Thank vegans it's Thanksgiving, US turkeys say

Victor is a 45-pound (20 kilogram) turkey who would be welcome at many a table this Thursday when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving.

But when Victor graces a dinner table, he comes as guest of honor with his feathers puffed up rather than as the main course with his innards stuffed, which is the way some 46 million turkeys are expected to end up this Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation.

Victor will never be one of them.

He is one of a growing number of turkeys who are living out their days at animal sanctuaries after being rescued from slaughterhouses and cages around the United States.

Some are saved by the US president in a tradition - pardoning the Thanksgiving Day turkey - that dates back to John F. Kennedy in the 1960s.

The turkey who will be pardoned by President Barack Obama this year will live out his days at the Virginia estate of America's founding president, George Washington.

Victor owes a debt of gratitude not to the US president but to the growing number of vegetarians and vegans in the country.

Victor was found four years ago on Thanksgiving day, which falls on the fourth Thursday in November, walking down a road in the Washington suburb of Germantown.

He was just several months old - turkeys who are destined for the dinner table usually end up in a deep-freeze when they are about four months old.

Luckily for him, he was found by a couple of vegans, who took him to Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in Maryland, where this year he celebrated his fourth birthday.

Last weekend, Victor joined the sanctuary's other turkeys, guinea fowl, Japanese silkies, bantam hens, peacocks, even pigs who might have ended up as honey roasted hams on Thanksgiving, for a dinner thrown for the animals by humans.

On the menu for the birds was corn, grapes, tofu, greens, apples. The pigs got pumpkins.

While Victor and his fellow fowl feasted on their food, some 800 humans sat at long tables under a warm autumn sun and dined on couscous, quinoa, beans, pumpkin soup, pasta and other vegan dishes they had brought along. Vegan food contains neither meat, dairy, eggs nor honey.

The first time Poplar Spring held its Thanksgiving dinner for the turkeys 12 years ago, 50 people showed up.

This year, more than 800 turned out, a fact that could be attributed to the rising popularity of a vegan and vegetarian diet in the United States.

"There's been a steadily increasing number of vegetarians and we have seen a big jump in the proportion of that population who are vegans," said John Cunningham, the consumer research manager at the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG).

According to VRG, around six to eight million US adults out of a total population of some 300 million are vegetarian, and around half of them are vegan.

The main reason people become vegetarian is "because they don't want to participate in the slaughter of animals," said Cunningham.

Dining with the likes of Victor and his fellow Poplar Spring residents has pushed some Americans towards vegetarianism, said Terry Cummings, co-founder and director of Poplar Spring.

"Coming here plants a seed in people's minds: they eat well, they meet the birds, and I think a lot of them are surprised at how much like a pet dog a turkey can be," she said.

"Our white domestic turkey, Opal, was following people, letting them pat her," Cummings said.

Americans who bond with turkeys can adopt one of the birds to save its life.

The turkey will go to live at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York, which ironically is not far from the town of Corning, which is the name of a popular type of US cookware.

Humane humans can also switch to a vegan alternative to turkey for Thanksgiving. Called Tofurky, it has been available since the mid-1990s.

While US turkey production has doubled since 1970 to meet greater consumer demand, Tofurky production has increased more than 600-fold since 1995, the year Seth Tibbott created the vegan alternative to turkey and sold 500 Tofurky roasts.

Last year, 340,000 Tofurkys were sold in the United States and 2010 sales figures were six percent higher in November than for the whole of 2009.

But turkeys shouldn't rest on their laurels - which, of course, are bay leaves, a popular seasoning added to turkeys while they are roasting.

Americans remain the biggest eaters of turkey in the world, consuming 7.7 kilograms (15 pounds) of the meat a year - the equivalent of a third of Victor.

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