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Why the artificial insemination of turkeys is a feminist issue

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In the human animal world Artificial Insemination (AI) is connected to hope and desire. Hope and desire for a new life, a much-wanted baby.

Women undergoing AI have generally spent thousands of dollars and many, many hours of waiting, testing and a degree of finger-crossing as, for some, the pregnancy doesn’t always last and the countless hours of testing and waiting begin all over again.

Physically, the intrauterine insemination procedure, if done properly, should seem similar to a pap smear for the woman. There should be little or no discomfort.  In this world science walks hand in hand with women to fulfil, for most, a lifelong dream.

But in the non-human animal world AI reveals an ugly side to the use of the science that underpins AI. Every year in Australia, the US and UK turkeys undergo the procedure, similar to that of the human animal one, artificial insemination.

In the turkey meat industry AI is a process whereby sperm is ‘milked’ from the male turkey and placed into the reproductive tract of a female turkey for the purpose of impregnating.

However, unlike the human AI process, in the turkey breeding facility humans forcefully masturbate the male turkeys and rape the female turkeys.

Approximately, 320 million turkeys are produced every year to be slaughtered for human pleasure of ‘taste’. In Australia, between three to five million turkeys are produced, with most being consumed at Christmas time, as well as ‘Christmas in July’. Approximately 1kg of turkey per person per year is consumed at Christmas in Australia.

For turkeys, the season of goodwill is grounded in murder and sexual obscenity. Their lives are controlled and manipulated at every point from conception to slaughter. Due to genetic manipulation, humans have bred domestic turkeys into deformed beings who can no longer reproduce naturally.

Instead, AI of the female turkeys and masturbation of the male turkeys for fast, mass, ‘production’ is practised. The male turkeys are lined up, and a worker catches them by their legs, holds them upside down, lifts them by the legs and one wing, putting him on the bench on his chest or neck, with his rear end sticking up and facing another worker.

His feet and legs are then locked into a clamp with the worker lifting their leg over his head and neck to ensure the turkey stays in position. The turkey’s anus is squeezed until it opens up. The worker then grabs the turkey’s penis, stroking and masturbating it until the tom (male turkey) ejaculates. The white semen oozes into the sucking end of a glass tube. The semen is collected, laced with extenders (a liquid to preserve fertilising ability) and antibiotics.

As each syringe is filled, they are handed to the inseminators in the hen (female turkeys) house. Here the inseminators herd the female turkeys into a pen where they are grabbed by their legs, while crossing their ankles and placing them upside down. A worker wipes their hand over her rear which pushes up her tail feathers exposing her anus opening.

A worker then forces the syringe full of semen into the female turkey’s vagina. Most often this process is rushed and the treatment and handling of the hens deteriorates as the workers become tired and frustrated, often losing concentration, causing the turkeys to suffer increased pain and trauma due to rough handling.

This forced masturbation and rape is repeated weekly until the breeder turkeys are slaughtered at one year of age. The AI process is undoubtedly painful and causes injury and suffering to which the industry conveniently turns a blind eye.

Breeder turkeys are kept in breeding facilities for close to a year, so their welfare problems are magnified. The gruelling process of being sexually abused weekly is undoubtedly barbaric and filled with sexual obscenity.

So why do humans participate in an exploitive system of forced pregnancy engaging in forced sexual contact with farm animals such as turkeys?

Arguably, the economic influences of our capitalist society are dominant as the focus is on maximising profit and efficiency. Hence, in the turkey hen house AI is seen as an efficient tool of trade.

Our society is bombarded by profit and efficiency and this dominates our culture which influences how we view the world. People then become disconnected not only from the reality as to how a turkey ends up on their dinner plate but from the turkey as a sentient being.

In this way, animals such as turkeys are turned into commodities. If the world is based on productivity and profit then all interpersonal transactions become economic transactions between commodities. So the worker who is a commodity treats the turkey as a commodity.

However, the sexual exploitation involved in factory farming cannot be explained only on the grounds of ‘economic efficiency’.

Humans control the reproduction of species to sustain power through hierarchy over others. The problem of human dominance through hierarchy is so entrenched, and so much a part of us and our interactions with each other that this is projected onto the rest of the eco-system.

With turkeys, we confine them, rape them, then steal their forcibly-birthed offspring. Reproduction is then devalued and reduced to a form of female enslavement – in this case making more babies to be turned into meat for human consumption. Turkeys’ fertility is manipulated and their offspring are commodified as products for the industrialised capitalist food production system.

The desire to control the turkey’s reproduction can be seen as female enslavement by a dominant patriarchal system. And in this regard, the system itself is what dominates, regardless of the actual biology of the workers and the turkeys.

Feminism identifies patriarchal domination as a key force causing exploitation of the environment by emphasising the place of ‘man’ as dominant and ‘his’ role to exploit for ‘his’ own benefit.

In the ‘human world’, this domination and sexual exploitation is now seen as a ‘natural process’ by the industry. Some might argue that non-human animals benefit from this perspective as much as we do.

Similar arguments have been used to justify domination and exploitation of particular groups of humans over one another. Bob Torres’s Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights (2007) argues the racist assumes that race makes him ‘better’ than the person of colour, the sexist assumes that the simple fact of gender makes him better than a woman and similarly the speciesist assumes humans to be better than non-human animals.

So the exploitation of turkeys is also inherently speciesist as well as sexist. Western feminism advocates for the right of women to control their own reproductive systems. We detest the history of forced sterilisation of human females, for example until recently girls who were considered intellectually challenged were forcefully sterilised either with parental consent or by state policy.

So why do we blindly accept an exploitive system of sexual assault among non-human animals?

This article was previously published on The Scavenger website

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Lara Drew is currently doing a PhD in education on animal rights and tutoring at the University of Canberra. She is an animal rights activist currently running a community education campaign on the factory farming of turkeys in Australia with Animal Liberation ACT called ‘Big Birds, Big Cruelty’ which is funded by Voiceless – the animal protection institute. For more information visit the website, watch the documentary and find the campaign on Facebook.

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