Animal activists crash Utah governor’s turkey pardoning party

Direct Action Everywhere members try to draw attention to farming practices of Norbest.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Animal rights activists crash the annual Utah turkey pardon and Thanksgiving seasonal message by Governor Gary R. Herbert Tuesday Nov. 21 on the Utah capitol plaza. The two activists were quickly grabbed and hustled off site by the governor's security detail and Utah Highway Patrol. Turkey farmer Marlin Steadman, left, tries to keep "Grateful" the turkey calm during the interruption. The ceremony then continued and the governor pardoned "Grateful" the 40 lb. Tom Turkey raised in Sanpete County. He will live out his days at the Thanksgiving Point bird refuge.

As Gov. Gary Herbert stood before a crowd of dozens — and one lucky turkey — two men slipped past law enforcement and rushed the governor and his feathered guest of honor.

The annual turkey pardoning at the state Capitol plaza went off the rails Tuesday as animal rights activists used the sparing of Grateful the turkey to draw attention to conditions of the poultry farming industry.

The activists were part of Direct Action Everywhere. The stunt was aimed at drawing attention the farming practices of Norbest, the supplier of the lucky bird and one of the largest turkey companies in the nation.

“Just show us what all your barns are like,” one activist yelled at Norbest representatives.

Herbert stood with farmer Marlin Steadman to present Grateful, a 40-pound tom turkey, to the public Tuesday afternoon when the two activists ran in from the bushes.

They brought photos of the conditions Norbest turkeys live in, which they say conflicts with the company’s marketing campaign. The company’s logo is “mountain-grown turkeys,” but a news release from Direct Action Everywhere claims that outside of the elevation, there are not many mountains involved in the birds’ lives.

A documentary recently released by the activist group shows cluttered, enclosed living environments where thousands of birds are in such confined conditions that they are forced to walk over each other. It shows diseased, bloodied, deformed and injured birds.

“The industry is covering up sickening conditions that are inherent to animal agriculture,” Jon Frohnmayer, an activist that worked on the documentary said in a news release. “From mass mutilation to neglect of diseased and dying animals, violence against animals is simply standard practice for Big Ag.”

The activists — who are seeking a change in legislation to bring more transparency to the agriculture industry, according to the release — were no arrested, said Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Todd Royce.

“They were cooperative, they were just asked to leave,” Royce said.

Matt Cook, Norbest president and CEO, has said he was disappointed to see the video and photographs because they were taken at a farm that has had problems in the past.

“Prior to our company having any knowledge of the disturbing photos, our animal care team had documented violations at the farm in question and advised the owner that he must correct all violations before we would consider returning birds to his care,” Cook said in a written statement.

Norbest’s animal care policy, Cook said, states that “animal abuse in any form will not be tolerated” and failure to abide by the policy “may result in disciplinary action, up to and including employment or contract termination and where appropriate, prosecution under applicable laws.’

Norbest is one of the largest marketing cooperatives in the United States, selling turkeys raised by some 40 Utah farmers. Combined, it produces 5 million turkeys annually.

“We are committed to the care of our birds and have well-established animal care standards,” Cook said, “which makes it even more disappointing to see the disturbing photos.