Sanctuary Stories

How Five Turkeys Escaped Becoming Holiday Dinner

Their story is helping more people see these gentle, playful birds as friends, not food

Photos provided by Luvin Arms Sanctuary

For five scared and sickly turkeys destined to be dinner in Utah, an odd twist of marketing fate would instead have them voluntarily released into the safety of Luvin Arms Sanctuary in Colorado. It was a puzzling publicity move by a major US turkey producer, as the sanctuary’s development and marketing coordinator, Hanna Kircher, describes, but one that ultimately spared many little lives, and is today helping others see turkeys as friends, not food.

Founders of Luvin Arms Sanctuary, Shaleen and Shilpi Shah, first started on their rescue journey saving horses from slaughter auctions in 2015. They quickly saw the many other animals also facing unthinkable ends. So they extended their compassion beyond horses, and began rescuing a variety of animals otherwise destined to be food. Today, the couple and their team care for nearly 100 farmed animals, including those five turkeys, now known as the Tea Girls.

The day the turkeys were rescued

Chai, Oolong, Matcha, Chamomile, and Darjeeling were originally five nameless birds, bred and farmed to be holiday meals. But when a large meat producer had a promotional epiphany — to let some go — they were miraculously saved. “They decided to do a ‘turkey release’ of a hundred turkeys right before Thanksgiving,” recalls Kircher. “It was supposed to be some kind of publicity. Either they were feeling bad about it or trying to make up for it” she wonders, adding, “but they still kill so many turkeys, so it doesn’t really make up for it.”

They were all missing their toes, she says, “which is common in factory farms. They cut off their toes because they are sharp. Their beaks were also, of course, clipped.”

Nonetheless, volunteers from Luvin Arms quickly made their way to the odd, joyous event, and came home with five turkeys, who Kircher recalls being in very rough shape. “They all had [the condition] ‘angel wings,’ which is a sign of malnutrition. They were super shy, because they obviously didn’t have any good human interaction in their lives.” They were all missing their toes, she says, “which is common in factory farms. They cut off their toes because they are sharp. Their beaks were also, of course, clipped.”

The Tea Girls, arriving in rough shape

Upon first arriving at their new home, the five turkeys were nervous and unsure of who to trust. “They would hide inside the barn area and would be hesitant to come out,” says Kircher, “they were not used to anything really.” Within about a week though, the five girls could sense they were safe. “Some birds will be scared for a while, but they warmed up to us pretty quickly,” she says.

For most sanctuary visitors, it’s likely their first time interacting with a turkey who isn’t dead. “People go in there with them, and they see the turkeys running up to them, like really run, which is adorable. And the turkeys love to be pet. They will just lay down in your lap.”

Today, the Tea Girls are very different birds, says Kircher, who love welcoming and interacting with visitors at the sanctuary. “They are super sweet, and they are huge parts of our tours,” she says.

The Tea Girls, today, happy and healthy

Kircher says it’s great seeing people connect with the turkeys. For most sanctuary visitors, it’s likely their first time interacting with a turkey who isn’t dead. “People go in there with them, and they see the turkeys running up to them, like really run, which is adorable. And the turkeys love to be pet. They will just lay down in your lap.” People are always surprised about how sweet an inquisitive the birds are, she says, “and how interested they are in people.”

The task now for Luvin Arms staff is to keep the happy birds healthy. So far, they’ve been lucky. “We’re really trying to do our best to counteract everything that they were bred for,” she says, meaning growing too large and too fast for their bodies cope, putting undue pressure on their hearts and feet. “Luckily the girls have been doing fine. We haven’t had any huge weight struggles,” she say. “We’re always making sure we’re keeping them on a careful diet.” And for these fortunate five, that means a diet meant to keep them alive and well, rather than fed and dead.

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