GARDINER, N.Y. -- Dismayed by the practices of large commercial turkey farms, animal-welfare groups are intensifying their appeals to consumers to reconsider their Thanksgiving menus.
Options can range from vegetarian meals -- including turkey-shaped tofu loaves -- to free-range turkeys that roam pastures of small, family run operations like Four Winds Farm in the Catskills town of Gardiner.
"Our turkeys have only one bad day," said Polly Armour, referring to the pre-Thanksgiving slaughter that she and her husband, Jay, perform with a razor-sharp knife at a barn on their 24-acre organic farm.
"The rest of the time, they're outdoors, doing what they want," she said. "They can eat the grass, eat the bugs. They can flap their wings."
Farms like the Armours' are what the Humane Society of the United States has in mind as it urges consumers to forego the supermarket turkeys grown indoors at so-called factory farms. At such a farm, the Humane Society says, turkeys can "express more natural behaviors and live better lives."
"We're not trying to rain on anyone's holiday," said Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society's senior vice president. "But people must know these animals are terribly abused. ... Turkeys have been transformed from a sleek, adaptive wild animal into a Frankenstein monster, so obese it can barely stand."
The industry defends its mass-production techniques as necessary to provide plump turkeys at affordable prices. The National Turkey Federation denies any systematic cruelty by its member producers and says per capita turkey consumption is holding steady at 18 pounds annually despite escalating protests.
"We're an easy target at this time of the year, because everyone in the United States is focusing on Thanksgiving," said Sherrie Rosenblatt, the federation's spokeswoman. "It's un-American not to have turkey at Thanksgiving."
Indeed, the holiday is vital to producers' livelihoods, accounting for about a sixth of the 270 million turkeys consumed annually in the United States.
Rosenblatt said large-scale producers are as committed as family farmers to turkeys' contentment because high stress affects the birds' ability to eat properly and gain weight.
"We always want to promote and protect our product," Rosenblatt said. "When some group goes out and creates misinformation that could change consumer behavior, it's something we need to be concerned about."
While the Humane Society tries to steer consumers away from factory-farm products, other groups want Americans to forsake turkey meat altogether. Among them:
* People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has staged protests in several cities featuring a turkey-costumed activist walking on crutches. The purpose, PETA says, is to draw attention to factory farm practices that hamper turkeys' ability to walk.
* Farm Sanctuary, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting farm animals, runs the Adopt-A-Turkey Project, encouraging families to adopt a bird instead of eating one. Participants can take two or more turkeys into their home -- if zoning laws permit -- or sponsor turkeys who live at shelters in New York or California.
"For us vegetarians, Thanksgiving can be a pretty dismal time of year," said Farm Sanctuary co-founder Lorri Bausten. "One reason people can be so cruel is that they don't see turkeys as living, breathing animals, the way they do their dogs or cats."
PETA's Bruce Friedrich says vegetarians can spread their message effectively while gathered with family and friends for Thanksgiving.
"The dead turkey is a traditional centerpiece, and consequently declining to eat it is a perfect opportunity to talk about the fact that eating meat is animal cruelty," he said.
PETA's suggestion for meatless a Thanksgiving menu: soy-based roasts and a puff pastry stuffed with cranberries, chard, flavored wheat gluten, yams and onions.
At Four Winds, the Armours cater to vegetarians with their organic crops, but they also take pride in their lamb, pork, beef and poultry, including the 40 turkeys noisily scuttling across their grassy pasture last week.
The birds are fed a mix of grains tasty enough that Polly Armour eats it as a snack. They sell at $3 a pound -- two or three times more than a factory-farm bird at a supermarket. The couple say their customers rave about the turkeys' flavor; the entire batch was sold six months in advance.
Pacelle believes more Americans would change their eating habits, at Thanksgiving and year-round, if they learned more about how their turkey and other meats are produced.
"Animal cruelty is the hidden ingredient in factory farm products," he said. "I think Americans are willing to pay a few cents more to see animals more humanely treated."
On the Net:
Farm Sanctuary: http://www.farmsanctuary.org.
National Turkey Federation: http://www.turkeyfed.org
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