Life running an animal sanctuary has allowed me to meet some very special animals -- well, they're all special, but some make themselves known more than others. Unlike the majority of our rescued residents who spend their time in pastures, our turkeys are allowed to roam freely around the sanctuary during the day. This allows them the exercise they need to keep their weight down, but for the visitors and volunteers of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary it means having friendly turkeys follow them around like an entourage. The 30+ pound birds want treats, enjoy being pet, and will curiously peck at any shiny things you might have on.
Boone is the most social. He's always underfoot, following staff around or blocking the way into a barn or building like a linebacker. Take the laundry out, there's Boone. Feed the pigs, there's Boone. Load hay for the cows in the tractor bucket, Boone. Call out "Boone!" and he pulls his feathers close to his body for better aerodynamics and comes running.
The other turkeys eat a particular grain mix, but Boone has an abnormality. His tongue stays down in his throat, resting visibly in his neck below the jaw instead of in his mouth. This, as you can imagine, makes it hard for him to eat: He takes a bite of food then lifts his head to bite at air, his snood flopping around his head like a flaccid baton as he chirps and swallows. So to make it easier on Boone, he gets a delicious mash made of grains, applesauce, veggies, and fruit blended with water -- his premier joy in life. He'll chirp at the back door of the medical center, where his special food is kept, for hours. No one has found a time when Boone doesn't think he needs another mash. While he's working on his bowlful, he usually steps in it with his giant feet. He gets mash on his head, in his nose, and all over his face. We have to monitor how much we give him, naturally, but his tongue anomaly is actually a saving grace in keeping his weight down. But it's hard to resist his pleas for more.
Besides escaping with his life, Boone is lucky in another way: Unlike 99 percent of turkeys raised in the United States, he hadn't been de-beaked, de-toed and de-snooded -- savage procedures done without anesthesia or pain remedies to cut down on fighting injuries. For the non-turkey experts out there, the snood is that red droop of flesh over a turkey's beak. Workers tear them off turkeys' faces with their fingers. Then they snip off the end of their toes with clippers and run their sensitive beaks through the same kind of searing machine used on egg-laying hens, leaving many to die from the trauma. As is standard, there is absolutely no regard for their pain, but their feed is laced with antibiotics to combat infections from the wounds.
Like all domesticated turkeys raised for meat, Boone was genetically compromised from the start, bred to grow massive in a short time so that he could be killed when he was only fourteen to eighteen weeks old. Because of their inability to reproduce naturally due to their massive chests, a male turkey has to be "milked" -- i.e., masturbated -- at a production facility and his semen collected into vials. Then, in another facility, the females used for breeding are turned upside down, their legs are spread apart by shackles, and they are artificially inseminated with an instrument similar to a turkey baster. It's essentially turkey rape with a foreign object, and it's just wrong any way you look at it. If similar mutilations and practices were imposed on cats and dogs, there would public outrage. But the majority of people don't realize it's happening to the animal who land on their plates or stop to think what animals go through before they're eaten.
A couple of years ago, we had a big scare; Boone got a virus that almost killed him. He became listless and weak, lost weight, and was starting to lose the spark in his eyes. He slept for hours on end in his pen in the med center on piles of blankets and lay motionless in the boat shape that a turkey resembles when he sleeps -- head tucked under a wing and feet folded underneath. What worried us more than anything was he wouldn't eat his mash. Since turkeys aren't treated the same way as dogs and cats, we were on our own in trying to figure out how to help him. After days trying different medications, oral syringe feedings, poking him with needles to administer fluids, and lots of handwringing and worry, Boone sat up, starting chirping, and excitedly pecked at the bowl of food presented to him. Boone was eating! He was back! There was an enormous collective sigh of relief around the farm. And after a week or so, besides losing a few pounds, Boone was back to his old self and probably holds the record for number of times a turkey has been kissed on the head.
At the ripe old age of seven -- almost unheard of for a commercial breed with all the associated ailments -- Boone has already lived 25 times longer than 99 percent of his comrades who were not so lucky. He lives each day like it's his mission to show visitors and staff alike that he wants to live. And it's a mission that he performs with equal parts grace and comedy.
Learn more about the intelligence of turkeys and their lives in industrialized agriculture on the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary (WFAS) website--and pick up my book, "The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight For Farm Animals" for more touching stories about the lucky animals who called WFAS home.