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How a one-legged turkey and her friends in Virginia were saved from the dinner plate

Bunnie, a one-legged six-pound turkey, was rescued and sent to Peaceful Fields Sanctuary in Winchester, Va. (Video: Amber Ferguson, Dana Hedgpeth/The Washington Post)
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WINCHESTER, Va. — Bunnie, a six-pound turkey, hopped on one foot and pecked at bits of apple and cranberries in her penned-off area as visitors knelt to get her photo just a few days before Thanksgiving.

As many Americans prepare to feast on Thanksgiving turkey, this is the story of the ones that got away.

Bunnie had been spared the fate of the roughly 40 million turkeys that are killed and end up on a dinner plate for meals on the fourth Thursday in November in many homes across the United States. This fall, she and two other turkeys were rescued from a cruelty situation and brought to Peaceful Fields Sanctuary, a 13-acre farm in Winchester, Va., about an hour and a half from Washington.

Bunnie and her turkey friends joined 70 other animals at the sanctuary, owned and run by John Netzel, for animals rescued from abuse and neglect. As part of the sanctuary’s fundraising and efforts to educate the public about animal abuse, Peaceful Fields on Sunday afternoon hosted 115 visitors who’d paid $14 each to carefully mingle with Bunnie and her barnyard friends as the humans ate a vegan Thanksgiving meal of bread pudding, butternut squash with kale, and lentil loaf.

No turkey was on the menu.

“I wouldn’t eat turkey in front of these guys,” said Debby Taylor, an art director who came to the farm from Front Royal. “I wouldn’t want to ruffle their feathers.” Taylor said she plans to eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day.

Since Netzel started his nonprofit rescue group eight years ago, he said, he has helped save 125 animals. He often is called in after local and state law enforcement officials have done raids.

Sometimes he’s contacted by locals when there’s an escaped goat on the run with no tags, or a chicken falls off a transport truck along a highway and there’s no way to track the owner. Other times, he’s asked to save an animal from the slaughterhouse, as was the case with Watson — a nearly 2,000-pound steer that was rescued from a dairy farm in West Virginia.

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Netzel said the agriculture industry promotes cows, for example, as being “happy and out in lush green fields” but that is not the reality: “These industries are trying to sell a product, and that comes at a cost to a living animal.”

Bunnie, one of 10 turkeys at the sanctuary, arrived in late August with Clyde and Barrow after they were neglected at a farm in Page County, Va. Netzel said they were living in a tiny enclosure and being starved.

“The only food they had was the dead bodies of the other birds,” Netzel said. He said Bunnie and the other two turkeys appeared to receive little or no medical care and their health suffered. Bunnie’s leg and foot had to be amputated because of an infection related to the poor living conditions.

Now, Netzel said, all three turkeys are doing great. “They’re happy and they’re healthy,” he said. He named them for the infamous robbers — with Bonnie tweaked to Bunnie because the turkey hops like a rabbit.

Not far from Bunnie and her turkey friends, roosters that were rescued from cockfighting operations strutted around their yard. In a nearby field, Brownie — a donkey who’s still shy after suffering electric shocks from his previous owner — and his friend Elvis, a horse from a Maryland neglect case, were fed apples.

In another field, Toby, a three-legged goat, took lettuce and butternut squash from visitors. He was rescued six years ago from Virginia Beach and also had to undergo an amputation because of a leg injury that did not receive proper care. He is friendly and Netzel takes him to summer camps and schools to teach children about animals.

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Raised on a dairy farm in Washington state, Netzel said he became a vegan 20 years ago. He has a degree in microbiology and spent 15 years working as a facilities manager for office buildings before he became an animal rescuer and bought the property in Winchester.

Several times a year he holds what he calls an “open house” at the farm, letting visitors mingle with the animals and hear about how they were rescued. People also learn how they can support Netzel’s operation by donating money for veterinary care and food or volunteering to muck stalls and help with feeding.

A snake swallowed a golf ball and was left for dead. It’s joining several rescued animals returning to the wild.

Jennifer Christiansen, a school librarian from Centreville, Va., who follows a plant-based diet, said she came to the farm to support the animals. Turkeys raised in some commercial operations, she said, “often don’t see daylight, and their lives are filled with torture.” Seeing the birds roam safely at Netzel’s farm, she said, is heartwarming. “I admire people that have these places and use their money, their lives, for these animals that would otherwise be killed.”

There were also some meat eaters at Netzel’s event on Sunday.

Katie Hertich and her husband, Alex Polimeni, of Winchester said they came because she’s an animal lover. The couple have a cat and six rats. They had a turkey in their freezer and planned to cook it for Thanksgiving. Still, they support moves toward “more sustainable and ethical treatment” of animals.

“I like steak as much as the next American,” Polimeni said. “But I understand how much energy goes into raising cattle and poultry for consumption.”

For Thanksgiving, Netzel hopes people will pause and think about the turkeys that are bred to produce what he calls “unnaturally large breasts” for dinner plates.

On his farm, he said, “We’d rather honor and care for the turkeys rather than slaughter and eat them.”