People wandered the grounds of the estate with glasses of wine, listening to bluegrass, waiting for the big dinner. A tent was glowing with lights next to the barn, and people gathered around in a semicircle: It was time.
A door opened, and camera flashes popped as people leaned in to get photos of the three guests arriving.
They stepped forward slowly on skinny legs, puffing out tail feathers toward a table spread with a sage-and-white cloth. It’s the holidays, for vegans: The three turkeys were about to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast, fed to them by animal-loving humans.
“Ooooooooh,” the crowd gasped, and then laughed as one turkey poked its bumpy blue-and-red head forward to get a cranberry from a child’s hand.
“Our goal is to encourage people to recognize we can celebrate a holiday without having a dead body in the middle of the table,” said Gene Baur, the president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, which does advocacy work and shelters farm animals.
For vegetarians and vegans, he said, the beloved American tradition is a tough one.
In their eyes, it’s like gathering with family to celebrate and give thanks — with a dead dog as a centerpiece, he said.
“We want to encourage people to consider a different kind of Thanksgiving celebration, where the animals are our friends, not our food.”
So in San Francisco, in upstate New York, in the mountains north of Los Angeles and in suburban Maryland this month, people are inviting turkeys as honored guests, spreading a cloth over a low table, and baking them pies and stuffing and other treats.
For those who may see this as an absurd parody of animal rights — who wonder, perhaps, if money might be spent to help hungry children instead, say, or other causes — Baur says, “We speak to people wherever they are on their journeys. . . .
“We’re trying to redefine our relationship with farm animals. We can live well without harming them. But we recognize that for many people, us putting out this vegan message can be — sometimes people react to that in defensive ways, and emotional ways.”
But keep an open mind, he urges. After all, turkeys are easy to befriend, Baur said.
“We have some turkeys that will follow you around like a puppy dog on the farm. A number of our guests have been touched with the companionship of turkeys. They’ll be out in the field and a turkey will come up and sit on their lap.
“Like all animals, they don’t want to experience cruelty or pain, they want to experience positive relationships that are affirming and healthy,” he said.
These three turkeys have been experiencing positive relationships.
The three of them were dropped off at Farm Sanctuary in a box without explanation, as often happens, quite sick, with their beaks clipped, indicating they might have come from an industrial farm where birds sometimes fight in crowded conditions.
The trio stuck together in the big flock of 60 or so turkeys at Farm Sanctuary, so Susie Coston, the national shelter director, named them Barry, Robin and Maurice, after the Gibb brothers. (When one grew old enough that they could tell he was a she, they added an “a” to the end of Maurice.)
“Who doesn’t love the Bee Gees?” Coston asked.
The turkeys do sing, she noted. “I don’t think they’ll ever be as good as the originals — their voices are lower.” But even if it’s never in falsetto, they do raise their voices together. Turkeys have 30 recognizable vocal communications, she said. They talk back and forth.
And they have certainly heard a lot of Bee Gees songs, since she is always singing to them, especially from the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack.
Their favorite, she said, is “Stayin’ Alive.”
The three are certainly lucky.
First, there was the avoiding-slaughter part, which is probably close to a one-in-a-million chance; according to the Department of Agriculture, 240 million turkeys were killed nationally in 2013. Then there’s the home they were adopted into several months ago. They now live at an animal sanctuary on the grounds of a stately manor, a Federal-style brick home built in the early 1800s.
Their home is in a garden, surrounded by a white fence.
Burleigh Manor Animal Sanctuary and Eco-Retreat in Ellicott City, Md., shelters neglected and abused animals and encourages people to tour the farm and meet their creatures.
If people see animals’ individual personalities, Coston said, they may be less likely to choose to eat them.
Typically at these dinners, which Baur has been hosting for decades, the turkeys get very excited, often jumping on the table to get at the pumpkin pie. (Once the table even tipped over as they all crowded around one dish.)
They love squash, they love cranberry sauce, they love stuffing, and they really love the pie.
Most of the year, the shelter turkeys eat grain-based turkey feed in carefully restricted amounts, since they have been bred to grow rapidly — more rapidly than is healthy.
“It’s like someone who’s on a diet all year and goes crazy at Thanksgiving,” Coston said.
Sometimes these “Celebrations for the Turkeys” are raucous affairs with a dozen birds sticking their beaks in the pies and splattering pumpkin filling everywhere. This was more intimate, a table set for three.
As the turkeys feasted, with children earnestly stroking their soft feathers, and people posing for selfies with them, the Bee Gees were blasting from speakers. (“And it’s me you need to show, how deep is your love!” they shrieked.)
Barry, Robin and Mauricea puffed up their feathers and strutted in the spotlight.