A guest blog by artist Cheryl P. Miller
Every vegan/vegetarian I know struggles with the Thanksgiving holiday and its traditional meal. While many holidays recognized in the U.S. have some sort of animal-based food associated with the celebration, none seems more focused on the dinner menu than Thanksgiving. With the focal point of the meal being a turkey, it’s draining on one’s vegan spirit to watch as the bird’s flesh is carved in a time-honored tradition. The National Turkey Federation estimates Americans cooked, carved, and consumed approximately 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving Day in 2011. That’s 46 million animals raised and killed for consumption for a single day; in one year; in one country. 46 million animals! And that—46 million turkeys—was all I could think about.
Having grown up in New York City, I didn’t have the opportunity to meet a living turkey until I was an adult. That opportunity came while working at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY. The rescued turkeys living at the Farm were gentle birds who would waddle over to be stroked on the head and under their wings. The very first time a hen let me gently rub her naked, nubby head, I was surprised at the softness of her skin. I loved watching the girls tilt their heads to get a better look at zippers and other dangling objects. And it wasn’t hard to recognize contentment when a hen sat down, closed her eyes and basked in the pleasure of a gentle touch from a human.
While a significant number of people think of themselves as animal lovers, there is a persistent barrier getting those same people to acknowledge turkeys are sentient animals—like their cat, dog, and bird companions—who possess desires and preferences, and experience pleasure and suffering. If asked to distinguish individual turkeys among thousands crammed into a shed or barn, most people would “see” little difference between the animals. And yet, each bird is a unique individual. Spending time with the Farm’s turkeys enabled me to distinguish individuals and “read” their body language. I could tell if a girl welcomed being touched by a slight shift in her posture and I began to notice details in the turkeys’ features such as eye color (some birds had blue eyes while others had brown eyes) and each bird had a unique size and shape wattle.
The year I celebrated Thanksgiving at the Farm was not only one of the most memorable events I’ve participated in since I began advocating for animals, but it also fed my depleted spirit. The Farm’s staff prepared a meal consisting of greens, squash, cranberries, and pumpkin pie for the resident turkeys and watching the birds peck at the greens and walk in pumpkin pie was so heartwarming and delightful. What a difference compared to past Thanksgivings where I sat at the table in semi-denial and avoided looking at what obviously once was a bird—one of 46 million just like it.
Following my experience at the Farm, I was determined to find a way to celebrate turkeys on Thanksgiving. So beginning that year—and for the past 15 years—I have painted a portrait of a turkey(s), and in doing so, I also created a new and compassionate tradition to celebrate the holiday.
In what promises to be a bountiful project in the making, this year the annual turkey portrait project is expanding. You are invited to sit down at the “46millionturkeys” Thanksgiving table and spread compassion by helping to create an artistic remembrance of every single one of the 46 million birds who will be raised and killed for Thanksgiving. You do not have to be an artist to “join us at the table.” Children and adults are encouraged to join in the fun. Go to http://46millionturkeys.com/ to learn more and be counted! Questions? Email: [email protected]
Cheryl Miller received her B.A. in Fine Arts from Hunter College in NYC. She credits reading “Animal Liberation,” by Peter Singer as the beginning for everything that followed. In 1988, Ms. Miller co-founded “Otterwise” a publication for children about animal and environmental issues. She has served on the board of directors of the New York City Audubon Society and the Maine Animal Coalition. She currently resides in Maine.