The day before Thanksgiving, 2010. A woman named Anna pulls down the CAS driveway and up to the main barn. Animal Care Director Abbie Rogers and I go out to meet her; we've been expecting her and her passenger.
In a crate in the back of her hatchback, a large white turkey is close to hyperventilating; her legs are splayed out -- a debilitating condition brought on by an industry that forces animals to grow so quickly that many actually die of violent heart attacks within the first few weeks of life.
As we're settling the bird we name "Henrietta" into her quarantine area, where she'll live for a few weeks until we know it's safe to introduce her to our other turkeys, I ask Anna what compelled her to save this turkey's life.
"She was so cute," she said.
"So what are you having for Thanksgiving dinner?" we asked. It was the obvious next question.
"Turkey," she said.
One year after a woman chose to spare one turkey and take another's life, the one spared is a lucky member of the Underfoot Family, a motley crew of birds, pigs, sheep, and goats who roam the farm freely during working hours. (Despite the privilege, these animals rarely leave the barnyard... hence their name.)
Every morning, Henrietta rushes out of her house with abandon and exuberance. She takes a nanosecond to survey the scene, perhaps trying to locate her pal Atlas, a goat, and then she begins to talk. And talk. And talk.
"Good morning, bird," I say on this particular morning as I sit down in front of her. She comes as close as she can, tilts her head to look me in the eye, and responds with a beautiful trill. When I stroke her head, she blinks that long, languid blink that those who live with cats know well. It's one of three signs of affection used by these sensitive and emotional animals.
A few minutes later, Henrietta has found Atlas, crippled from neglect and has nestled her big bird body right up next to him. She talks softly to him for a moment, too, and then Atlas gently rubs his cheek over Henrietta's back. The next time I see them, they are asleep, side by side.
I believe that these two special-needs animals love each other. I also believe that relationships among farm animals are no less meaningful than my relationship with Hannah, the black Lab asleep next to me right this moment, or, in some cases, yours with the dear friend you're meeting for dinner tonight. Just because few humans witness these friendships doesn't mean they don't exist. Indeed, when one lives and works among animals, she learns a simple yet life-altering truth: in ways that truly matter, they are often remarkably like us.
In part, that truth is why I hope that some of you will stuff a pumpkin, not a turkey, on Thursday.
It's a fact to all of us lucky enough to share our days with animals. Given the chance to thrive, "food" animals exhibit virtually every emotion and many behaviors some of us humans consider "ours" alone: joy, sadness, anger, impatience, contentment, jealousy, inquisitiveness, affection... and so on. Pigs laugh. They really do. And Henrietta? If she weren't so heavy, she'd love to accompany our tour groups on their Sanctuary visits each weekend. How do I know this? Because every single time I bring a group into the barn, Henrietta waddles up, meanders into the middle of the group, finds one person, walks over and says hello, then strolls with us as we make our way down the long aisle, meeting friend after friend.
Last summer, the United Nations issued yet another report stating that "a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger.... and the worst impacts of climate change." Growing animals to feed humans is wreaking ecological disaster. Among its impacts are the mass extinction of thousands of animal and plant species, the destruction of ecologically vital rainforests, the poisoning and "death" of vital waterways, the depletion of precious topsoil, and an alarming rise in temperature that's in large part responsible for much of the climate instability we've been experiencing.
I'm not sure I can grasp the enormity of the impact if human beings decided to stop consuming animals -- if collectively we said, "Enough is enough -- I DO CARE that the planet is dying." Many argue that poverty would end, since using the same amount of resources, a vegan diet feeds 20 times more people than a meat and dairy-based diet. Certainly, spared the destructiveness of animal agriculture, our planet would regenerate, and many threatened species would be able once again to flourish. This and so much more.
When I became vegan many years ago, it was because I didn't want to participate in the torture of animals like Henrietta. She, after all, is very much a who, not a what, with a desire to live and to thrive as certain as mine. Today, however, there's a new reality. Whether or not you give a rat's ass about the suffering of turkeys, the fact is that unless and until humans face the collision course that we're on and take personal responsibility for changing it, we're all doomed. Rapid population growth and the westernization of many third world countries translates to increased meat consumption, which translates to more water use, more fossil fuel production, more land and water degradation, more climate instability...all of which collectively translate to disaster. The size of the Earth is not expanding, after all, to keep up with how much we're demanding of her. How long before we, the most invasive species that has ever lived, destroy the planet that sustains us all?
Perhaps, like so many, you've never considered the suffering of animals. Perhaps, like so many, you believe that your personal satisfaction should trump the suffering of many thousands of animals like Henrietta over the course of your lifetime. I hope that if nothing else, my description of one special turkey will at least give you pause. If it doesn't, may this season be the one that you hear the alarm bells being sounded by scientists worldwide, acknowledge the link between your behavior and climate change, and change your diet in response. For that, I would be very thankful. If you're doing so -- or even trying -- I'd love to hear from you.