POOLESVILLE, Md. – For many Thanksgiving Day diners, the ceremonial carving of the turkey is often the main event.
But for those at the Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary's Thanksgiving dinner this past Saturday, the only turkeys in attendance were dinner guests.
Opal, Gobbles, Elliot, Gertrude, Heather and Sophie — all turkeys and all residents of Poplar Spring — were the guests of honor at the animal sanctuary's ninth annual Thanksgiving dinner.
The dinner was designed to promote a vegan lifestyle — that's no meat, no dairy and no cheese — by putting visitors up-close-and-personal with the sanctuary's 200 rescued farm animals — one of only seven such sanctuaries for farm animals nationwide.
"We feel like we can really save more animals this way because we can only take so many," said Terry Cummings, who owns the 400-acre property with her husband. "It's just a drop in the bucket compared to how many are killed each year. These guys are really the ambassadors."
Saturday's event started with dinner for the turkeys — a feast of chopped fruits, bread, kale and pumpkin pie — followed by a vegan potluck for the expected 200 human guests.
"It's kind of the first time you experience these animals as living beings, as opposed to food on your plate," said Mindy Kursban, executive director and general counsel of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Kursban and about 25 committee members were at the sanctuary last week to get ready for the event — which included cleaning out the turkey barn and spreading new hay.
The committee's mission — promoting alternatives to animal experimentation and encouraging disease prevention through a vegan or vegetarian diet — is in line with Poplar Spring's philosophy of compassion towards animals, said Kursban.
"It's nice to give thanks in a compassionate way," she said, "rather than to take a life, to give thanks for yours."
In addition to eating with the animals, the chance to sample vegan dishes is another key to convincing people to choose a plant-based diet, said Cummings.
"I like Thanksgiving so much more as a vegan," said Susanne Forte, another Physicians Committee volunteer. "I think when you're a vegan you just enjoy food so much more. Everything is a treat and it's fun to come up with new ways to cook dishes."
Cummings — who left a job as a National Zoo veterinary technician to launch the sanctuary in 1996 — said the 150 vegan dishes that lined the buffet table included her pumpkin cheesecake, vegan-ized mashed potatoes (made with soy butter) and a soy-substitute turkey with puff pastry and mushroom gravy topping.
All animals at Poplar Springs have names, distinct personalities and a harrowing tale of rescue, including the turkeys.
Opal, for example, was found by two motorists on a highway in Virginia being chased by her owner after she had escaped from a slaughterhouse.
Gobbles, Elliot and Gertrude were saved from a District Chinese restaurant where they were being fattened up for the menu.
Heather was discovered outside a Gaithersburg restaurant, where the owner left her after a Thanksgiving promotion.
And Sophie found her way to Poplar Spring when a local employer was giving frozen turkeys as a Christmas bonus. Rather than accept the gift, one employee donated the turkey from a local free-range farm in order to save her turkey from being killed.
Although many guests at Saturday's event were already vegetarian or vegan, Cummings hopes feasting with the turkeys may change a few carnivorous minds.
"That's one of the reasons we wanted to do the sanctuary because for us it was meeting the animals that changed us," said Cummings. "Meeting these guys would really help them think about the animals that they're eating."
The Capitol News Service contributed to this report.