TO KILL A TURKEY 


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"What is perhaps most troubling, and sad, about industrial eating is how thoroughly it obscures all these relationships and connections. To go from the chicken … to the Chicken McNugget is to leave this world in a journey of forgetting that could hardly be more costly, not only in terms of the animal's pain but in our pleasure, too. But forgetting, or not knowing in the first place, is what the industrial food chain is all about, the principal reason it is so opaque, for if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat." ;— Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma

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;; ;This Thanksgiving, millions of us will gorge ourselves on the flesh of a turkey. We'll do so with nary a thought of how this animal spent the few months of its life, about how it lived, how it died, how it suffered – because doing so is uncomfortable.;

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It's a cognitive dissonance most of us employ, on display whenever we grab a cheeseburger from a fast-food joint or order a steak at a restaurant. We'll eat the burger, but we'd rather not think about the cow that died to create it. There are people who hunt their own food, but I don't know any. And there are factory workers somewhere who kill all day long so we don't have to.

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What you are about to read isn't intended as a guilt trip or a dogmatic screed about why meat is murder. Instead, it's about my personal journey through the ethics of carnivorousness – to vegetarianism and back again.

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Like most of you, I'll likely spend this holiday stuffing myself on a rotting turkey carcass. My ethical qualms about eating meat haven't gone away; I've simply chosen to ignore them. When I grill ribs, I opt not to think about the pig that spends its short, miserable life in a tiny pen wallowing in its own filth before being put to death on a factory killing floor. When I order buffalo wings, I don't think about the chickens caged in small pens, their beaks cut off so they can't peck at one another. It's easier that way.

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But the incongruity still bothers me. I'm contributing to an industry that kills tens of millions of cows, 9 billion – with a "b" – chickens and 300 million turkeys per year in the United States alone, and I do it out of want, not need. Modern dietary options allow for a meat-free existence; I ate no animal flesh for most of my 20s. I choose to eat meat, even if I once rejected doing so, and maybe it's time I confront the moral implications head-on.

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Back in the day, meat didn't come from a grocery store. If you wanted to dine on an animal, you had to do some killing. The same thing applies today, except consumers are far removed from that bloody reality. I'm willing to do the eating, yet I still feel uneasy about the way meat gets to my plate. Shouldn't I be willing to eliminate the middleman?

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On a chilly Saturday morning in early November, I drove to a small family farm in Live Oak to do just that.

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BLEED 'EM OUT

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Dennis Stoltzfoos and his wife, Alicia, own the 300-acre Full Circle Farm in Live Oak, where they keep – according to the e-mail he sent me before I came – "about 100 cows, 100 chickens, 15 turkeys and three kids."

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When I arrive at his house – on a dirt road off a two-lane street with no lighting that's nearly impossible to find in pre-dawn hours – he's getting ready to milk his cows. He keeps about 20 of them for milking; the rest of his herd is in the pasture somewhere out of sight. They'll eventually become steaks ; and hamburgers.

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Last year this farm grossed about $200,000, Stoltzfoos says. About 40 percent of that came from his mildly controversial sales of raw milk and other dairy products. (Selling raw, unpasteurized milk for human consumption is illegal in Florida – in 2005, state officials shut down his farm for a while – so Stoltzfoos sells it as pet food.) Another 40 percent of the farm's gross came from beef. The rest was derived from eggs, chickens and turkeys, and dairy products from Pennsylvania that he sells wholesale.

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There are 15 turkeys in cages on the bed of his beat-up yellow pickup truck. In a few hours they, along with a few dozen other turkeys and some chickens that other farmers have brought to Full Circle, will meet their end.

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As he milks his dairy cows two by two, Stoltzfoos walks me through the turkey-killing process: "We put them upside-down in the cones here, and we slit their throats, and they basically bleed out – [we] let the heart pump the blood out of the bird."

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It's as medieval and gruesome as it sounds. The metal cones are nailed to a wood crossbeam on the side of an open-air structure that Stoltzfoos uses for milking, slaughtering and storage. Earlier this morning, he snagged his turkeys from their perches and stuffed them into cages; since these are free-range turkeys, this is the first and last time they'll see the inside of a cage.

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The executioner will then grab them by the wings with his bare hands and shove them headfirst into the cones, then stretch their necks through a hole in the bottom. He'll slit their necks on both sides. The birds will bleed into bowls on the ground until they are dead. The collected blood will be reused as fertilizer. Cutting the bird's head off would be quicker and less painful, Stoltzfoos says, but it would also stop the heart, which would mean the blood would have to drain out rather than be pumped from the body.

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Once dead, the birds are tossed into a vat of hot water called a scalder, which loosens up the oils, making it easier to remove the feathers and turning the skin from yellow to a more pleasant white. From there the carcasses go to the feather-plucker, a big metal bowl with a series of what look like metal spikes inside. As it fills with water, the bird spins around inside and the spikes remove the feathers.

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Next the bird goes to a cutting table, where it's gutted. Standard procedure is to cut off the turkey's anus, then reach inside and remove all of its innards, including the heart, liver and gizzard – all of which the Stoltzfooses eat (the gizzards are a family favorite). The guts are composted. The feet and heads will go to make soup stock. Then the birds are tossed into a cooler for 24 hours, after which they are ready to eat.

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My plan was to drive up here and kill my own Thanksgiving dinner – a poetic bookend to a story pondering the ethics of meat-eating. (Stoltzfoos sells the birds for $4.50 per pound, or about $45 to $60 per turkey.) Unfortunately, all of Stoltzfoos' 15 turkeys were spoken for.

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"We had 20, and predators knocked them down to 15," he says. "We actually oversold a little bit. We lost two birds in the past three weeks and we had sold them all by that time."

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"What predators?" I ask.

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"We're not sure," he replies. "The turkey is not too smart. These are heritage-breed wild turkeys, but we let them run free on the farm. People want free-roaming [turkeys] and I'm all for it, but what the PETA people don't understand is that the reason they're in a cage is that that protects them from predators. Free-roaming nature is not that friendly. So we did the free-roaming thing. We liked them a lot, we enjoyed them, but ..." his voice trails off.

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TO VEG AND BACK

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There was no come-to-Jesus moment in the summer of 2002, when I decided to give up meat. I hadn't just finished reading Peter Singer's famous animal-rights book, Animal Liberation, nor had I been cowed by the arguments of vegetarian friends.

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Instead, my sojourn into meatless living began as a challenge. I was going to give it up for a month. That month came and went, and I went for another. Eventually, I didn't miss it.

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As I immersed myself in the veg-head lifestyle, I found other reasons to live meat-free. I came to realize that the animals we eat are more intelligent than we give them credit for. Dogs are about as intelligent as pigs, yet one becomes the Christmas ham and the other gets the Christmas scraps. Another reason: the evils of factory farming. Mass-production farming means that animals lead short, terrible lives that end violently. At least, that's how the vegetarian mythology goes.

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Then there's the fact that vegetarianism offers a sense of moral superiority, pride in obtaining a plane of enlightenment unknown to those who scarf down Big Macs. Never underestimate the power of feeling superior.

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But temptation is always close at hand in our society. About a year and a half ago, I vacationed in New Orleans, a city that's not really vegetarian-friendly. Everything everywhere had some form of shrimp or sausage or chicken in it. I decided to allow myself to eat seafood. There was no particular justification to it – I wanted to have a good time, and if that meant devouring oysters on the half-shell, so be it. You only live once, right?

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The genie was out of the bottle. Back in Orlando, I rediscovered the fishy delights that I'd forgotten: sushi, grouper fillets, swordfish steaks, and so forth.

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I decided to draw the line at seafood. That lasted about a year. Again, there was no epiphany that made me cross the next line. I'm not sure what changed, but the moral misgivings that stood between me and steak seemed less and less relevant. Maybe it was the realization that the meat industry didn't really care one way or another about my eating habits. The only one being denied anything, I rationalized, was me.

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My vegetarianism died in late April at a hibachi restaurant in east Orlando. It could have been the wine, or it could have been boredom with my serving of shrimp and scallops. However I got there, the end result was that I took a bite of my dining companion's filet. It was as wonderful as I remembered – moist and tender, a succulent morsel that put the veggieburgers to which I'd grown accustomed to shame.

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Beef had befouled my lips, and I felt guilty about it. So I said I would only eat meat on special occasions. That lasted about a week. Then I retrenched and told myself that I would only eat organic meats, because organic farms are kinder to the animals. I don't recall how long that lasted.

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My moral objections to the way meat is produced didn't change; like most Americans I simply chose to live in happy ignorance of the exact process that puts it on my plate. Why contemplate such things when there are hamburgers, pork chops, fried chicken and roast turkey to be eaten?

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On Stoltzfoos' farm and places like it, ignorance is not option.

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EAT LIKE A KING

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More than a decade ago, Stoltzfoos tried vegetarianism. "I had a lot of health problems," he says. "I was born with a very ; poor constitution."

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It didn't produce the desired results. Eventually, he went to see a doctor: "The doctor couldn't fix me and ran $500 worth of tests and told me to see a psychologist. I was rather upset about that. I said to myself, ‘If that educated idiot won't tell me what's wrong with me, I'll have to figure it out myself.' So I began reading, and never quit reading." He found his cure in natural eating.

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Stoltzfoos, a tall, lanky man of 46 years who grew up the youngest of 11 children, was raised in an Amish-Mennonite family in Lancaster, Penn. His father and grandfather were both farmers. So it's not surprising that he adheres to traditional farming techniques and disdains industry methods that, for example, fatten turkeys and chickens beyond their ability to stand or naturally reproduce. His cattle are completely grass-fed, rather than grain-fed. His free-range turkeys are more than seven months old, he tells me, about twice the lifespan of most industry birds.

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His products are more expensive. Raw milk goes for $12 per gallon, of which he profits about $4-$5 per gallon. However, his cows only produce one or two gallons of milk per day, whereas factory-farmed cows produce as much as 10, he says.

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He argues that the industrialization of farming and the profiteering that accompanies it has not only degraded the health of animals – and consequently the humans who eat them – but degraded the environment itself.

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"To us it's a cause," he says. "We believe it is better for the environment."

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Stoltzfoos' daughters – ages 2, 4 and 6 – all have bright blond hair and piercing blue eyes and wear long skirts, even when they're pulling the guts from a chicken and feeding them to the family cat. The family prays before they eat. The living room is stocked with Christian children's books, and Stoltzfoos' T-shirt proclaims the love of Jesus.

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The soft-spoken farmer, who has "Ron Paul for President" stickers on the back of his truck, confesses that Barack Obama's election might be a good thing on the renewable-energy front and extols the virtues of the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? He's talking about switching to a solar-powered water pump, if it becomes cost-effective.

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The farm is a marriage of traditional and modern, but it feels entirely natural. Stoltzfoos believes that his brand of sustainable farming is the future. His family lives off the farm. They eat the beef and chickens raised here. They drink the raw milk. Stoltzfoos says they're not missing a thing. "There's nothing about our diet that's not enjoyable. I love it. I eat like a king every day."

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BLOOD SMEARED KNIFE

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I've always been an animal aficionado. I'm the guy who gets his dog Christmas gifts and dresses her up for Halloween. Once, when I was 8 or so, my family went to a restaurant with lobsters displayed in a tank in the lobby. According to my mother, I eyeballed the crustaceans curiously until my sister told me what was about to happen to them. Then I cried so hard my family had to leave.

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I've never killed a creature larger than a bug. But here I am, blood-smeared knife in hand, staring at the outstretched neck of a trapped turkey that I am about to kill.

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For a half-hour I've watched the act, flinching over and over again. Ed Young and Rick Mitidieri, two farmers slaughtering their birds this morning along with Stoltzfoos, have it down to a vicious science. Except there is nothing vicious about it. Killing turkeys isn't peaceful – blood and feathers are flying – and it has an undeniably brutal quality to it. Yet these guys do it mechanically, with the detachment of a tree-trimmer slicing branches.

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"Once you have the wings under control, you have the turkey under control," Young says. Without the power of their wings, the birds can't put up much of a fight as their heads are stuffed into the cones. Young reaches in, pulls out the neck and makes a swift cut on each side. Then he holds the neck as the blood drains from the birds' bodies down his latex-gloved hand and into a bowl on ; the ground.

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Occasionally a turkey will wiggle out of the cone after it is cut and wander around in a futile effort to escape. But before long it bleeds to death like the others.

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"Mind if I cut one?" I finally ask Young. Normally I'd be content to observe, but this was more of an obligation; I'd driven three pre-dawn hours to do this, and I'd be damned if I was going to chicken out – pardon the ; phrase – now.

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I pick up a small, sharp, serrated knife already covered in turkey blood. The handle is slippery, and Young cautions me to make sure that I have a good grip. Pull the neck down, then cut, he instructs.

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"Ready?" he asks.

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I'm not. I nod anyway.

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He or Mitidieri – I don't recall which – stuffs a turkey in the cone. I reach out and pull down its neck with my left hand, the knife in my right. With Stoltzfoos' admonishment not to decapitate the turkey in mind, I gently stretch my hand toward its neck.

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My blade makes contact. The skin is tougher than I'd expected – I'm told later that chickens are a much easier kill – but I cut through it nonetheless, albeit slower and more cautiously than I intended to. Blood spurts and the bird shakes violently. It flails and kicks me in the head, knocking off my hat and splashing blood on my shirt. To make matters worse, I've botched the job.

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"You have to press down like you're trying to cut its head off," Young says, quickly stepping in to slice the other side. I watch the blood drain from the turkey's body as he holds its neck. Finally, the bird stops kicking, and into the scalder it goes.

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Within 10 minutes, its feathers and innards have been removed, and it's inside a cooler waiting to be someone's ;Thanksgiving dinner.

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SQUARE THE CIRCLE

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I'm not emotionally scarred by the experience, but neither am I eager to do it, or witness it, again. (I'll confess to being disgusted after taking my turn gutting a chicken.) Did it provide any answers? Not really. The moral issues of meat are still there, now complete with visuals that replay themselves in my head – but I'm not going back to being a vegetarian.

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In fact, though Stoltzfoos was out of turkeys to sell, I bought a couple of steaks and some hamburger from him, and they were delicious. Were it feasible, I'd only buy meats from family-owned, organic farms like Stoltzfoos'. But it's not: The food costs more, and meat raised as it is on his farm is a luxury I can't afford.

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So how do I square the ethical circle? I don't. I couldn't do what Stoltzfoos does. I couldn't routinely slaughter animals, especially ones I'd spent time around. Yet I'll eat it.

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At Stoltzfoos' suggestion, I spent the next few days reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, a book exploring the reality of our diets. This passage struck me: "The idea that it is only in modern times that people have grown queasy about killing animals is of course a flattering myth. Taking a life is momentous, and people have been working to justify the slaughter of animals to themselves for thousands of years, struggling to come to terms with the shame they feel even when the killing is necessary to their survival."

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So here's my justification: For millions of years, humans have eaten other sentient creatures, whether it's necessary or not. Why abandon a system that works? The ethical problems linger, but I choose to ignore them. Cognitive dissonance prevails.

; jbillman@orlandoweekly.com

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