Farm Sanctuary turkeys. Photo by Sue Henninger.
At Farm Sanctuary, a bucolic Watkins Glen haven for farm animals rescued from inhumane conditions, Thanksgiving is a special holiday —but for a very unexpected reason. “At Farm Sanctuary’s annual event, ‘Celebrate the Turkeys,’ the lovable birds are the guests of honor, rather than the centerpiece,” says Samantha Ragsdale, senior director of education for the organization. She adds, “Our goal is to offer an alternative way to experience a turkey, a healthy and compassionate tradition that allows people to get to know the birds as special individuals, rather than a main course.”
For people who care about animals’ rights, Thanksgiving can be a sad and reflective time. Friends of Farm Sanctuary are grateful for the yearly celebration, which marks a tradition of honoring life, rather than ending it.
One of Farm Sanctuary’s main goals is to change how the public perceives farm animals. “Often we view them from a distance, seeing them as a category, rather than the unique beings they are,” Ms. Ragsdale observes. With this in mind, the afternoon of the celebration begins with “barn time,” where dinner guests are encouraged to visit the farm and meet and greet the various animals living there. Most of the animals, including cows, sheep, goats and pigs, have been rescued from very painful circumstances. The Farm Sanctuary’s hope is that seeing in person how the animals have flourished — with a pasture to roam in, healthy food to eat, adequate medical care and a kind touch — can be truly transformative. Ms. Ragsdale loves to hear visitors’ stories of how their eyes were opened to a “whole new world” upon discovering that farm animals are just as curious about, and interested in, interacting with people as cats and dogs are.
There’s a misconception that turkeys are not very bright (and thus expendable), a myth Ms. Ragsdale is quick to debunk. “If you spend time with them, you’ll see this is untrue,” she asserts, urging anyone who doubts her to sit down on the floor and “talk” to a turkey. Admitting that turkeys are one of her favorite farm friends, she expounds on their likability: “They love shiny things like buttons and jewelry, so put on all your bling and they’ll come right to you!”
Her favorite turkey is Turpentine, a colorful bird with a definite affinity for the spotlight (and a Facebook page), who loves being the center of attention at the annual dinner. But it’s the entire flock that makes the occasion a sight to behold. The turkeys’ special holiday table is constructed from a single layer of hay bales, to accommodate the short legs of these guests of honor, and adorned with a festive tablecloth and autumn-colored ceramic platters. Fresh cranberries garnished with lettuce, baked acorn squash chopped in pieces and crustless pumpkin pies make for an exciting and healthy feast for the lucky birds. The most entertaining part is when the hungry guests rush to the table. “They’re very excited and dive right in,” Ms. Ragsdale says, noting that many of the genetically modified white turkeys will be covered with gooey gobs of orange squash and pumpkin by the end of the meal. She adds, “It’s a perfect example of enthusiastic holiday dining!”
The event includes a human Thanksgiving celebration as well, a slightly more upscale event at $75.00 per ticket. Ms. Ragsdale describes the meal as a “gourmet, traditional and vegan” feast, raving about the creative and passionate chef at the Harbor Hotel in Watkins Glen where the event is held. Delicious side dishes are made from local, organic ingredients and there’s always a magnificent, seasonal salad to accompany the traditional mashed potatoes, stuffing and holiday pies. Tofurky is Farm Sanctuary’s “Exclusive Thanksgiving Partner,” donating their non-meat roasts to both the New York and California celebrations of Farm Sanctuary’s “Celebration for the Turkeys.” The savory vegetarian alternative holds the place of honor on the beautifully decorated, linen-covered tables. The company has been a supporter of Farm Sanctuary since the early 1990s and also promotes “Adopt a Turkey” on their product boxes, along with making a monetary donation to the project.
Though the atmosphere of the evening is upbeat, a moment is set aside to remember and reflect on the 250 million turkeys that are slaughtered each Thanksgiving. Farm Sanctuary’s director, Susie Costen, frequently called “the Jane Goodall of farm animals,” relates the histories of where the Sanctuary turkeys came from and how they’re doing. “She‘s a wonderful storyteller and makes the turkeys really come alive for those of us who are listening to her,” Ms. Ragsdale elaborates. Gene Bauer, co-founder of the original Farm Sanctuary (there are now two additional sanctuaries in California) and an influential leader in the animal protection movement, also says a few words, along with Zoe Weil, founder of the Institute for Humane Education, a graduate program for educators who want to teach respect and compassion for animals in the natural world.
Meat eaters aren’t excluded from this event; in fact they’re welcome. Ms. Ragsdale says Farm Sanctuary would love to have more omnivores attend, including those who have never tried a vegetarian or vegan meal. “Our core principles are respect and compassion; we’re not a judgmental organization,” she notes. “We want to embrace people where they’re at.” The turkeys have several famous advocates, including Loretta Swift (better known as Hot Lips on the hit television show “MASH”), a longtime farm animal activist who loves to celebrate Thanksgiving with them. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres is a tremendous spokeswoman for her feathered friends too, particularly for the “Adopt a Turkey” program run in conjunction with the annual celebratory dinner. For a special rate of $25.00 per turkey, guests will be presented with a certificate of adoption, a photo of the turkey and the bird’s name, age, food preference and life story. Your donation goes toward food, shelter and veterinary care for your new fowl friend. Ms. Ragsdale calls the program accessible, affordable and extremely meaningful to all who participate.
It’s obvious that the guests enjoy attending “Celebrate the Turkeys,” but is it just another fundraiser for Farm Sanctuary staff? Not from the perspective of Ms. Ragsdale. “I’m extremely encouraged when I see hundreds of people gathered together for the sake of animals,” she says. “It’s heartwarming to see how much people care and that we all still feel good when we do good. It reinforces my belief that there is hope for a more compassionate future for us all.” And, from Ms. Costen, “Our “Celebration for the Turkeys” allows us to celebrate these special birds and educate the public about where their Thanksgiving meal came from. When people come to the events they learn firsthand that turkeys are emotional, intelligent loving animals who form bonds, not only with each other, but with humans too. We also provide a feast of delicious alternatives, so that people can see just how easy it is to enjoy a mouthwatering holiday meal without harming animals.”