Bina Ahmad hugged an old friend this weekend — a turkey named Opal she first met five years ago.
"She's a lot older and chunkier now but she's still so beautiful," said Ahmad, a vegan who joined hundreds of people over the weekend to feed turkeys their own Thanksgiving feast.
Ahmad spent Saturday at a turkey-hugging Thanksgiving event in Poplar Farms animal sanctuary in Poolesville, Md., where she kissed turkeys and fed them treats of grain, bread and grapes. Similar turkey-honoring events are taking place in animal shelters across the country this week.
"It's an alternative to the traditional Thanksgiving and it's really inspiring for thousands of people," Ahmad said. And Opal? "She loves the attention."
Four-time NBA championship winner John Salley was also hugging turkeys on Saturday at a 300-acre sanctuary in California run by an animal advocacy group, Farm Sanctuary.
"This time of year, I love to hug turkeys," said Salley, who first became interested in saving the birds seven years ago and no longer eats meat.
"I was invited to a meat-free Thanksgiving party in the Hollywood Hills. Pamela Anderson was there and they had this live turkey walking around in the front garden. That's when it really hit me — I got more of a kick out of meeting this turkey than I ever would from eating it."
On Saturday, Salley and hundreds of others ate a meat-free Thanksgiving dinner and fed cranberries and pumpkin to the shelter's resident turkeys.
"It's so much fun for me," said Salley, "just playing with them makes me happier than any Thanksgiving dinner ever could."
Most turkey-feeding events are happening pre-Thanksgiving so that Ahmad, Salley and hundreds of others can return to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families. And for some of these turkey-huggers, the family reunion can be uncomfortable.
"I love my family very much and it's great to see them at Thanksgiving, even though it really, really pains me to see the turkey on the table," said Ahmad.
Even the president's annual pardoning of turkeys, which takes place at the White House on Wednesday, doesn't escape criticism.
"I think it's really in bad taste," said Jenny Brown of Woodstock Farm Sanctuary in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. "The pardon might be amusing to the public but hundreds of millions of birds deserve that same deal." Woodstock threw its Thanksgiving event in October when the weather was better and the Catskill leaves were changing color, which helps attract guests.
"The turkeys were wondering around among us, just like dogs would. It was unbelievable," said Jasmin Singer, who attended the event.
Singer, executive director of Ourhenhouse.org, an animal advocacy website, is one of the few among her turkey-hugging friends who will not be seeing a family turkey on the table this Thanksgiving.
"My 86-year-old grandmother went vegetarian this year, so that was the last holdout. Now there's no turkey. My brother eats meat but he's a thousand miles away. When he turns up for family dinners, he's the odd one out," she said.
Most turkey-hugging celebrations are happening within days of Thanksgiving.
"It's always fun. When the guests come for Thanksgiving, the turkeys look at them sideways, trying to figure them out. If they trust you, they love to be petted. They become like family," said Lorri Houston, founder of Animals Acres in Acton, Calif.
Houston is likely the inventor of the turkey-petting Thanksgiving, having first organized one in 1986, after she co-founded Farm Sanctuary and was living in a row house in Wilmington, Del. "It was coming up to Thanksgiving and I remember saying: 'This is a sad festival for turkey lovers, unless we turn it on its head and feed the turkeys.' Now there are turkey-feeding Thanksgivings all over the country."
So what about middle-of-the road meat eaters who think turkeys are cute? May they attend turkey-friendly Thanksgivings?
"Absolutely," said Houston, who held the Animal Acres $35 a head Thanksgiving dinner and Turkey feeding event on Saturday. "This isn't just about preaching to the converted. Come and see these beautiful birds, make that connection yourself. They love humans and cuddle up you to like cats."
For Smalley, who said he is vegan for his own health as much as for the birds, the conversion to turkey love can be gradual.
"I never thought I would love them, but they just grow on you," he said. "There's no way I could enjoy Thanksgiving now unless the turkey is having a good time too."