At this Thanksgiving feast, turkeys will be served. They will be served pumpkin pie with cranberries, that is, by the staff of Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary, a small farm on a dirt road in Dutchess County.
Thanksgiving for the Turkeys, which last year drew about 40 visitors, sheds light on a part of this holiday most of us don’t dwell on: 45 million turkeys are slaughtered to be eaten the last Thursday in November.
“They’re not really going to get to know a turkey, but you know, most of the people who come to visit have never seen a live turkey: how soft they are, how pretty their eyes are,” said Dr. Ellen Crain, a retired pediatrician who owns Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag, NY with her husband, Dr. William Crain, a psychology professor. “We don’t have any major life-changing goals, just maybe sensitizing people to how things might be a little different. And hopefully the turkeys are having a good time.”
At last year’s celebration, which Dirt stopped by for, Ellen and a young volunteer slid back the barn doors and the four resident turkeys – Sadie, Roslyn, Ducky and Emma – staggered out as fast as their legs would carry them, which wasn’t very fast, to peck at the aluminum trays of salad and pumpkin pie with cranberries.
The turkey most of us will be eating on Thanksgiving was slaughtered around four months old, explained Bill, as the crowd watched the birds go to town. These girls are five years old, and under their snow-white plumage they look their age: their clawless toes are thickened and gnarled and their drooping wattles are sprouting white beards. When the Crains bring the turkeys to the vet, they might as well be hauling in an exotic specimen. No one has never seen such an ancient commercial turkey.
“They stagger because they have leg and heart problems. They had to gain weight fast,” Bill explained. Commercial turkeys are bred to be completely white and supersized. They grow so big that they can neither fly nor reproduce on their own.
These four turkeys came to the sanctuary after someone dropped a box of 80 chicks off at the mothership of sanctuaries, 175-acre Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen. No one knows who dropped off the box, but it clearly came from a factory farm, since the birds had had parts of their beaks and toenails cut off, common practice in crowded conditions. Chances are they narrowly avoided becoming Christmas dinner.
Since that reprieve, the turkeys have spent their days much like chickens would, pecking around in the grass, eating bugs and ticks, digging holes to flop around in the dust. In the meantime they’ve also provided inspiration for Bill’s latest book, The Emotional Lives of Animals & Children: Insights from a Farm Sanctuary (Turning Stone Press, 2014).
Recently, two more turkey chicks joined the flock, after another box, this time with 24 chicks in it, arrived at the Watkins Glen Farm Sanctuary.
“They’re all different, that’s the first thing that struck me. I used to think, well, a turkey’s a turkey,” said Ellen. “One of our older turkeys is very, very friendly, she will come over to you if you’re sitting around, will let you pet her, hug her. She seems to enjoy just sitting with you.”
Ellen is referring to Emma. The most gregarious of the four turkeys, Emma has taken on the role of avian ambassador. She’s really the one that Allyson Dwyer, 24, drove two hours from Piscataway, New Jersey to see.
As the turkeys polished off their feast, most of the crowd sipped hot cider and chatted, but Dwyer squatted down to turkey-level and watched intently.
“I became vegan after meeting Emma,” Dwyer said. Dwyer, a journalism student, had been vegetarian for years, but until she came to the 2012 Thanksgiving for the Turkeys, she “had never personally interacted with farm animals.”
“I had this cool connection with her,” she said. “She liked me petting her and I fed her.”
Dwyer now volunteers at For the Animals, a sanctuary in Blairstown, New Jersey.
“Sanctuaries,” said Dwyer, “are the vegan makers.”
Safe Haven 2014 Thanksgiving for the Turkeys will be on Saturday, November 22. safehavenfarmsanctuary.org.