I met Olivia in the year 2000, when I visited the Poplar Spring Farm Animal Sanctuary. Having fallen for Babe, the movie star, I thought I was there 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 them off than to give the animals enough space.
I learned that such practices are legal because the Animal Welfare Act, which regulates housing, exempts animals used for food, and animal cruelty laws exempt any "standard agricultural practice" no matter how painful. I learned that turkeys are not even 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 I settled for sponsoring her at the sanctuary.
Olivia showed remarkable longevity for a modern turkey. Bred to be deformed, with a grotesquely huge chest for 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. Then, in 2008, I brought two to my home, saved from the local slaughter industry, in order to do a bit of media work. Now I can't imagine "Turkey Day" without live turkeys.
They come to me pretty stinky, often covered in excrement from their cage-mates, so that's why they get a bath. And while the blow-dry might make you think I missed my calling as a hairdresser, it's actually a necessity. Turkeys are waterproof; their beautiful soft down is protected by thick outer feathers, which hinder both water and airflow, so if you are going to wash the layers underneath, you have to blow-dry them or they just won't dry.
Pamela and Alexandra, named for the Baywatch Babes who grew into fantastic vegan activists, are in better shape than most turkeys – just like their namesakes. They have obviously come from a free-range farm, as they still have their beaks and toes, which is rare. But their intended fate was no better than that of the other 45 million turkeys killed for Thanksgiving, so it sure is lovely to hear them alive and well in the front yard, making pretty popping noises towards each other, as I type this blog.
They are so affectionate. They really are just like dogs. You'll see, in the video above, that the neighborhood kids are getting that message. Local families stop by all day long to say hello. I know that Tofurky sales have been up at the local supermarket since I started doing my annual turkey rescue.
In December we'll take Pamela and Alexandra up to Farm Sanctuary in northern California, where they'll live out their lives as ambassadors, entertaining children and teaching them that turkeys, like all animals, just want to be loved. I hope that people touched by this little tale will click this link and sponsor a Farm Sanctuary turkey this Thanksgiving.
Mostly I hope that people will keep in mind that "Turkey Day" is a lot more fun when the turkeys are alive and well.