Up here in the Palisades I am known as the turkey lady. That’s because this will be the fourth year in a row that there will be beautiful live turkeys strolling around my front yard over the holiday season.
My love affair with turkeys began a decade ago when I visited the Poplar Spring Farm Animal Sanctuary and met Olivia. Having fallen for Babe, the movie star, I thought I was at the sanctuary to meet the pigs. But the sanctuary owner, Terry, started our tour at the turkey coop and changed my life.
Terry opened the gate and Olivia hobbled toward me — “hobbled” because the ends of her toes had been cut off. Terry explained that turkeys on factory farms are crammed so close together that their claws and beaks injure each other’s lucrative flesh and it’s cheaper to cut or sear them off than to give the animals enough space.
I learned that such living conditions are legal because the Animal Welfare Act, which regulates housing, exempts any animal who will be used for food. Toes and beaks can be removed, without anesthesia, because animal cruelty laws exempt any “standard agricultural practice” no matter how painful.
Terry told us that Olivia had been living on a turkey factory farm until Hurricane Floyd wiped it out. Ironically that hurricane saved her from a particularly gruesome death; turkeys are not covered under federal humane slaughter laws — no poultry is, even though birds make up approximately 95 percent of animals slaughtered for food.
More happily I learned that turkeys love to be cuddled. As I sat cross-legged on the grassy hill near the coop, Olivia limped in my direction. First she came close enough for me to reach out and touch her — gingerly. Then she moved further in, and I could pet her. It was surprisingly like petting my dog.
I reached my fingers under the outer feathers on her back and could feel a layer of soft down underneath. I had only ever felt that down in luxury pillows. How odd and lovely to feel it warm on a living being.
Within a couple of minutes, Olivia had edged herself into my lap! I continued to move my fingers through her down. She laid her head in the crook of my elbow. She fell asleep. I fell in love.
I wished I could take her home with me but settled for sponsoring her at the sanctuary.
Olivia showed remarkable longevity for a modern turkey. Bred to be deformed with a grotesquely huge chest with lots of “white meat,” she’d been too weak to stand when she had arrived at the sanctuary. But apparently a home with space to move, grass to enjoy, sunshine in which to bathe, and loving care, had given her the will to live. And live she did, happily, until 2005 when I received the sad news that the sanctuary’s lovely little turkey ambassador, my little ward, had died of cancer.
In Olivia’s honor I started to sponsor a new turkey every Thanksgiving through Farm Sanctuary’s AdoptaTurkey.org. Eventually I decided to take some home from a local slaughterhouse; now I can’t imagine Turkey Day without live turkeys.
First there were Bruce and Emily. They became Brucilla and Emily after Bruce laid an egg. Next came Monty and Marsha, and then Ellen and Portia, named after vegan ambassadors Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi. This year’s turkeys are named after newly vegan newlyweds Russell Brand and Katy Perry. They were originally named Russell and Katy but when Katy let out a very loud and very male gobble, I realized that she, or indeed he, had to be renamed. So Russell and Perry they are — a modern couple.
I have the turkey routine down now, and you can watch it on a little YouTube video at ThankingtheMonkey.com/turkeyrescue (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ATMfRyb7IdY). They come to me pretty stinky, often covered in excrement from their cage-mates, so they get a bath and then a blow-dry. Turkeys are pretty much waterproof — their beautiful soft down is protected by thick outer feathers so if you are going to wash the layers underneath you have to blow-dry them or they just won’t dry at all.
Next they come downstairs to meet the neighborhood kids, who have been asking for weeks when the new turkeys will arrive. Then they get tucked in safe and sound in their little heated coop.
After the holidays, Russell and Perry will go to Farm Sanctuary’s Animal Acres in Acton, Calif. where you can visit them on Sundays. But first they’ll join us here for our very vegan Thanksgiving feast. They will be at the table instead of on it. The only turkey on the table will be Wild Turkey bourbon, right next to a photo of Olivia, my first turkey love.
I am so glad to have found a whole new way to celebrate Turkey Day — it’s a lot more fun for everybody when the turkeys are alive and well.
Karen Dawn is the author of “Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals.”