Turkeys are the new cause celebre of animal welfare: campaigners say th at they are routinely subjected to violence and sexual abuse. The truth requires a strong s tomach

IN THE all-time rankings of bad jobs to have, that of turkey masturbator must come fairly high. Most people don't even know that such a trade exists; but it does, and, over the next few weeks, more and more of us are going to be made aware of the fact. This is because of a recently launched campaign by the animal rights group Animal Aid, whose Christmas message - urging us to boycott turkey meat in protest against the way the birds are farmed - goes into the subject in some detail.

The turkey industry, describing the practice whereby turkey semen is obtained for use in breeding, employs the bland initials "AI" (for Artificial Insemination), or borrows the term for a more palatable agricultural process: "milk-ing". Animal Aid calls it "sexual abuse", and argues that if you did it in the street you would not only be arrested, but would never be able to show your face at the golf club again.

Andrew Tyler is the campaign director for Animal Aid. He lives in a flat in north London and conforms pleasingly to the vegan stereotype: thin and ascetic, and with two lolloping hounds to be cheerful on his behalf. Animal Aid is one of half a dozen "mainstream" (Tyler stresses that word) animal rights groups. It does not believe in "direct action", he claims. It does hope to convert 10 per cent of the British population to vegetarianism by the year 2000. (At the moment, the figure is about five per cent and rising.) "Our philosophy," explained Tyler, "is that brutalisation causes a lesion in society. As long as there are slaughterhouses, there'll be battlefields.

"Turkeys are a joke," he continued, looking not at all amused. "The very term means a failure. People who've kept turkeys as pets say they've got a lot of character, but most people can't even see them as a feeling creature." Most people have also forgotten that turkeys can fly, and most farm-bred turkeys have forgotten, too. A wild turkey, according to Tyler, can fly at 50mph; a factory-farmed bird could barely hop into the air for a few seconds.

Tyler showed me a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food document describing how to masturbate a turkey: "The first stage in the milking of semen from the male is to get the phallus to protrude . . ." He also showed me an account by a man (now "goneto ground") who had done the job, who described sucking the semen into a phial through a rubber tube.

Animal Aid contends that turkeys are alone in suffering this sexual indignity. It doesn't happen to chickens. Pigs and cows are artificially inseminated, but the male is not manually stimulated, and at least they have the capacity to mate naturally. Farm-bred turkeys, Tyler claimed, do not: "The males are bred to be so fat that they can't get on top of the females."

Tyler then played a video, covertly filmed by him at a turkey farm that he refused to name. Against a background of mournful music, 46 turkeys were shown shoulder-to- shoulder, swaying en masse in a bleak barn. He claimed that when catchers arrived to round them up, turkeys reared in these conditions might be smothered in the panic, or die of stress. He also cited an article in Poultry World magazine which stated that farm-bred turkeys are prone to 97 "common" diseases.

The industry that Tyler is up against is huge, and growing. Thirty years ago, turkey was a daring alternative to chicken. About 3 million birds a year were consumed. Today, 30 million a year are eaten, and, as turkey rolls, burgers and stir-frys, the meat is consumed year-round. Turkey is cheap to produce - the bird being so big and fleshy - and now, as Tyler indignantly says, can cost less per pound than dog meat.

Turkey producers are permanently braced for questions about animal welfare, and those I approached referred all enquiries to the Turkey Information Service of their trade organisation, the British Turkey Federation. It has issued a one-page press releasein response to the campaign by Animal Aid, which it calls an "extreme organisation". The document makes no mention of "milking", but states that farmers adhere to MAFF regulations governing the treatment of turkeys, on pain of being ejected from the federation. It also reiterates the turkey industry's main line of defence: that an unhappy turkey makes bad meat.

But one turkey farmer did eventually agree to see me: Derek Kelly, jovial owner of Kelly Turkeys, a relatively small turkey breeding and farming company in Essex.

Two days later, I was standing in a barn with his breezily efficient son, Paul. Massing rather intimidatingly around us were 1,900 black turkeys: I had to admit that they were bright of eye, and their coats had a certain lustre. Many of the males were strutting - pushing out their feathers and adopting the bird equi-valent of a bodybuilder's poses. The birds were crowded together around us, but about a fifth of the barn space was empty.

The big producers, including the biggest of them all, Bernard Matthews plc, keep their birds permanently in barns with carefully regulated temperature and lighting, and kill them at 15 weeks old at most. This is "intensive" production. Paul Kelly doesn'tcondemn it; to him, it's simply a method designed to produce optimum meat yield in birds that will mainly be bought frozen. Most turkeys sold in Britain are produced in this way. He admits, though, that he'd rather be a turkey on one of his own farms. The Kellys call their system "free range". The birds have an average of 4 sq ft of space each in the barns, whereas in intensive production, they might have just one. The birds are killed at 20 weeks. And Kelly Turkeys get to go out. At 8am or so, they'reled through a hole in the barn wall into a field bounded by a 3ft-high electrified fence - which says something about their flying abilities. At dusk, they return to the barn. The Kelly turkey is thus a luxury product; contending with outdoors has increased the marbling of fat in its meat, which adds to the flavour, as does the fact that the bird is killed when relatively old.

The turkeys followed Paul and me into the field. I asked him whether they were intelligent. "No," he said. "You can herd turkeys, but you can't herd chickens." They do have their amusing little characteristics, though: fog makes them feel safe, causing them to dash about exuberantly; when a plane flies overhead, they cower, fearing a hawk attack.

I raised the subject of turkey masturbation. "They're making a fuss about that?" Paul said, incredulously. "It's been happening for 80 years." I was complaining about the impossibility of a journalist getting to see the process, when I heard a rustle of feathers beside me. The turkey was already upside down in Paul's hands. He swiftly uncovered a hole amidst the feathers, gave it a couple of tweaks, and there was the turkey semen, looking like a bit of crumbly old toothpaste. "We take this," said Paul, "and suck it into a rubber tube. It's then blown into the vagina." He picked up a nearby turkey hen, and revealed the vagina. When he put the bird down, she fluttered her feathers and walked off. "What she's doing with her feathers - that's called rattling. It proves she likes being handled."

He said that when the AI gangs make their regular visits to the Kellys' breeding sheds (the birds around us were for killing; they would never breed), the males strut and the females squat in happy anticipation.

Transfixed by the bizarre nature of the operation, I asked Paul whether he had ever sucked the semen into his mouth accidentally. "I've had a few mouthfuls," he confirmed cheerfully. "It's a bit salty."

Paul admitted that "milking" was a standard breeding procedure, and said that it was necessary not because the males were too fat, but because if they were allowed to mate naturally, they would frequently rip the female to shreds - which, he says often happens with American wild turkeys, and which farmers used to try to stop by putting a saddle on the female. (Later, I put this point to Andrew Tyler. "It's an absurdity," he said. "Any species where that happened would soon die out." But he conceded thatthe Kellys' methods generally "were an improvement" on those of the intensive producers. The Kellys have been undisturbed by animal rightists ever since, 10 years ago, Chickens Lib - who also act for turkeys - marched on to their land shouting "Kelly's a murderer.")

We went back to the Kelly home, where Paul and Derek, eating turkey egg sandwiches, in a living-room decorated with hundreds of pot turkeys, talked . . . turkey. Derek mentioned the magazines he reads: Poultry World, another simply called Turkey and one imported from America called Gobble. Mrs Kelly gave her turkey cooking tip: "Don't leave it in too long", and Derek recalled the traumatic day when one of his five sons announced his conversion to vegetarianism: "Dad," he had said, "I've got a confessionto make . . ."

After lunch Paul showed us an army of furtive-looking pluckers working in a sea of feathers amidst dead birds hanging from metal clamps. With a little cajoling, he also agreed to show us the adjacent killing zone. "No pictures please," he said to the photographer. "This never comes across well."

He was right. Everything up to a height of 3ft - the white-booted legs of the killers, the legs of a long metal table - was covered in blood. The turkeys, quiet and still, but alive, swung in upside down through a hatch.

A suitably villainous-looking man applied an electrified prong to their necks; there was a brief spasm, and then the birds relaxed, stunned. Another man meditatively cut their throats, producing a thin trickle of blood.

Is this to be called - as the animal rights activists have it - a "Christmassacre"? According to Andrew Linzey, holder of Oxford University's first chair in Theology and Animal Welfare, meat-eaters are in the grip of a doctrine deriving from Aristotle and Aquinas which has been absorbed, anomalously he believes, into mainstream Christianity. "It says that animals are here for our use; that they have no capacity for soulfulness; that they are not sentient."

On Christmas Day, Professor Linzey will eat cashew-nut roast with gooseberry sauce. He says it's very nice; the recipe should be in any decent vegetarian cookbook. !

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