They lay helplessly before us, innocent babies. It was clear that they had suffered greatly in their short lives. Covered in open wounds and excrement, malnourished, with misery in their eyes, they were too weak to stand.
The tiniest of the three cried in pain. Instinctively, I scooped her up and cradled her close to my heart. Her panicked heartbeat slowed to match my own. I tried to convey, with my eyes, that she was safe now—that she was loved. She turned her head to mine, her gentle brown eyes filled with wonderment. This might have been the first loving touch she experienced in her life. Harika, we named her- Sanskrit for “beloved of Indra”.
Gently, I touched the huge wound on this tiny girl’s neck. She cocked her head to the left ever so slightly, seeming to be aware that I was sorry for her pain. I moved my hands slowly over her body, assessing the damage. At each wound or bruise I stopped and said a silent prayer. Her eyes held mine and she nodded her head minutely each time. I felt gently along the splayed legs that would not hold her. I touched her yellowed skin, most likely jaundiced due to blood loss. I felt her keel bone through her skinny little frame.
Then I just hugged her close to my heart again, feeling her tiny heart beat against mine while I prayed for all those beautiful babies that never make it out… all those turkeys who suffer each day of their short lives. Forty-five million innocent babies, every Thanksgiving, are raised in unspeakable conditions, never to hear a kind word or feel a gentle touch… never to experience sunlight on their feathers, fresh air, or grass and soil beneath them.
But this one, this one made it out. How or why, I don’t know. Fairly often, we get these rescues, lucky ones who somehow escape and wind up where good, caring people find them and bring them to us. I imagined she fell off of a truck- it would explain her splayed legs- but who knows? Maybe she was dropped as she was being packed into a crate for transport. Maybe she was asleep and, looking as she does, was mistaken for dead and thrown in the trash.
It didn’t matter. All that mattered in that moment were those eyes looking into mine with what I can only describe as trust, and that little heartbeat against mine. I can never explain this feeling in words- this moment when everything disappears and all that is left is me and a little life depending on me.
What could I ever have done to receive such blessings? Such a miracle as this perfect, perfect little child gifting me with her trust, when nothing and no one in her short life ever gave her reason to feel anything but fear?
I began to spin dreams for her, speaking to her of a long life ahead. Days of lolling in the sunshine and playing with other turkeys. Years of healthy meals and a clean, warm place to sleep. Of humans who would hold her in their laps and pet her as we do a beloved cat, listening to her soft purrs and smiling at her joy. Together, we dreamed of the beautiful life before her. Her eyes never left mine. I believed she was spellbound, and as hopeful as I.
Only a day or two in, we noticed that her leg was getting worse instead of better. She seemed to be in more pain when we tried to give her physical therapy, or even place her in a sling. The pain medication may have helped a bit, but it was clear that she was far from pain-free. Her brother, Habibah (Swahili for beloved), was also faring poorly. We decided to consult with the avian experts at an esteemed veterinary hospital. The third baby, Hadaaya (beloved in Arabic), seemed to be doing better, happily, so we decided to leave her at home at the sanctuary.
Their appointment was on Wednesday, the sixth day we had them. So, on Tuesday, despite the strict quarantine under which we place all new residents, we took the three babies outside, in an area far from any other birds. One by one, I felt them relax in my arms as they felt sunlight on their backs, most likely for the first time. I set them on the grass and smiled, listening to their delighted coos and purrs. The color on their heads and necks turned red and blue- a visible way for them to express their joy (sort of like a human smiling).
With me was a woman with a huge heart. She was new to farm animal rescue, and she was appalled. “Who would do this to them?” she kept asking. Everyone, I explained, just about everyone– everyone who ever eats turkey, everyone who knows what they go through and does not demand that it stop, everyone who says, “I can’t think about that,” and turns away from suffering. I told her about how most animals used by the food industry are routinely raised. She was shocked, and kept repeating, “People need to know. If they knew, they’d make it illegal. They wouldn’t support it.”
So here I am, telling all who will listen. This is happening, and no one will stop it if we don’t. Please, please, please, for the babies’ sake, please help us stop this. This is wrong. No one should suffer like this.
It was such a miracle that these three got out alive, somehow, and were in the sunshine with people who loved them, their whole lives stretched out before them. They were happy. They were free. They were beloved and they felt it.
If only for that moment.
At the hospital, we learned that Harika and Habibah were too far gone. Their pain would only grow, and there was no hope of fixing their legs. Given that theses types of turkeys grow to be very large, we knew their problems would only become worse. I have often thought that the heart of sanctuary work is to be selfless enough to give them a good death. So, although it pained us greatly, we made the choice that was best for them.
Hadaaya, the third baby bird, is continuing her recovery at the sanctuary, with lots of TLC. In the absence of her siblings, she has lots of toys and human attention. Just as soon as her quarantine is complete, she will join another flock of baby birds we rescued recently. Her days will be filled with all of the freedoms and pleasures Harika and I dreamed of together, and Harika and Habibah’s spirits will live on through her, and in our hearts.
One day of sunshine was all I could give them- my beloved Harika and her sweet brother Habibah.
Six days of love and one day of sunshine. And I trust that was enough.