Every Thanksgiving, Faith Ching's guests can be counted on to rush her carefully set table, grunting and snuffling as they dig into savory stuffing, baked squash and fruit salad, face-first.

Faith doesn't mind the mess; in fact, she's come to enjoy it. She has only one rule: The turkeys eat first.

This is the eighth year that Faith and her husband, Mike, have put on a Thanksgiving feast for more than 100 animals and birds living at the Ching Farm sanctuary in Riverton.

The Chings bought the five-acre farm 10 years ago so that Faith would finally have room for a pot-bellied pig. Within months, she had three pigs, five goats, a couple of horses and several rabbits, ostriches, llamas and turkeys.

When Thanksgiving rolled around, Faith, a vegetarian, decided, "Why not celebrate in reverse? Let's have a feast for the animals."

The idea caught on, and now dozens of volunteers show up every year to set tables, chop vegetables and bake pumpkin pies. The animals at the free-roaming farm are then called over to dive in, with Petunia, the oldest turkey, getting first stab at the buffet. Rescued by Faith from a turkey factory, Petunia now enjoys a life of leisure year-round. "She's 4 years old which is pretty old for a turkey," says Faith, 51.

"Genetically engineered turkeys are only bred to last six months, then they're eaten. So Petunia's pretty special. She's the star of our farm."

Eager to share the story of her unique sanctuary, Faith recently met me for a Free Lunch chat after spending four hours feeding and watering all of the animals. She usually works 12 hours a day, seven days a week to keep every creature healthy and happy.

"Most of the animals are allowed to run freely on the farm, with goats greeting visitors at the gate, llamas mingling with horses and chickens napping on top of the sheep.

"They've all become pretty good friends," says Faith. "A lot of our animals were abused or neglected before they came here, so it's worth all the work to know they're finally content."

Several of the Chings' animals were rescued from feed lots, while others were dropped off at animal shelters unable to care for cows, ducks and emus.

"Every animal has its own story. One of our sweetest animals, our Yorkshire pig Molly, was picked up running around downtown one day when she weighed 35 pounds," says Faith. "Now she's up to 1,000."

No doubt all that extra pumpkin pie had something to do with it. Faith watches Molly lounge in the sunshine and laughs.

"Believe it or not, even at the Thanksgiving dinner, none of our animals steal food from another's plate," she says.

"Yes, they make a tremendous mess. Food is flying everywhere and the tablecloth has to be tossed into the garbage when they're done. The noise level is pretty high, too. But they're actually pretty well-behaved." Which is more than you can say for some human dinner guests.

"At our place, nobody eats until the animals are finished," says Faith. So if the turkeys want seconds, guests at the Chings' indoor table could be nibbling off the relish tray for a good long while.


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