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Giving Thanks With Compassion

October 10, 2013

Thanksgiving is coming up here in Canada, so naturally I’ve got turkeys on my mind. In vegan/animal rights circles, this is known as the time of year when people give thanks for what they have by taking the life of another. Stay with me here: this is not a diatribe against people who eat meat, I promise.

Free range turkeys (Canada). Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

Free range turkeys (Canada). Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

You probably know that turkeys, just like chickens, are raised in airless, windowless warehouses, crammed in so that they cannot stretch even a single wing. You may have heard about the undercover investigations involving breathtaking cruelty at one of North America’s largest turkey “producers,” Butterball. Maybe even as a result, you make sure you get a free-range turkey for your holiday dinner.

But what if…you could have Thanksgiving without eating a turkey, and it would still feel like Thanksgiving? As they say at Edgar’s Mission, if we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others… why wouldn’t we?

I know, I know, Thanksgiving is all about the food. (And football, if you’re American.) I get it; I used to eat meat. For 44 years I ate meat. And I love food. I know how much is tied up in holiday food: it’s tradition, it’s family, it’s what your grandmother used to make, you always have this, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving any other way. It’s visceral.

But if you think about it, there’s a lot more to the meal than the turkey. If your family is like most, there are probably at least five crucial side dishes for Thanksgiving dinner too. Sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, dressing, cranberry. Every family’s different, but everyone has their traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

I’m currently reading Animal Camp by Kathy Stevens, who co-founded and runs Catskill Animal Sanctuary (CAS) in Saugerties, New York. Kathy is becoming a real-life friend, and reading her book (this is her second; her first is Where the Blind Horse Sings) feels like walking around the sanctuary with her. Her writing has an easy-going, relaxed style, punctuated by humour and passion. It’s now on my list of must-read books for anyone who loves animals; whether you’re veg, vegan, or full-on omnivore, I encourage you to pick it up.

In Animal Camp, Kathy tells the story of Norman (who turned out to be Norma Jean), a turkey who was being used as a live prop at a turkey bowling contest sponsored by a radio station. When people started calling the sanctuary about the contest, Kathy and a colleague decided to check it out. What they found was a dismal gathering of fewer than a dozen people, including radio station staff, a terrified turkey named Norman, and three frozen Butterball turkeys to be used as bowling balls in a parking lot. Think about that for a second: three birds raised in total filth and deprivation, probably horribly abused — see the Butterball link above — and then killed so their bodies could be used as bowling balls in a parking lot for a stupid radio contest. In the end, CAS was able to rescue the turkey, who is a girl and is now named Norma Jean.

Norma Jean’s first friend was a sheep named Rambo, to whom she was absolutely devoted. These days, she spends her time in the company of her pal Mabel, another rescued turkey. If CAS hadn’t rescued her from the parking lot “bowling alley,” she would have been another Thanksgiving dinner, forgotten about 20 minutes after the meal was over. Norma Jean has a personality, preferences, friends…her life means something to her. If you’re a meat-eater, I hope you’ll consider Norma Jean and forego the turkey this Thanksgiving.

My first vegetarian Thanksgiving, I didn’t even consider an alternative — I just ate all the veggies and the dressing and the cranberry sauce, and I didn’t even miss the turkey. (If you’re interested in an alternative, check out the Veg Curious page, above.) If you have turkey anyway, please spare a thought for the bird she used to be. She was someone. She deserves at least that. And please read Kathy’s book — to hear her tell the animals’ stories is the next best thing to meeting them in person.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Turpentine, the most charismatic turkey imaginable, at Farm Sanctuary, Watkins Glen, NY.

Turpentine, the most charismatic turkey imaginable, at Farm Sanctuary, Watkins Glen, NY.

  1. permalink
    October 10, 2013 11:16 am

    Love this post!!! Turpentine and the lovely ladies at Farm Sanctuary have redefined my idea of fowl. They are funny, gentle and very much individuals. I am truly thankful for them and that I don’t eat their brethren any longer.
    Sent from my BlackBerry device on the Rogers Wireless Network

  2. Jenna permalink
    October 10, 2013 12:00 pm

    Thank you for this article! This is going to be my first Thanksgiving since going vegan, and there’s no reason in the world for turkey to be a part of this meal. I have my eye on a lovely fake turkey roast or some “turkey” cutlets, and my wonderful omnivorous husband is supporting me by eating what I cook and not making meaty demands. I hope that more and more people will come around to this way of thinking and doing things. Frankly, I’m not a “bird person”… I don’t much like them and have a bit of a phobia, but I still don’t think they deserve to die by the millions on federal holidays and have bread mixtures stuffed up their bums. This will be a wonderful new tradition this year.

    • October 10, 2013 12:16 pm

      I hope you have a fabulous Thanksgiving! So happy to hear that your husband’s being good about it — I know that’s not the case for a lot of people, which makes something that should be simple seem very hard. If you’re looking at the Gardein “turkey” cutlets, you’re in for a treat! Everything Gardein makes is good.

  3. kathy stevens permalink
    October 10, 2013 6:18 pm

    Girlfriend!! Thank you for sharing Norma Jean’s story, for recommending Animal Camp, and most especially for inviting omnivores to begin a new Thanksgiving tradition. It’s so timely that I’m reading your wonderful post right now, just an hour or so after we released 27 turkeys in a large garden area at CAS. Sadly, 80 of their friends/family went to slaughter. Story and photos on my FB page.

    Can’t wait to get up there again…with CAS staff!! Stay happy and keep writing. The world needs your voice.

    • October 10, 2013 8:29 pm

      You rock, lady! Really happy you liked the post. Going to go look at your new turkeys now! xo

  4. October 11, 2013 8:29 am

    Happy Thanksgiving Debra! And thanks for all of what you do to help animals — it’s appreciated! 🙂

  5. sharpei1379 permalink
    October 12, 2013 11:09 am

    Debra, I printed your story and put it aside until I had a moment to read it. I just did and enjoyed reading it very much. I will share it with a few in the family this holiday and just maybe something might click. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours…..Cindy

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