Farm Sanctuary: An American Thanksgiving Special

By Marilyn Lazar

In November of 2019, I took a four-hour drive that forever changed the way I think.

It was American Thanksgiving and I spent the weekend in Watkins Glen, New York, visiting the Farm Sanctuary there. I’m a sucker for road trips, animals and bucolic settings. The Finger Lakes make for a beautiful drive and a friend who was heading down to Farm Sanctuary thought I’d be interested. I grabbed the opportunity. I’d never heard of it. Researching my destination on their website, I learned that at Farm Sanctuary, they observe Thanksgiving, not by serving turkey, but by serving turkeys. Allow me to explain.

While Farm Sanctuary ticked off all my desired boxes including interacting with animals and being outdoors, I also got more than I bargained for. What I hadn’t expected was world class speakers and multiple epiphanies. The Saturday night event featured not only a cornucopia-like vegan buffet, but a wide array of topics to nourish, challenge, and inspire. 

My education began before departure. I’d previously been the type of traveller that was amused by pillow menus. This time, I brought my own, although we stayed at the fairly upscale Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel. In order to host the Saturday night banquet for the Farm Sanctuary event, and to respect the principles of its many guests, staff, and the actual organization philosophy, the hotel had to be free of down pillows. I hadn’t previously associated down pillows with anything but my obsession with a sound sleep. I’m not proud to admit that I had failed to consider the geese that down came from, or the viable alternatives that exist today.

Touring the grounds I saw and touched happy, relaxed animals – and they touched me. Many had been rescued from unspeakably poor conditions in industrial farming situations, or left for dead on heaps of carcasses. Imagine the horror. 

Released turkeys enjoying dinner, photo by the Farm Sanctuary

The highlight of the Thanksgiving weekend was the feeding of the turkeys. Visitors carried plates of cut-up fruit and vegetables and set them on crates. Then the turkeys were released from their houses to the sound of a bell and emerged enthusiastically to partake. It was a hilarious, irreverent, yet meaningful, sight. 

Author and activist Gene Bauer, the President and Co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, recalled the early days and explained the thinking behind the event:

“One of Farm Sanctuary’s first efforts when we were founded in 1986 which continues today, is to challenge the inhumane and widely accepted tradition of celebrating the holidays with the body of a dead turkey as a table centerpiece. We wanted to provide a more compassionate alternative by encouraging people to see turkeys as friends, not food, and sponsor a turkey living at the sanctuary instead of eating one.”

Turkeys are the only farm animal native to North America, although the factory-farmed turkeys we see today have been genetically altered and are significantly different from their wild ancestors.

Bauer, who’s been called the “conscience of the food movement” by Time Magazine, learned about agriculture while travelling across the US. He became curious about animal conditions and finding them to be abhorrent, decided to pursue a Masters degree in agricultural economics from Cornell University. His education and experience informs his expert steering of the Farm Sanctuary vehicle as well as his overall advocacy.  And while his own adherence to his beliefs is steadfast, he advocates understanding where others are coming from to promote healthy dialogue.

“Our disrespectful treatment of animals and the earth has consequences, and when they are harmed, ultimately, so are we. All life on earth is connected, and it’s in our interest to act accordingly,” he stated.

Saturday night featured keynote speaker, Dr. Aysha Akhtar. While her impressive bio is too lengthy to include, I recommend a Google search because her qualifications are interesting, impressive, and unique. I’ll just say that Akhtar is a double-board certified neurologist and preventive medicine specialist, with a background in public health. She is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Center for Contemporary Sciences and has written two books, multiple articles and essays and done Ted Talks on the relationship between human beings and animals. “I am on a mission to show how treating animals with kindness is not only good for animals but also good for us. Join me as I explore how animal protection is a win-win for everyone,” Akhtar says. 

Akhtar also shone a spotlight on slaughter houses, hidden from plain sight, and the fact that the health of people who work in the animal slaughter industry often suffers as a result. “I studied factory farms for years. Visiting one was far worse than I imagined,” said Akhtar.

According to The Farm Sanctuary website, more than 68 million turkeys are slaughtered for the November and December holiday season alone. Farm Sanctuary believes “in the possibility of a just and compassionate food system and the need for systemic change”. This year, Farm Sanctuary celebrates its 35th anniversary. Others have sprung up since then, including some right here in Ontario.

I grew up with a disconnect between my love of animals and nature, my desire to be kind, and how I was actually living on this precious planet. Everything matters. I have so much yet to learn. I eschew labels but aspire to be a conscious consumer, part of what drew me to Karma Coop.

More info: https://www.farmsanctuary.org/

Annual Adopt a Turkey Project,: https://www.farmsanctuary.org/adopt-a-turkey