Emma, one of our turkeys, recently died. She was approaching the age of 11 years. This is very old for a domestic turkey; their natural lifespan is typically 2 to 6 years. I would like to tell you about Emma’s life and then describe our animals’ reactions to her death.
Emma came to our farm sanctuary with three other baby turkeys, all females. They were dropped off anonymously, so we had no background information. But we guessed that they began life on a factory farm because their feathers were all white. Factory farms breed turkeys to be all-white to prevent coloring of the meat.
In addition, the sharp ends of their beaks and toes had been cut off. Factory farms perform these amputations because the farms’ overcrowded conditions can cause fighting. Without sharp beaks and toes, the turkeys are less likely to harm one another and damage the owners’ products.
The young turkeys slept in our main barn at night and enthusiastically explored the farm during the day. They often traveled together and behaved in similar ways, but they also revealed unique personalities. Emma was exceptionally loving toward humans. She frequently approached us and sat quietly while we patted her.
Occasionally another turkey became angry at a human and pecked the person. Whenever Emma saw this, she pecked the turkey, seeming to say, “Stop that! Be nice!”
As the years passed, Emma’s three original friends died, all at about 6 years of age. New turkeys came, and Emma was friendly with them all.
In her last two years, Emma developed health problems. Her eyesight weakened and she experienced respiratory difficulties. She also developed arthritis in her legs, which restricted her mobility. All the humans on our farm were so devoted to Emma that they constantly looked for ways to improve her health and comfort.
One day our oldest goat, Basil, demonstrated her own concern for Emma. Emma was eating out of her bowl in her personal area when Gracie, a pig who had recently joined our farm, rambled over and started to eat some of Emma’s food. Seeing this, Basil rushed to the scene and butted Gracie away. Emma then finished her meal in peace.
Emma’s respiratory problems gradually worsened, and suddenly she could barely breathe. In desperation, my wife, Ellen, and I drove her to the vet, but he couldn’t save her. We drove her body back to our farm, buried her in our backyard, and gathered the staff for a tearful ceremony.
That evening, I went into Emma’s barn as part of my routine bed check. (I see if the animals are comfortable and make sure all doors are securely shut against possible predators.) When I walked inside, our four other turkeys were squawking loudly. Without thinking, I said in a sad tone, “Emma died.” They suddenly fell silent, and they were still quiet when I checked an hour later.
What had transpired? This may sound farfetched, but here is my guess. The turkeys were squawking because they were upset about Emma’s absence. They wanted to know what happened to her. Then they understood from my tone of voice that Emma had passed away, and they became sad and subdued.
next morning Joy, our head caretaker, also had an unusual experience. When Joy went to let the goats out of their
stalls, Boomer, the goat who slept nearest to Emma, didn’t get up. When Joy
knelt beside him to see what might be wrong, he nuzzled his head against hers.
She patted him a couple minutes, and he then rose to his feet and went
outdoors. Joy felt that Boomer simply wanted to be comforted.
Other staff members independently told me that the day after Emma’s death was unusual. All the animals—the turkeys, goats, chickens, sheep, pigs, and others—were exceptionally quiet and gentle. After losing Emma, no one was in a mood to quarrel.
Bill Crain is a cofounder of Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag. The farm’s website is www.safehavenfarmsanctuary.org