Instead of eating slaughtered turkeys, this year people have a chance to cuddle the living, breathing birds. Farm animal sanctuary The Gentle Barn is hosting special events at its California, Missouri and Tennessee facilities where you can pet turkeys, feed them treats, eat pie and play games. A donation of fifty bucks gives you entrée into this world of turkeys and supports The Gentle Barn’s care for uneaten farm animals.

In 1999, Ellie Laks fulfilled her childhood dream by founding the first Gentle Barn on a half acre in the San Fernando Valley of California. She’d always turned to animals for emotional support and now she could give back. Fellow animal lover Jay Weiner started volunteering at The Gentle Barn in 2002. He soon got hooked, and the two have run the farm sanctuaries together since. In 2003, they moved the California Gentle Barn to six acres in Santa Clarita. In addition to nearly 200 animals, the Santa Clarita property has an organic vegetable garden, shade trees and gorgeous mountain views.

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The second Gentle Barn location is located in Nashville, Tennessee, and the third is in St. Louis, Missouri. So far, their facilities have saved thousands of animals and hosted more than 500,000 human visitors.

Ellie Laks talked to Inhabitat about her experience, vision and what it’s like to cuddle turkeys.

Two adult turkeys at The Gentle Barn

Inhabitat: As somebody who rescues turkeys, how do you feel as Thanksgiving approaches? 

Laks: I feel devastated that so many will be killed. I try hard not to think about it, but I feel very sad this time of year. We are happy that at least our guests and followers on social media can experience the magic of turkeys at The Gentle Barn and open their hearts to the intelligence and affection of these wonderful birds.

Inhabitat: I love the idea of cuddling turkeys. But are they really cuddly?

Laks: They truly are! Once they learn to trust humans as part of their recovery, they will absolutely come right up to us, sit in our laps and fall asleep while we cuddle with them. They are just as soft, sweet and loving as any dog or cat.

Inhabitat: What do you hope people will learn about turkeys by visiting The Gentle Barn on Thanksgiving?

Laks: I’m hoping our guests will connect to turkeys in a way they never have before. In our culture, we say that turkeys are dumb or dirty, but nothing can be further from the truth. I’m hoping to show our visitors that and invite them to celebrate their life with us! 

Inhabitat: Tell us about the pies and games.

Laks: Each year on Thanksgiving, we feed turkeys pie and honor them as our special guests. We always give them a sampler platter before so they can choose the menu of their favorite items which we feed them on Thanksgiving. Last year they chose apple pie. We’ll see what they choose this year! We will have a drum circle where guests can participate, and we will have pie for our guests as well.

Inhabitat: Could you share a few surprising encounters or things visitors have learned about your other animals while visiting?

Laks: Our guests are typically surprised by hugging the cows, how warm the cows are, how gentle they are given their size and how they hold still for us to embrace. They usually burst into tears cuddling the turkeys, surprised at how loving they are. They love holding the chickens. Flirting with our emu and giving pigs tummy rubs are fan favorites. And they love the stories of the animals, learning about their histories and becoming empowered about how we all can help make brighter futures for animals everywhere.

Two turkeys that are gray and white

Inhabitat: Tell us about some animals that are special favorites with visitors.

Laks: Our guests love all the animals, as all our animals have something unique to offer. But overall I think cuddling the turkeys and hugging the cows are their favorite.

Inhabitat: How do you manage three sanctuaries that are geographically far apart? Are you really planning to one day have a sanctuary in every state?

Laks: It is very difficult! But we have great staff and spend a lot of time on the phone or on zoom each day. We also end up traveling quite a bit. When I founded The Gentle Barn 23 years ago, we had no social media, so it was my plan to open in every state so that every person could hug cows, cuddle turkeys, hold chickens, give pigs tummy rubs, and love animals. We now have social media and a worldwide reach. There are other people starting sanctuaries of their own. We teach a course on how to open a sanctuary to empower others to open rescues of their own. So at this point, we don’t need to have one in every state, we just want to inspire as many people as we can to love and protect animals.

Images courtesy of The Gentle Barn