LOS ANGELES - Turkeys: Main course or animal companion?
OK, so it isn't even close. According to the industry group National Turkey Federation, more than 46 million of the big birds were served as Thanksgiving dinner this year. Just a few hundred experienced the holiday as a pet, said turkey rescue Farm Sanctuary.
"I believe they make amazing companions, but they are different than cats or dogs," said Susie Coston, the national shelter director for Farm Sanctuary. For one thing, turkeys get too hot and are too messy to come indoors. Taking the large bird on requires more responsibilities than owning a dog or a cat, experts say.
"If people are adopting domesticated turkeys, they should be aware that it's not a simple endeavor and would take a considerable amount of work," said NTF spokeswoman Kimmon Williams. "Turkeys as pets is a complicated question."
Like other animals that serve as companions to humans, turkeys come in different breeds, with some weighing as much as 60 pounds, Williams said. Every turkey has its own personality - and some can be aggressive.
Most pet turkey owners agree the birds aren't the kind of pets that can be walked on a leash or dressed for the Christmas family photo.
For instance, Coston wouldn't sleep with her turkey, "like I do my dogs and cats. But I don't love dogs more than I do pigs or dogs and cats more than chickens and turkeys. I have a different relationship with each of them."
"Turkeys are inherently nervous and do not tend to be warm and cuddly," Williams noted. "Turkeys also need plenty of space to run around in and be fed the appropriate diet."
Karen Oeh says she prefers them over dogs.
"Dogs are needy to me. They need affection, attention, security, they always need you to do something for them," she said. "With the turkeys, I don't feel guilty because I didn't take them to the park and throw the Frisbee."
Despite their differences, turkeys and traditional pets share traits such as the ability to love unconditionally, loyalty and intelligence, owners said. Like dogs, some turkeys grow attached to their owners. Oeh recounted how her last turkey, Ariala, followed her around the garden.
"She would stay by my right leg. When I was picking vegetables, she ate out of my hand. She let me pet her and kiss her," Oeh said, adding petting turkeys can put them into a trance-like state. "She was so immersed in the moment that if you got tired of petting her and moved away, she'd wake up and look around as if to say 'What's going on?'"
Oeh had to put Ariala to sleep last year due to her health problems, for which Oeh discovered a lack of available information.
Through trial and error, she learned it's hard to give a turkey a pill or take them on trips, because crating them requires giving them bear hugs to keep their wings from flapping.
Experts and owners, however, are aware of at least one problem: owing to their large breasts, commercial turkeys have little balance and can fall easily. One of Roberts' turkeys, Turks, had to be put down after its weight caused a split sternum, she said.
Commercial turkeys are usually the ones that get adopted as pets: Coston said most turkeys rescued by the Farm Sanctuary come from factory farms and have been debeaked, detoed and fattened. Many arrive as victims of neglect, cruelty or hoarding. They fall off farm trucks or mysteriously show up in boxes on doorsteps.
The sanctuary, which also has locations in New York, places about 50 turkeys per year and has found homes for more than 1,500 birds since it started 26 years ago, Coston said. Hundreds of other birds, including the weakest or those with special needs are not adopted out because the rescues can deal with their problems easier than adopters can.
Such sanctuaries are the final stop for the most well-known turkeys to escape the dinner table: the annual National Thanksgiving Turkey and an understudy, who are pardoned the night before the holiday. After much fanfare and a White House ceremony, this year's turkeys will live on George Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, with last year's birds, Liberty and Peace.
Karen Dawn, an author from Los Angeles, gets two turkeys from Farm Sanctuary every year and socializes them before they move on. This year's birds are going to live in Malibu.
They arrive stinky, so she gives them a bath and blow dry.
"They relax, like this is the best day they have had so far," said Dawn, who wrote "Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals."
Turkeys make great outdoor pets and "make better pets than other birds that you have to keep in a cage indoors," she said.