The Story of Factual Fiction

Oh boy.

This story definitely tested my patience with the general public along with my ability to focus multiple reactions and emotions into actual sentences.  So here it goes:

For the past 20 years, CBC Radio has aired a Christmas story written and read by Stuart McLean called, “Dave Cooks the Turkey”. For those not familiar with Stuart McLean, he is a much-beloved author and media figure in Toronto who hosts a weekly radio show called the Vinyl Café to which 2 million people tune in every week and listen to his legendary story-telling.  I don’t follow his work but like most Torontonians, I know who he is and the many accomplishments he’s famous for.

Anyhoodle.  Back to the story of the story.

The gist of the “Dave Cooks the Turkey” story is that Dave is somewhat of a hapless guy, who, through a series of humorous failures, ends up having to cook Christmas dinner. However, the only turkey he can get is a “B-grade” turkey and the bird he acquires is described by another character in the story as looking like they were “abused”:

“As the turkey is defrosted it became clear what B-grade meant. The skin on the right drumstick was ripped. Dave’s turkey looked like it had made a break from the slaughterhouse and dragged itself a block or two before it was captured and beaten to death.”

And because the Vinyl Café is recorded with a live audience, this portion of the story is always followed by a few seconds of laughter.

Yan Roberts, “a longtime Vinyl Café fan,” and also an activist, writer and owner of a farm sanctuary where he spends quite a bit of time with turkeys that are thawed and breathing, decided that after years of, “having to rush to the radio and turn off the annual reading…before it gets to the ‘jokes’ about turkey-abuse”, he would let the CBC know this year not only how he felt about this portion of the story, but also about the reality of some of its supposed fiction.

Here are some facts:

Turkeys on factory farms are “ready” for slaughter between nine and twenty-four weeks of age (the sooner birds can be slaughtered, the sooner they can be shipped to stores for selling and the greater the profits can be made). Because the birds have been genetically altered to grow at such a rapid rate, their bones and organs do not grow at quite the same pace as their flesh. As a result, many turkeys suffer crippling leg and hip deformities, bone defects and heart attacks.  During their short and hellish lives on a factory farm, they are also debeaked, have the ends of their toes cut off and the males have their snoods cut off with scissors or sometimes just torn off by hand, all without the use of anaesthetic (the snood is the long, fleshy, red piece that hangs from their foreheads to their beaks).

When it comes time for transportation, because workers are usually paid by the truck-load and not the hour, turkeys are often grabbed by their fragile legs, four at a time (two in each hand), and are literally thrown into crates.  From there they begin the trip to the slaughterhouse.  This is often the first time the birds have ever been outside and they are shipped in all sorts of weather conditions – legally – for up to 36 hours without food, water or rest.  And if they cross the border to the U.S., that clock resets. Many don’t make the journey.  If they do, their worst nightmare is yet to come at the slaughterhouse where they are shackled and hung upside down, have their throats slashed and are dumped in a scalding tank, often while still alive and bleeding out. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has records that indicate over 250,000 birds die in this manner every year – still conscious while they are submerged in the scald tank and literally boiled alive.

All of this is legal.  None of this is considered “abuse” under the law in Canada but simply the cost of doing business. That is difficult enough of a reality to swallow. To make matters worse, there are clear cases of additional abuses that occur on factory farms regularly.  An undercover investigation earlier this year by Mercy for Animals showed abuses taking place at Hybrid Turkey Farm in Bright, Ontario which included workers punching, throwing and beating turkeys with metal rods and shovels. Sick birds were also found with open wounds and festering infections, left without any veterinary care.  Although this particular case led to a precedent in Canada in that it was the first time charges had been laid for animal cruelty occurring on a factory farm, these laws are rarely enforced much less prosecuted, which means abuse like this is sadly normal.  Were it not for undercover investigators and whistleblowers, the public would know even less about what really goes on in these hellholes.

Canada is one of the largest “producers” of turkeys with 548 turkey farmers. According to the Turkey Farmers of Canada, Thanksgiving and Christmas account for 71% of annual whole turkey sales.  In 2013, Canadian households consumed a total of 8.4 million whole turkeys.  Canada also exports turkey and Canadian turkey exports have increased 30% since 2001.

Here’s another fact: most people don’t have a clue how turkey gets to their table for Christmas. I know this because I used to be one of those clueless and ignorant people doing something simply because “that’s what we’ve always done”, desperately clinging to the tradition of never questioning traditions.  In the words of George Bernard Shaw: “Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity.”

Which brings me back to the story.  Yan Roberts, CBC listener, farmer and activist, started an online petition to encourage people to ask the CBC to edit those particular portions of the story, “so that it no longer jokes about turkey abuse.”  He wasn’t asking people to boycott the CBC.  He wasn’t asking that the story never be aired ever again.  He asked that, “Quietly omitting the part of your story that normalizes or celebrates abuse would be constructive.”  Even Stuart McLean, who wrote the damn thing, admitted in an interview that the story was written, “in a time of different sensibilities.”

Well, the Friday before last, CBC posted their response to the petition on Facebook and the request to edit the story (proving me wrong about petitions often having little effect when it comes to animal rights).  In short, CBC agreed to air the story this past weekend but with “a few small changes.”  They agreed to “edit out a couple of lines that…we no longer feel comfortable airing on our show.”  They even went as far to say, “Twenty years ago…the idea of abusing a turkey seemed ludicrous,” but, “given the recent reports about the mistreatment of animals on some factory farms, what might have been funny…twenty years ago, is no longer funny today.”

The reactions people had to the CBC’s response were pretty visceral and the hatred is palpable in some of the comments. Yan Roberts received a death threat and people who supported the decision to edit the piece have been harassed relentlessly online. If you’re a vegan masochist and want to read some of the comments, by all means – just put on your triple layer of skin and pour yourself a drink first.  At best the comments are dismissive.  At worst, they are hateful and ignorant.  But here’s the gist of a lot of the comments: This is a work of fiction, why don’t “they” find something better to do with their time, get a sense of humour and learn to separate fact from fiction and if they don’t want to listen to it, turn off the radio. Completely reactive words spoken without thought by people passively participating in the status quo.

But here’s the thing: words and stories reflect and shape our culture. For the same reason that the “n-word” was removed from the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 2011 (also a work of fiction) when a new edition was printed, society as a whole will never grow or improve if we never take the time to reevaluate how we view one another.  Has taking the “n-word” out of a literary classic made the word obsolete and eliminated racism?  Of course not.  But as our worldview of slavery and the oppression of an entire race of people continues to be exposed for what it is – unjust, unconstitutional and unacceptable – isn’t it important that we work to expunge those words meant to demean and degrade others from our collective vocabulary so future generations don’t come to think of it as normal or tolerable?

This is what I believe Yan Roberts was trying to convey with his petition: I’m sure he is well aware that changing a couple of lines in a story isn’t going to necessarily make anyone suddenly give a shit about the welfare of turkeys or make them stop cooking them at Christmas.  But from the point of view of someone like Yan who believes in the rights of farm animals and also spends time with them, it’s bad enough living in a culture that has long-accepted the slaughtering of animals as normal.  Going out of our way to make punch lines about their suffering further enforces that “normal” and is unnecessary.  And it certainly isn’t fiction these days. As a listener of the CBC and a farmer who keeps turkeys at his sanctuary, Yan had as much of a right to speak up as the others did, perhaps even more so since he actually gets what the real joke is.

While the main character in the story of, “Dave Cooks the Turkey” may be made up and written hilariously out of Stuart McLean’s imagination, it is grounded in certain realities. If it weren’t, the audience would have nothing to identify with. Preparing and cooking a defrosted turkey is still a reality in millions of Canadian households which is one of the reasons the story is so popular – people can relate to that. However, just because the theme may be universal doesn’t mean there isn’t another side to it.  It doesn’t mean there is no other story to be told.  A work of fiction shouldn’t give us free rein to laugh at the cruel truths contained in it.

At the end of the day, if people really knew the amount of suffering that went into acquiring their Christmas turkeys, they likely wouldn’t eat one again, much less want to listen to a story about cooking one.  Even if someone paid more and went to a farm directly where the animal lived freely and carefree right before they had their throat cut, that animal still experienced fear, pain and death, all so we can sit around a table ostensibly to celebrate peace and love.  I do not understand this disconnect and I encourage everyone to close that gap once and for all.  I believe this is the moral compass Ghandi referred to and based on the comments from CBC’s Facebook page, we are still way, way off course.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

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