Growing up, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday… except for Christmas. The leaves were a crisp orange, and the fireplace was getting its trial run.
I woke up to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, flipped through the biggest newspaper of the year and imagined the toys in my near future.
In the house, there was an almost palpable buzz of energy as the final touches were made in preparation of the arrival of family.
A wish-enthusiast and a meat eater at the time, after the turkey had been carved, I was eager to make a wish with the “wishbone.”
It’s interesting how perceptions change. Now Thanksgiving is a holiday whose looming presence fills me more with dread than gleeful anticipation.
As the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving whir by, up go the pictures of happy turkeys all a-smile on grocery store signs while 46 million are getting killed in the U.S. for the winter holidays alone.
250 to 300 million turkeys are killed yearly in the United States, where they are not protected under most states’ anti-cruelty laws and are exempt from the federal Humane Slaughter Act.
In the same stores where there are plentiful varieties of fruits and vegetables, nuts and grains, there are lines and lines of bodies of turkeys, most of whom spent their entire lives on factory farms.
With the upcoming holiday on my mind, I got together with my friend, Julia, last week to talk turkey. Julia has been a regular volunteer at Animal Acres Sanctuary (now part of Farm Sanctuary) for many years. She’s the most enthusiastic turkey fan that I know.
Making her way in from an unusually cold Southern California evening, Julia was wearing a button featuring one of her favorite turkeys who ever walked the lawn of Animal Acres. On the button it said, “Friend, Not Food.”
A vegetarian (now vegan) of 17 years, Julia was won over by turkeys on her first visit to an Animal Acres event.
“Being an animal lover,” she said, “I knew that I would love the cows, pigs, sheep, and goats. I always thought pigs were cute, and the sheep and goats are so easy to bond with. So I was prepared for that. The birds were not on my mind.”
“When I took my first visit to the bird area, I was surprised when the volunteer told me I could come inside and pet the turkeys. They were especially mellow and people-friendly that day. I had this moment with one of them where I was petting her, and she was obviously enjoying it.”
“She started to close her eyes and doze off a little bit. I had no idea you could interact with a bird like that. It was really sweet. I liked all of the animals at the sanctuary, but the turkeys surprised me because they were so friendly and comfortable with me. I never expected to be able to interact with them and get to know their personalities.”
Julia was recently featured as the activist of the month for the sanctuary because of her help rescuing some baby turkeys.
“I was asked to meet someone in Santa Barbara to receive the turkeys who had been rescued and then drive them to Animal Acres. It was a group of 12 babies, about 6 weeks old. They were chirping in my car the whole time, making baby bird noises.”
“Once I arrived at the sanctuary and set them up in their barn, they were pretty vocal for the first hour or so but then settled down. I spent the next two or three hours with them in the barn as they explored their new place.”
“They were extremely curious but slightly scared and would always stick together. They were pretty afraid of me the first day, but I went up every weekend after that for the next few weeks.”
“How did you win them over?” I wondered.
“I brought them treats,” Julia said with a smile.
“Lettuce is what they love more than anything else. The number one rule when interacting with turkeys is to make yourself as small as possible. I decided to lie down completely and they got really comfortable with me.”
“That’s the cutest thing about them is that I can tell they’re afraid of people to some extent but they’re extremely curious. They have an inner fight with their curiosity and fear, but their curiosity always wins in the end. They want to know what you’re about.”
“They go after shoelaces, play with hair. They love anything shiny if you have a nice camera lens.”
“The cutest moment,” she said, “was when I was lying on the ground and getting a little sleepy. I closed my eyes for a bit and when I opened my eyes again, I had three of them sitting on me, roosting on various parts of my body.”
“They’re very warm. They’re so little, just handfuls. One was snuggled up and let me pet her, essentially the way you would sit at home on the couch with your cat. They were hanging out with me for quite a while.”
“How did they react while you petted them?” I asked.
“When you sit with them and they’re comfortable, they’ll make cooing noises. It’s incredibly soothing. Sometimes they fall asleep when I pet them, and sometimes they make me want to take a nap.”
The lives they’ll live at the sanctuary couldn’t be more different from the lives they would have lived at a factory farm, where the birds live their short lives (about five months) in sheds with thousands of others.
Because they are crowded in and unable to display any of their natural behaviors, it is standard procedure to cut off parts of the birds’ beaks, toes, and snoods on the males without any pain relievers. (The snood is the flap of skin under the chin.)
Turkeys are bred, drugged, and genetically manipulated to grow as big as possible in as short of time as possible.
I said to Julia, “Some people justify the way we treat turkeys, because they claim turkeys aren’t very intelligent.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that,” Julia said.
“I was told by an acquaintance once that turkeys are kind of dumb. I told her that the reason turkeys have the reputation of being dumb is because they’re very friendly and curious, and they were sort of known as the prey who would walk up to the hunter’s gun. They would come up and say ‘hi.’ They want to know what the hunters are about, and so they get shot. So people decided turkeys were stupid.”
Julia continued, “We have this hierarchy of animals. Humans are the most intelligent, and then dogs and dolphins are at the top.”
“Well, first of all, how do you define intelligence? Humans usually judge in terms of trainability. Why do we say intelligence matters so much? We say it matters the most, because that way we always win.”
“There are animals who can do things we can’t. Birds can fly. Dolphins and bats use echo-sonar. Dogs and cats have an amazing sense of smell. We can’t compete with that. So we use intelligence as we define it and use that as an excuse for what we do to animals.”
“Is that why it’s important to you to be an advocate for them?” I asked.
“I care about all animals and want them to live happy lives. I think the animals people eat need our help the most, and out of those animals, the birds more than any others.”
“People easily relate to mammals. Cows with their big brown eyes… Pigs are trainable and touted as intelligent.”
“How many times do you hear people say they don’t eat red meat, only white meat? I think we need to provide help to those who need it the most, and chickens and turkeys are seen as dumb birds nobody cares about at all.”
“Check out United Poultry Concerns’ More Than A Meal,” Julia said.
“Karen Davis, the founder of UPC, is one of my animal rights heroes. She has been into animal rights issues for a long time.”
“Someone cautioned her when she started that if you want to engage people in animal issues, you have to promote the cute and fuzzy animals. She said if that’s how people think, the birds need our help most of all.”
After the Civil War, Abe Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the aims of healing the wounds of the nation and as a means to restore “peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.” As we learn more about the curious and beautiful turkeys, we can choose to create peace and harmony in our own lives by choosing foods for which no one had to suffer.
We can do this while we still enjoy what makes Thanksgiving truly special and that is gratitude, togetherness, and thankfulness. We can still page through the newspaper, flip on the Macy’s Day Parade and watch the floats make their way down Times Square.
We can still hold our families close, if not in person then in our hearts.
And when it comes time to make a wish, we can forsake the turkey’s bones in lieu of a wish for the turkeys.
May others become aware of the gentle spirit of these birds, to the horrors that they live and die in slaughterhouses, and the reminder that when it comes to killing, nothing is neat, tidy, or nice.
There is no such thing as “humane” slaughter. All animals want to live.
Let’s be thankful for our abundance, and enjoy the abundance of plant foods that we have available to us. Let’s be thankful for the turkeys and honor their lives, and not their deaths, this holiday.
*Factory farming photos provided by Farm Sanctuary, where you can adopt a turkey this season. Find a sanctuary in your area to get to know these animals for yourself.
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