'A lot of people don’t expect such sweetness from a turkey. They’ll be in tears when they visit.'
Animals are cute but they can also help heal human beings with their gentleness and innocence. Moreover, animals also need caregiving, love, and support. Ellie Laks understood this very early in her life. Over the years she has "directly rescued, cared for, and supported thousands of animals that would otherwise have been killed" through the organization she founded called The Gentle Barn 20 years ago. “This place was my dream since I was 7 years old,” said Laks per Washington Post. Turkeys are among the other birds and animals—rescued cows, horses, donkeys, pigs, sheep, goats, llamas, chickens—found in the animal sanctuary. A few years after her barn was opened to visitors, Laks said that she rescued her first female turkey, a sociable hen named Spring, in 2002.
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She shared that every morning while she did her chores, Spring would follow her around and "talk" to her explaining that "talk" meant small chirping noises. “One day when she talked to me for a longer time, I put down my rake and sat on the ground,” said Laks. Spring fell asleep in her lap and while Laks sat there with her, Spring "closed her eyes and we had a good cuddle. I was singing her little songs and telling her how beautiful she was, and it was just a special moment.”
That's what made Laks realize that many other people might also enjoy turkey cuddling. So on Thanksgiving Day that year, she put up fliers around town to invite anyone to come to The Gentle Barn to snuggle a few female turkeys and have a piece of the pie. About 100 people turned up. She immediately decided to make the event an annual tradition and call it the "Gentle Thanksgiving."
Through the event, she wants visitors to know that turkeys are "sweet and kind creatures." She also encourages people to cuddle turkeys even if it is not Thanksgiving in her California barn where she usually keeps up to a dozen turkeys. “Most of them were rescued, sometimes from live markets where customers buy them to take them home for eating on Thanksgiving,” she said. “Other times, we’ll work with authorities to shut down cruelty situations and bring the turkeys here.”
Though Laks mostly has female turkeys she has also gobblers. Wildlife experts advise exercising precaution with the birds in the wild but Mark Hatfield, a wildlife biologist who is the director of conservation services for the National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgefield, S.C. said that “There’s a big difference between a wild turkey and a domesticated turkey.” Recalling an old turkey who seemed to be in love with Kevin McGowan ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y.— he said that turkeys are scared of people but if one lets you hold it, "it might be more comfortable and tamer than most."
“They’re living their best lives,” Laks said of the turkeys at Gentle Barn. The visitors touring the farm, enjoy pie and hot cider, cuddle with the turkeys and feed them treats such as cranberries and grapes. The Gentle Barn turkeys seem to enjoy every bit of attention and Laks said that they love mingling with guests of all ages. "A lot of people don’t expect such sweetness from a turkey. They’ll be in tears when they visit.”