Henrietta the turkey's story

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Founder of New York's Catskill Animal Sanctuary Kathy Stevens tells the tale of Henrietta the turkey, and how she and other fortunate animals came to be saved in time for their own vegan Thanksgiving feast

A few years ago on the day before Thanksgiving, a woman named Anna pulled up to the main barn at Catskill Animal Sanctuary. I walked out to meet her; we’d been expecting her and her passenger.

In a crate inside her wagon, a large white turkey was close to hyperventilating. Her legs were splayed out — a debilitating condition brought on by an industry that forces animals to grow so quickly that many die of heart attacks within the first weeks of life. 

Henrietta in the fields

As we settled the bird we named ‘Henrietta’ into her new home, I asked Anna what compelled her to save this one turkey’s life.

“She was cute,” she said.

“So what are you having for Thanksgiving dinner?” I asked. It was the obvious next question.

“Turkey,” she said.

A few weeks after a woman chose to spare one turkey and take another’s life, the one spared became a member of the Underfoot Family, a motley crew of birds, pigs, sheep, and goats who freely roam the sanctuary grounds during working hours.

Henrietta was a force of nature. Every morning, she rushed from her house with abandon and exuberance. She took a nanosecond to survey the scene, perhaps trying to locate her pal Atlas, a special-needs goat, and then began to talk. And talk. And talk.

“Good morning, bird,” we’d say. She’d come as close as she could, tilt her head to look us in the eye, then respond with a beautiful trill. When we stroked her, she blinked that long, languid blink that those who live with cats know well. It’s a sign of affection used by these sensitive, emotional animals.

Henrietta’s day wasn’t complete unless she spent time with Atlas, crippled from neglect. She nestled her big bird body next to his as he lay on a pile of straw. She talked softly to him, and Atlas rubbed his cheek over Henrietta’s back. They often slept together, side by side. They loved each other.

Relationships among farmed animals are no less meaningful than my relationship with Scout, the black Labrador Retriever asleep next to me at this very moment, or, in some cases, yours with the dear friend you’re meeting for dinner tonight. Just because few humans witness these friendships doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Indeed, when one lives and works among animals, she learns a life-altering truth: in ways that truly matter, we are all the same. 

Goat at the sanctuary eats Thanksgiving meal

It’s a fact known to all of us lucky enough to share our days with animals. Given a chance to thrive, ‘food’ animals exhibit every emotion and many behaviors some humans consider ‘ours’ alone: joy, sadness, anger, impatience, contentment, jealousy, inquisitiveness, affection and so on. Pigs laugh. They really do. If they’re not in too much pain from industry-induced size, turkeys love to accompany our weekend tours. They meander into the middle of the group, find one person, toddle over to say hello, then stroll with us as we make our way through the grounds, meeting friend after friend.

At Catskill Animal Sanctuary, we know that ‘food’ animals like Henrietta are as remarkable and individual as our cherished dogs and cats. Those who call CAS home are, indeed, exceptional ambassadors, doing more than we humans ever can to help visitors understand that animals truly do not belong on the table. 

“But what do I cook?” is often the question after guests have understood the ethical imperative of plant-based eating. It’s one thing for our animals (nobly assisted by tour guides who share their stories, along with hideous truths about agribusiness) to open people’s hearts. It’s another for a human to replace a lifetime of having meat, eggs, and dairy as the center of every meal. Change is hard. 

Gobble and Grove getting underway with lots of dishes

This year, thanks in part to the generous support of The Vegan Society, Catskill Animal Sanctuary hosted Gobble and Groove, an event designed not only to celebrate turkeys and other food animals, but to convince attendees that even the most traditional holiday foods needn’t contribute to animal suffering. Instead of turkey, sausage stuffing, butter-laced potatoes and desserts, our chefs showcased a stuffed tempeh roast, lentil loaf,  delicious vegan stuffing and several other classic dishes — mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and whipped cream — all free of animal products. Our 250 guests spent the afternoon stroking turkeys’ soft feathers as the big birds nestled contentedly in their laps.

When I became vegan many years ago, it was because I didn’t want to participate in the torture of animals like Henrietta. She, after all, is very much a who, not a what, with a desire to live and to thrive as strong as mine. Today, however, there’s a new reality. Unless and until humans face the collision course that we’re on — largely driven by our diet — and take responsibility for changing it, we’re all doomed. Rapid population growth and the westernization of many developing countries translates to increased meat consumption, which translates to more water use, more fossil fuel production, more land and water degradation, more climate instability … all of which collectively translate to disaster. The size of the Earth is not expanding to keep up with how much we’re demanding of her. How long before we, the most invasive species that has ever lived, destroy the planet that sustains us all? Climate scientists say not long at all.

Many Americans are deeply troubled by the election of Donald Trump. Though he pledges to work for all of us, neither his campaign, nor his post-election rhetoric, nor his first appointees suggest that he intends to honor that pledge. Appointing a climate change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency certainly does not bode well for the neediest of all: the animals. At Catskill Animal Sanctuary, we are redoubling our commitment to a world free from suffering. We vow to stand tall, and to speak for all of us — the two and four-legged, the furred and the feathered — no matter how dark the upcoming days. We honor our friends in The Vegan Society who share our vision of a world free from suffering, and during this time of Thanksgiving, offer our gratitude.


By Kathy Stevens, Founder and Executive Director of Catskill Sanctuary

Learn why today is also known as National Day of Mourning for many.

Turkeys enjoying Gobble and Groove event

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