More than 45 million turkeys are consumed on Thanksgiving every year in America, and for many families, the bird is considered an integral part of their holiday meal. But animal sanctuaries around the country are challenging that idea, instead encouraging people to support these birds in enjoying loving, happy homes by sponsoring them — in lieu of a spot on their dinner plate next to the green bean casserole.
“Each year is different, some years we save hundreds and some years we save individual turkeys,” Ellie Laks, founder of the Gentle Barn animal sanctuary, tells Yahoo Life about the sanctuary’s “Turkey Guardian” program, in which people pay for the care of these rescued animals at their locations in California, Tennessee and Missouri. “But when our guests and followers on social media fall in love with our rescued turkeys and stop eating them, they in turn save thousands!"
Other sanctuaries offering turkey sponsorship around Thanksgiving include New York's Woodstock Farm Sanctuary and Catskill Animal Sanctuary; Farm Sanctuary, with locations in Watkins Glen, NY and Los Angeles; Tamerlaine Sanctuary and Preserve in New Jersey; and Barn Sanctuary in Michigan.
Celebrities are coming out to show support for turkeys, too. Recently, actors and animal activists Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix posed with a rescued turkey at Farm Sanctuary in an effort to encourage turkey sponsorship. They’re also on the list of stars — including Ricky Gervais, Billie Eilish, Dave Bautista, Mena Suvari, Margaret Cho, Natasha Lyonne, Alan Cumming, Sadie Sink, and Mayim Bialik — encouraging President Joe Biden to send “pardoned turkeys” to Farm Sanctuary as opposed to petting zoos, farms and other organizations where they may not receive the best care.
Oftentimes, Laks explains, "people don't realize how mighty and powerful the dollar is. It is up to us to decide how we spend our money, and when we don't purchase a turkey for Thanksgiving, we control supply and demand, and less turkeys will be killed because of it." At Gentle Barn, she adds, "Our goal is to show the world how affectionate and intelligent turkeys are and turn them into cuddle buddies instead of a meal.”
Lizz Truitt, spokesperson for the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary in High Falls, NY, adds that while many people believe that the turkeys killed around Thanksgiving are full grown, that’s not the case.
“Woodstock Farm Sanctuary hopes to dispel the fantasy that the turkeys society eats during Thanksgiving are grown-up turkeys who ‘were just going to die anyway,’” she says. “Turkeys are killed between four to six weeks old, they are still peeping babies when they are killed. Most are sick, riddled with parasites and cancers, forced to grow very large very quickly to look appealing in stores. We hope to inspire new traditions at the table every year with our turkey sponsorships.”
While it’s often easier for people to see how animals like dogs and cats can form bonds with humans, Laks stresses that turkeys are capable of affection, too. She shared a story of how a teenager with special needs ultimately came to bond with one of the turkeys at the Gentle Barn, allowing her to heal from past traumas.
“The ‘real’ world sees animals as things we can eat, wear, use, and throw away when we don’t want them anymore,” says Laks. “However, at the Gentle Barn, we see animals as teachers, and ambassadors who are here to love and heal us. We work so hard every day to create a gentler world where more animals can find their song, dance their dance, shine their light and be the ambassadors they have come to be, to teach, heal and love all of us.”
Truitt echoes the notion that turkeys are special creatures.
“While they might look intimidating, they can actually be quite sweet,” Truitt explains. “They recognize human faces and remember them, and will love to sit with humans they trust and eat a snack out of their hand. Turkeys can actually purr when they are happy, like cats, and are overall social birds — they prefer to be in a flock. At our sanctuary we’ve been lucky to know many turkeys over the years and can confirm each one has their own individual, unique personality.”