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The Original “Thanksgiving Turkey” is Now Extinct

The Original “Thanksgiving Turkey” is Now Extinct

Many historians believe the “turkeys” who were killed and eaten on the first Thanksgiving were actually members of a bird species called the heath hen. Heath hens were common in New England’s scrubland when the region was first colonized but were driven to extinction by hunting.

The heath hen was a chicken like bird with barred plumage and an orange neck. The males had two “horns” and performed dances to attract females that involved snapping their tails and inflating air sacs on their throats.  In 1870, they were ruthlessly exterminated from mainland North America and only 300 individuals remained on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard. In 1908, their territory was given protected status and their numbers jumped to 2,000. This rebound quickly and tragically ended when a fire ravaged the colony.

 In 1928 only one lone male, named “Booming Ben,” remained. He continued returning to his mating ground and calling out without reciprocation to non-existent females for four more lonely years. He was last seen on March 11, 1932 and died shortly after.

Like heath hens, the turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving today suffer greatly due to our voracious appetites. They live in filthy, overcrowded warehouses and are selectively bred to grow unnaturally fast which makes them get heart attacks and become crippled. During their horror-filled slaughter, turkeys are dunked into vats of electrified water and have their throats slit. The water paralyzes them but doesn’t render them senseless, causing many to be killed while fully conscious. These birds have little to fear from the final termination of their species. Instead, these individuals belong to a doomed species, locked into a vicious and unforgiving cycle of perpetual torture and death. 

Thanksgiving has historically been a bloodbath for animals, but we can change this. The heath hen has multiple endangered relatives, including the lesser prairie chicken and the Gunnison sage grouse. Their habitat is being destroyed by cattle grazing for beef production and increased development linked to human population growth. Their range is now sadly restricted to small protected areas. By observing a plant-based diet that’s free of all flesh, we can celebrate this holiday without inflicting such terrible cruelty on the heath hen's domestic cousins. 

If we commit to rectifying past wrongs to animals, perhaps we can be pardoned for them.

What You Can Do

For guidance on adopting a plant-based diet and observing Thanksgiving humanely please download our free Vegan Starter Guide and take a look at our list of holiday dishes. You can also join our virtual discussion about the holiday’s animal rights aspects on November 28 at 5 PM. Please join us.

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