At Gene Baur’s sanctuary for abused farm animals, a Thanksgiving dinner is held each year with turkeys as the guests of honor. The birds are feted, not feasted upon.

“We don’t eat them,” said Baur, an animal rights activist who lives in Arlington. “We eat with them.”

This twist on a culinary tradition aims to portray farm animals as living souls, as lovable as any house pet. And who would want to see Fido laid out in a roaster?

“Turkeys enjoy human companionship so much they’ll follow you around like a puppy,” Baur said. Baur co-founded Farm Sanctuary as an animal rescue organization in 1986. He discovered the need while doing undercover investigations of factory farming, stockyards and slaughterhouses.

The first animal he took in was a sheep that had been left for dead on a pile of animal carcasses behind a stockyard in Lancaster, Pa. He initially funded the effort by selling vegan hot dogs from a Volkswagen van parked in lots at Grateful Dead concerts.

Today, the organization has two sanctuaries — a 275-acre spread with 800 rescued animals in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and a ­26-acre site with 100 animals in Los Angeles. Since its inception, Farm Sanctuary has rescued more than 3,000 animals. Abused and neglected horses, cows, pigs and chickens — all rescued and nurtured back to good health.

No small feat.

At home in the Washington area, Baur spends much of his time advocating for government support of healthy, plant-based foods and less support for factory farming. He’ll be having Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends, not all of them vegan like himself.

“Thanksgiving can be a difficult holiday for some of us,” Baur said. “Families and communities get together to talk about what we are thankful for, to think about living in ways that we can feel good about. And you have this dead bird in the middle of the table.”

But Baur comes prepared. He brings vegan dishes for others to sample, confident that plant-based foods can be made to taste as good as any other.

And yet, Americans will eat an estimated 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving, with most of the birds having been raised in factory farms. Animals raised on factory farms generate about 1 million tons of manure a day, Baur says.

It doesn’t just stink and pollute the land; the waste also produces greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the hormones and excessive quantities of antibiotics used on factory farms put people at risk for a variety of chronic diseases, obesity and drug-resistant bacteria.

“The blunt reality is that most of us are unwitting supporters of a food production system that is cruel, unhealthy and environmentally destructive,” Baur said. “But I believe that most people are humane and that they would rather live well without doing harm to others, if they only knew how.”

Farm Sanctuary has an “Adopt a Turkey” project that can help with the empathy.

One of the featured animals is named Anna, who was a week old when she was brought to the sanctuary with 23 other sick baby turkeys.

“Since they were all debeaked — a cruel practice of animal agriculture — these turkeys likely started life on a factory farm,” the adoption brochure says. “Despite the physical and emotional scars of a past life, Anna is a playful member of her flock.”

There’s also one named Pamela. “Raised on a factory farm, she would have been among the 240 million turkeys slaughtered for meat in the U.S. each year,” the brochure says. “Instead, she was rescued and came to Farm Sanctuary. Even after all she’s faced, Pamela loves people and enjoys a good cuddle!”

Visitors to the sanctuary have an opportunity to at least see what a turkey really looks like, to realize that there is more to the animal than the shrink-wrapped hunk of meat you get at the grocery store. It has a face. It gobbles. It has feelings.

As a show of gratitude, the turkey would probably prefer being alive to being blessed and eaten for dinner.

“They are curious and good-natured,” Baur said of the rescued birds. “And like all animals, they want to enjoy life and avoid pain and suffering.”

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.