As someone who teaches vegan cooking classes, I've seen many people turn away from meat, dairy and eggs and embrace the array of delicious, nutritious plant-based foods available to us. I've also seen them change the lens through which they view the world -- critical for shedding the comfort zones of the past and creating new ones. I find that one of the best ways to develop a new perception -- a new consciousness -- is to interact with the animals we call food. So on a regular basis I take groups of people up to Farm Sanctuary to meet all the amazing critters, my friends.
After years of doing these tours I've noticed they all tend to have the same experiences as we visit the different species. They're awed and intimidated by the grandeur of the cattle but touched by how mellow their dispositions are. They're shocked at the size of the pigs and a little wary of their grunts and groans, the meanings of which are unfamiliar to new visitors. The bunnies evoke cries of adoration. A few cocky roosters strut about, demanding much-deserved compliments for their colorful, luminous feathers.
The sheep tend to be a little skittish and keep their distance, but everyone loves to watch as they run up the hillside in one hoof-stomping mass. The gentle burros are hard to leave, with their contemplative demeanor and soft lips (you must kiss a burro before you die). And the goats, with whom I could spend all day, have everyone delighted by their gaiety and amazed at their affection. But it's the experience with turkeys that tend to inspire the most profound transformations in people.
For those who have never met them, turkeys are magnificent animals, full of spunk, spark and affection, with individual personalities and charms. These animals, who have been abused and discarded by human beings, whose beaks and toes are routinely mutilated, and whose genetically overgrown bodies are susceptible to heart disease and leg deformities, still display immense affection for their human visitors. They are incredibly curious and want to investigate every shiny, sparkly item you may be wearing. They follow you wherever you go and have the most wonderful vocalizations, an array of clucks, purrs, coos and cackles.
It is their physical bodies however, that give people pause -- how white they are and how awkwardly they walk. These animals are living symbols of our annual gluttony and our Frankenstein-like endeavors. Modern domesticated turkeys are bred to grow unnaturally large and fast in order to be at slaughter weight, at anywhere from 12 to 26 weeks young. Unfortunately, their skeletons and organs cannot support the weight of their breasts. In order to meet the consumer demand for white meat, they're bred to produce white feathers. Pretty though they are, the whiter their feathers, the whiter their flesh, and that's the only reason they lack the colorful plumage of their wild ancestors.
Still, there are some physical remnants of their wild ancestry, which intrigue and delight first-time visitors. Hanging over a turkey's beak is a flap of skin called the 'snood', and a similar-textured flap of skin under the chin is called the 'wattle', both of which are a beautiful blue color that turns bright red during courtship or when the turkey is upset. Males (and sometimes females) also have what's called a 'beard', a bristly mass of black feathers on their breast, indicating their age.
Turkeys love to be caressed, and people often remark that they respond just like their own dogs and cats. And while turkeys make a purring sound when they are content, you haven't lived until you've had a turkey hen fall asleep under your arm. This is when I see hearts and minds completely transformed. The trick is knowing exactly where the secret spot is under her belly. You know right away when you find it, because she will literally melt under your touch, relaxing her body, closing her eyes, purring and softly clucking all the while.
Some turkeys are more affectionate than others, climbing into your lap and making themselves as comfortable as can be. A particularly friendly turkey named Lydia became infamously known as the 'hugging turkey', because she would do just that. As soon as you crouched down, she would run over to you, press her body against yours, and crane her head over your shoulders, clucking all the while. It's amazing how generous a hug can be even without arms.
I believe that one of the reasons we're able to endorse the brutal killing of certain animals is that we don't live with them, we don't have relationships. Our disconnection with farmed animals enables us to distance our emotions, our thoughts and our empathy for them. Anyone who did grow up on animal farms witnessing and participating in the killing of animals will tell you that they had to dull their emotions and desensitize themselves to the violence in order to continue.
If you have the opportunity, go meet a turkey. I can't promise she will hug you, but if your mind and heart are open, you will never be the same again.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau founded Compassionate Cooks, to empower people to make informed food choices and to debunk myths about eating vegan. Through cooking classes, podcasts, articles, and her first-of-its-kind cooking DVD, she shares the joys and benefits of a plant-based diet. She can be reached at www.compassionatecooks.com.