While most Californians are finalizing menus and preparing for guests, on a recent Saturday a Thanksgiving feast was held west of Orland that turned tradition on its head.
Instead of the centerpiece, here, turkeys were the guests of honor.
About 150 people, about a third children, are crowded behind a rough circle of hay bales, eager for the best view. Inside, low tables are in neat rows, piled high with bowls of salads and greens, interspersed with pumpkin pies and decorations.
This feast though isn’t an extended family’s gathering, or a charity dinner for the downtrodden. In fact, those engaging in a little overindulgence today were once destined for the roasting pan.
This is the festival for the turkeys, an annual event put on by Farm Sanctuary, a national organization that provides permanent homes for farm animals rejected by or diverted from slaughterhouses, and works to change how our society views and treats farm animals through education and advocacy.
Susie Coston is the organization’s national shelter director. She and others here are trying to get people to re-evaluate their relationship with farm animals.
“They’re no less sensitive, they’re no less intelligent, no less empathetic, and we all know, I mean, people that have dogs and cats will talk about them for hours about how wonderful and intelligent and brilliant and emotional they actually are,” Coston said. “These animals are no different. It’s just that we’ve chosen not to see them, because we’re eating them.”
Around since 1986, the organization operates a sanctuary in New York’s Finger Lakes region along with one in Tehama County near Newville, and a third in Acton, just an hour north of Los Angeles. With the financial support of comedian Jon Stewart, it’s readying a fourth facility in New Jersey.
Gene Baur is president and co-founder.
“Being called a turkey is not a compliment, and I don’t think that’s fair,” Baur said. “Turkeys are friendly. They’re curious. We have some turkeys that follow you around like puppy-dogs. They will sit on your lap in some cases. So, these are animals that are not that different than cats and dogs, and when they are treated with kindness, they respond. In think it’s important for people to recognize that like all animals, farm animals have feelings, they develop relationships, they have memories, and they deserve to be treated with respect and compassion and that’s not only good for the animals, it’s also good for us.”
Early rains have laid an emerald carpet over the undulating hillocks near Black Butte Reservoir, where the mighty Mendocinos cast long afternoon shadows over the valley below. The scene couldn’t be more idyllic.
As cattle and goats wander over lush green shoots in the distance, people pack tightly together to watch the spectacle. But before the turkeys get to gobble, Baur, seeing his human guests and supporters as something of ambassadors of meatless-ness, delivers a quick pep-talk, long on leading by example, and omitting the earnest tones that critics of the cause often criticize.
“I think if people know they can do better, they are going to want to do that right?” he said. “So, each of us can play a role in saying check this out, so maybe bring a, even if you go to a meal where they are serving a dead turkey, bring a great vegan dish, and show people what they can have as well.”
The turkeys waddle fearlessly toward their holiday table, and finally, the birds start pecking away. Once they’re comfortable, children move into the scrum, offering more treats. Youngster Cash Daily was among them. He said spinach seemed the favorite among the turkeys. Asked if he shared their enthusiasm for the leafy green,
“No, definitely not,” he said, chuckling.
Attendee Kerry Mack of Sutter Creek disagreed.
“It looked like the fruit. Like, the grapes on top of the pies, they seemed to mostly be going for the fruit, they got a sweet tooth, I think,” she said.
Alma Hachey, who made the trip from Concord, became a vegan two years ago. She said it became second nature after three weeks.
“I think it’s a great tradition to do this in November, especially November is when so many of these animals suffer, the turkeys, so I think it’s nice to kind of come and celebrate life instead of dead turkey on the dinner table,” she said.
Baur and Coston freely acknowledge the limits of their work. The organization provides a home for only a tiny fraction of a fraction of animals raised for the dinner table. Nevertheless, Baur is satisfied an optimistic, noting incremental changes in animal husbandry and public awareness
“People’s food choices have profound impacts on other animals and most people are supporting an abusive system and animal cruelty without thinking about it, so farm sanctuary wants people to think about the fact that turkeys and cows and pigs and chickens are living, feeling creatures who want to live and enjoy life, and we should treat them with respect,” he said. “That says something about who we are.”