food each year in this country.

The Humane Society of the United States and other animal-rights advocates who filed the suit argued that birds should be covered under the same federal laws that protect other farm animals from a cruel and pitiful end.

Under the 1958 Humane Slaughter Act, cattle and other livestock may be killed only after they have been stunned to full unconsciousness.

But birds are routinely killed by shackling them, hanging them upside down, and stunning them electrically — and not always successfully — in a water bath, then scalding them in red-hot water to rid them of their feathers. This harsh treatment does not even include many reported abuses of live birds by slaughterhouse workers — ripping their heads off by hand, for instance. All of this is traumatic and painful to the turkeys and chickens, to say the least.

The birds' advocates argue for a slaughter method called "Controlled Atmosphere Killing" that involves passing them, while still in their crates, through non-poisonous gas chambers.

None of this will make the birds' short lives as feedstock, in which many of them are crowded together like sardines, any more pleasant. Nor does it lessen the inevitability of their slaughter. But if the San Francisco judge so rules, the birds that will make up the main course of future holiday meals will at least not have to suffer needlessly cruel and painful deaths.

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