In the spring of 2014, an Illinois woman and her daughter noticed a flock of baby turkeys at the farm across the street from their home. They watched the birds grow up over the following months. Then suddenly in the fall, the flock started to shrink. In early November, when just three turkeys remained, the woman approached her neighbor and requested the last three birds. The farmer accepted and offered to have them dressed the next morning. “No,” the woman responded. “I want them alive.”
Those turkeys now reside at Heartland Farm Sanctuary in Verona. Annie, Jemma, and Ms. Everdeen, as the birds are now known, spend their time roaming the pen, nibbling on fresh greens, and sleeping each night with a goose named Gracie. “They’re very curious, and they want to come over and sit with you and know what you’re doing,” said executive director Jen Korz, who runs the sanctuary alongside shelter director Alecia Torres.
Heartland is the first and largest farm sanctuary in Wisconsin. They currently care for 111 resident animals of 13 different species, including chickens, pigs, goats, cows, and even emus. Each one has a unique story and personality. There’s Winnie, a piglet who fell off a transport truck and now serves as the resident snuggler. There’s Tofu and Popcorn, two bonded Cornish chickens who often roam the staff offices interrupting meetings and soiling paperwork. There’s Bert, a sheep who loves nose rubs and bananas, brought to Heartland by a farmer who couldn’t bring himself to slaughter the animal. At times, Heartland feels like a sort of misfit paradise.
Heartland’s mission of compassion extends to people, too. In addition to public tours and summer camps, Heartland offers two unique programs that serve community youth. Barn Time provides licensed, animal-assisted therapy to youth with autism spectrum disorder and other cognitive disabilities, and Animal Hearts invites children who have experienced emotional trauma or loss to heal with the animals. “We’re fostering that people animal connection but we’re also highlighting the fact that we have more in common than most people think,” Korz said.
As interest in animal protection has grown in recent decades, so too has the farm sanctuary movement. The first of these special spaces, appropriately named Farm Sanctuary, was founded in Watkins Glen, New York, in 1986. Since then, farm sanctuaries have sprouted up all around the world. An online directory of U.S. sanctuaries includes 98 locations, and the list continues to grow. While each sanctuary has a unique mission and population of residents, they share in common the intention to protect and rehabilitate animals who have often suffered abuse or neglect on conventional farms.
As Thanksgiving approaches, Heartland is preparing for its biggest onsite event of the year known as Thanksgiving for the Turkeys. People crowd into the barn to watch as the turkeys feast on cranberries, stuffed squash, and pumpkin pie. “They love it,” Korz said. “Grapes go flying. The turkeys are just like, ‘Woohoo!’”
This unique tradition started several years ago with a group of just 15 attendees. Last year, the event sold out with more than 60 people. “It’s incredibly popular and keeps growing. It’s always our favorite event as a family,” Korz said. This year’s celebration will take place on Saturday, November 10th at 10 a.m. Tickets are available online at heartlandfarmsanctuary.org.
Of course, only a small handful of turkeys raised in the U.S. end up at farm sanctuaries. An estimated 46 million turkeys are killed each year for Thanksgiving alone. During their short lives, most will never set foot outdoors. On conventional farms, birds are packed tightly into crowded facilities. Most have 2.5 to 4 square feet of floor space for their entire life. Ironically, this is roughly the size of a standard home oven. Stress from overcrowding often causes the birds to injure one another. “Millions of birds end up on people’s tables so we kind of like the fact that we get to celebrate the turkeys for the unique individuals that they are and their different personalities,” Korz said.
Heartland staff hope that visitors’ experiences connecting with other species will cultivate greater compassion for animals and humans alike. “Our kids have had such powerful relationships with the turkeys,” Korz said, showing a video of Jemma and Annie drifting off to sleep as a camper softly stroked their feathers. Another picture featured a child cradling Jemma in her arms, tenderly resting her face on the bird’s neck. “Once you know an animal by their name, it changes everything,” Torres said.
Julie Knopp volunteers for SoulSpace Farm Sanctuary in New Richmond.
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