Giving Thanks With Compassion
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.
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.