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Take the turkey out of a Thanksgiving dinner and what have you got?

For starters, you might have the beginnings of a recipe for a more healthful and cruelty-free feast. That, at least, was the conventional wisdom for about 150 folks attending a vegetarian potluck Thanksgiving dinner Sunday in Amherst Community Church, 77 Washington Highway.

In fact, the only turkeys featured at this wingding sponsored by the Animal Rights Advocates of Western New York were two live birds, Florian and Emily. These fine-feathered guests were in another room at the church enjoying their own meal. Of course they were doing so happily, without fear they they were being fattened up for nefarious purposes, because that certainly would be anathema to Nan and Walter Simpson of Amherst.

"Our purpose is to show that you can have a healthful and humane diet that doesn't involve killing animals," said Mrs. Simpson, a registered nurse.

She and Simpson, a University at Buffalo professor, have long been active in the peace movement. Both went vegetarian about two decades ago, and for the past 14 years have helped organize these annual potluck vegetarian Thanksgiving feasts.

While these sumptuous-looking spreads contain a wide variety of vegetarian-based entrees -- vegetable lasagna and tofu dishes, for instance -- they are absolutely devoid of any red meat, fish or fowl. Even dairy and egg products are excluded, for the true vegan experience. (Vegans are vegetarians who shun all meat and animal products.)

"This is consistent with the principles of our group, which stands for non-violence against animals," Mr. Simpson said. "Eggs and milk are part of the slaughter industry. Ethically, we really can't distinguish between eating dairy and meat."

William Palka, a member of Animals Rights Advocates, maintains that animals are sentient and experience pain, fear and anxiety like we do. That, he believes, makes it immoral for us to eat them. Besides, Palka said, the human animal is not even physiologically equipped to eat its fellow creatures.

"We're not carnivores by nature," he said. It's scientifically proven that we don't have the right digestive tract to digest meat. We have extremely long intestines, while all true carnivores have short intestines."

Mrs. Simpson also touts the health benefits of taking meat and meat products out of our diets through various workshops. Vegetarian and vegan diets, she said, improve cardiovascular operation of the body, and decrease the risk of cancer and heart disease.

"It's also beneficial for those who suffer with diabetes and arthritis. They have a very good response to vegan diets," Mrs. Simpson said.

And nearly as important, the food tastes good, too, according to guests at the potluck dinner.

"Anyone who thinks vegan food is bland ought to know that this stuff is so great tasting," said Madeleine Vallely, a student at UB Law School, who has been a vegetarian since 1994.

Ms. Vallely went totally vegan two months ago.

Bess-Carolina Dolmo, another UB Law School student, has been a vegetarian for 11 years and appreciated the idea of sharing what she considered to be "a non-violent" Thanksgiving.

"A traditional Thanksgiving meal usually involves the slaughter of an animal. This is about sharing food with people that are lively and respect life," she said.

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