Pumpkin pie, cranberry salad and butternut squash were all laid out on the table. But it wasn’t your typical Thanksgiving dinner.
The guests of honor were a dozen gobbling turkeys, feasting to their heart’s content on all the fixings, cheered on by their human visitors from the sidelines.
The annual culinary celebration at the Farm Sanctuary in Acton puts turkeys at the head of the table, not on it, said Susie Coston, national shelter director at the farm, an organization that rescues and cares for big birds in danger of becoming a holiday meal.
The turkeys at Farm Sanctuary, which also has locations in Orland, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y., live a long life, supported by Americans across the country who adopt, or sponsor, them for a $35 one-time fee.
The life of a typical turkey in the days leading up to Thanksgiving is bleak, Coston said. Male turkeys often are taken to milking farms, where their semen is milked out of the birds and hens are artificially inseminated in a separate facility.
Poults, or baby turkeys, are taken away in trays to be vaccinated, have their beaks trimmed and their toes clipped. They then are fattened up for three to six months and live in small facilities that prevent the turkeys from standing or even fully sleeping, Coston said.
The turkeys, now weighing more than 30 pounds, are then put in short crates stacked high on trucks and taken to slaughterhouses.
But a lucky few are spared. Farm Sanctuary rescues those turkeys that occasionally fall off the trucks during transport or obtains the birds from a multitude of other sources, including families that domesticate the animals but are unable to properly care for them.
“Sometimes we get them from the turkey fairy,” Coston said. “Who knows who it is, but usually in October or November, we’ll get big boxes of turkeys that have been de-beaked and de-toed.”
For the turkeys that survive Thanksgiving, life is much brighter at the sanctuary.
They eat well and receive necessary medications, most commonly for pain management associated with their weight, Coston said. They are free to run around and gobble at the chickens with whom they share a home. They flap their wings and run at full speed when their names are called.
Malia, who is relatively new to the farm, has quickly grown into the role of the flock’s leader. From her clipped toes and beak, the sanctuary staff can tell she was on her way to a slaughterhouse before being rescued, said Breezy Rondilone, a program coordinator at the farm.
Though she’s relatively shy around humans, Malia is inquisitive and curious. She makes trilling noises toward other turkeys through a fence, an assertion of dominance, Rondilone said.
When Rondilone approached another turkey, Serena, the bird quickly came to her.
“Hi, how’s my best friend?” Rondilone cooed. “She’s like, ‘Love me, hug me.’ She’s the biggest love bug.”
As Rondilone knelt, Serena raised her beak to the woman’s face and got a “turkey massage” under her brown wings. The bird closed her eyes in relaxation.
Hombre, a bold, white turkey that was rescued after participating in a traditional Oaxacan wedding, enjoys fluffing his feathers, showing off to visitors who come his way.
Hombre was lucky to have been spared from having his wings damaged by the Oaxacan tradition in which the bride dances with the turkey by the wings and then eats the turkey for dinner, Rondilone said. Instead, he was carried in a basket during the dance and brought to the farm afterward by the compassionate bride.
It can be expensive to raise a turkey, Coston said. Depending on the bird and its health, it can cost between $150 and $2,000 a year to care for the animals. The Adopt a Turkey program helps pay for part of that cost as well as education and advocacy efforts.
One of the farm’s most loyal donors is Elke Boettcher, a 75-year-old retired teacher from Mission Viejo. Boettcher has sponsored turkeys for 15 years. This year, she is supporting Malia.
“Overnight, like a bolt of lightning, it just hit me,” she said. “I said, ‘What am I doing?’ These animals have to die for me. And overnight I decided I’m not going to contribute to this, and I stopped eating all kinds of meat.”
Though she doesn’t see the turkeys often, Boettcher said she gets a kick out of reading about their personalities and receiving photographs and adoption certificates.
Thanksgiving is a difficult time for Boettcher. She walks through the aisles of grocery stores and cries, she said, asking herself why there can’t be a cruelty-free holiday.
But adopting Malia and several other animals, including a goat and a pig, gives her inner peace.
“To me, it’s therapy,” she said.