I'm sitting in our main barn aisle enveloped by the free-rangers affectionately known as The Underfoot Family. I trust the term is self-explanatory. After all, as I wrote in Animal Camp, you try moving the tractor forward when two young pigs are playing chase in the barn, and David, one of the barn cats, is weaving through Hannah the sheep's legs while Hannah, drunk with joy, is oblivious to anything except the advances of her newfound friend. The tractor engine starts -- sixteen stalls and as many outbuildings must be cleaned every morning -- but no animal budges. Not Hannah or David, not Atlas, the crippled goat nestled in a pile of hay, not Barbie the hen, who is resting her big bird body three feet in front of a machine that could flatten her. The sound of the engine is my cue to shoo or nudge the animals out of harm's way. We go through this exercise many times a day, 365 days a year.
At Catskill Animal Sanctuary, the animals come first, and they know it.
While our free-rangers currently include Casey the horse, The Great Sheep Rambo, big pigs Jangles and Farfi, and an assortment of others whose physical or psychological need for "free-range privileges" trump arrangements that would be FAR more convenient for their human caretakers, none stand out more than Ethel and Blue, our two turkey girls.
Ethel and Blue became free-rangers when our tom turkeys began to pick on them. When the toms were adopted, there was no need for the girls to go back outside to the turkey yard. They were happy in the barnyard, so in the barnyard they remain.
First-time visitors to CAS are always taken aback by both the animals' personalities and their individuality. When a cow licks a visitor's face, or when a sheep walks up and paws her foot because he wants a massage, or when a resting pig grunts happily when a child stretches out on top of her massive pink body: these things leave lasting impressions. So, too, does watching how one timid pig keeps her distance, a bolder one barrels over to say hello, and another two don't budge from their muddy waddle. In this and many other ways, farm animals are no different than dogs, cats, or humans. We are all individuals, with individual preferences.
Take Ethel and Blue, for instance.
Like most turkeys I've known, Ethel and Blue are both curious, affectionate, and extremely social. They are interested in what we're eating, in whether we have treats, and are curious to try any new treat offered them. They have formed friendships with other barnyard animals, mostly notably Rambo the sheep and Barbie the hen. Eye contact is extremely important to them in sizing up whether one is trustworthy. If one doesn't sit down and look the girls straight in the eye, they tilt their heads in order to meet his gaze. Finally, both girls love to stand guard near Corey the farrier, who trims our horses' hooves. They hover so closely that he has to step over them as he works. The best way I can describe what we witness each week is that they seem to revel in keeping Corey company as he works.
Beyond their similarities, their differences are striking. Blue is the more reticent girl, but she's also calmer. Blue is the sidekick to the always dramatic, always in-your-face Ethel, who is alternately extremely affectionate or occasionally a little aggressive. Both are verbal, but Ethel is the true loudmouth, talking a blue streak when someone new enters the barn, when one sits down with her, or, especially, when one sings. Ethel loves to sing. Very much a social butterfly who revels in the attention she receives on visiting days, Ethel also occasionally accompanies us on our guided tours of the sanctuary.
Ten years into this work, I know a few things unequivocally. I know that all of us, whether human or turkey, seek pleasure and avoid pain. I know that despite the obvious differences among species, human and non-human animals are more alike than different in ways that count: we love and nurture our children, we form friendships, we seek pleasure in our encounters, and we have rich emotional lives. (This is where some of you will call me anthropomorphic; this is where I'll reply, "You're wrong," and invite you to visit the gang at CAS.)
Today, Chef Kevin Archer is making a feast that is much like what millions of families will share on Thursday, with one notable difference: no one has died for our enjoyment. That Ethel and Blue and other members of The Underfoot Family will instead be sharing our cranberries and cornbread feels humbling and right. Beyond that, it feels like a portrait of what life must become if the world is to survive. For indeed, the Standard American Diet is not only subjecting animals to torture, misery, and terror from birth to death and making us the fattest, unhealthiest people on the planet: it's also wreaking planetary havoc.
Just for a moment, I invite you to consider the animal you're about to consume. Forty-five million are killed for Thanksgiving alone. Packed into filthy, unventilated warehouses with just a square foot of space per bird, they suffer burning eyes, painful breast blisters, extreme breathing difficulties, and other problems like circulatory and heart ailments. Many die prematurely of violent heart attacks. Those who survive endure in transport and slaughter practice and conditions that most of us wouldn't wish upon a serial killer. I know I wouldn't.
I understand that changing one's diet is a tall order. But whether it's because we're sick and tired of being sick and tired (and fat), or we've come to understand the devastating environmental consequences of growing animals to feed humans, or we're finally listening to that little voice that's been whispering, "I don't want to be a part of the suffering anymore," our collective consciousness is shifting, folks, as indicated by the attention mainstream media are paying to vegetarian celebrations.
In this season of kindness, I invite you to consider what it means to extend kindness to all living beings.
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Catskill Animal Sanctuary... especially my friends Ethel and Blue.
PS: Ethel loved the cranberries. Blue preferred the brussel sprouts and mashed potatoes.