Not Objects, but Individuals
By Andrew Sharo
As I held Abby in my arms, I reflected back on how I got here—the tires of our SUV kicking up red Utah dust as we raced away from a Norbest turkey farm in the middle of the night. I recalled how I accompanied my mother to buy a turkey for our Thanksgiving centerpiece a few years back. Like everyone else surveying the meat aisle, I saw the plastic-wrapped bodies as mere objects—the intense cruelty required to bring them there gone utterly unnoticed. “Who really cares?” I had thought then. But looking down at Abby’s scabby head and pecked-out eye, I thought “Who besides me and a growing movement of other animal rights activists trying to shed light on an urgent issue.”
It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned from friends about the inherently cruel practices of animal agriculture. I struggled for a while to integrate this new information with my lifestyle and values. I gradually became vegan, freeing myself from the gnawing guilt of knowingly eating animals who suffered greatly and did not want to die. As I moved to Berkeley to start a PhD in biophysics, I joined an inspiring community of animal rights activists, with whom I am able to rescue and advocate for nonhuman animals like Abby.
When I stepped into a barn in Moroni, Utah as part of a team of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) investigators, I was shocked by the mass suffering in that confined space. I felt overwhelmed by each individual who I made eye contact with in the glow of our flashlight beams. We had the means only to photograph the tortuous conditions and to take three birds to sanctuary and urgent medical care. I navigated the putrid, filthy barn, snapping hundreds of pictures among a sea of tens of thousands of “free-range” birds. Desperate birds consumed their own antibiotic-yellowed feces to survive, while cannibalizing their trampled, decomposing brothers and sisters. They were all still babies scheduled to be killed at 5 to 6 months of age, a fraction of their 10-year natural lifespan.
Whether it’s diseased animals or mass mutilation, violence against animals is simply standard practice in Big Ag. We found Abby shivering against the wall of the barn. Her right eye had been pecked out by stressed and aggressive birds, and she was suffering from perihepatitis, which was spreading throughout the barn (according to medical records found on the wall). Her toes and the tip of her beak were severed, which is standard practice to keep frightened, stressed birds from harming each other. Norbest advertises their turkeys as ‘mountain-grown,’ but not a single turkey steps outside these disease-infested barns until they are piled into slaughter trucks by the thousands. Not one of the turkeys in that barn had ever seen the sky or felt the warmth of the sun.
Although Norbest has advertised their products as ‘humane,’ the conditions we observed on this farm were standard for the turkey industry. Norbest CEO Matthew Cook acknowledged our investigation, calling the findings ‘deeply disturbing’ and severing ties with the farm we rescued Abby from. This type of response has been typical of all investigations; the company continues to trick consumers into thinking they are buying “humane” products, and absolves themselves by throwing the farmer under the bus.
Tragically, Abby was too far gone by the time we had pulled her from the farm. She succumbed to perihepatitis after spending some time on a sanctuary. She was just one among the 4.8 million turkeys killed by Norbest annually to be sold as “antibiotic-free,” “humane,” “free-range,” and “mountain-grown” parcels. Though her passing was tragic, Abby at least got a chance to bask in the sunshine and breathe the fresh air during the brief time she had been granted. In a society where most of us are brought up to see nonhumans as objects, I hope you will recognize these animals as individuals, deserving of rights.
Andrew Sharo is an investigator and organizer with the grassroots animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere