A Sentience Article from All-Creatures.org

The Tragedy of Trusting Turkeys

From Karen Davis, PhD, President, UPC, United Poultry Concerns
November 2022

Not surprisingly, the combination of human interventions, random matings, turkey escapes and vanishings, has resulted in “stock of doubtful purity,” wildness “tainted with domestic blood,” and diseases in wild turkey populations. 

wild Turkey

Anthropology has shown that, determined to do violence to an innocent victim, societies must first turn the victim into someone who deserves such treatment, who at some mysterious level even “willed” being placed in an adversarial, self-destructive relationship with the destroyer. Be they “noble” or “dumb,” animals throughout history have been acquiescing at the altar of sacrifice in human narratives, inviting hunters to chase and kill them, begging people to eat them, “contracting” with people to domesticate them and determine their fate. And they have been despised for it, even the so-called noble ones.

As Joy Williams wrote in “The Inhumanity of the Animal People,” in the August 1997 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Their mysterious otherness has not saved them, nor have their beautiful songs and coats and skins and shells, nor have their strengths, their skills, their swiftness, the beauty of their flights.”

According to a hunter, turkeys, though inheriting wildness, retain it only by “constant external stimulation.” By which he means stalking, terrorizing, injuring, and killing them. Indeed, once we start looking at the turkey, the categories of “wild” and “tame” get fuzzy. The bird the early Europeans encountered was not the bird that dominates modern hunters’ discourse. In anecdote after anecdote from the 17th through the 19th centuries, the wild turkey is characterized as showing an almost Disneyesque friendliness toward people. As John Madson wrote in the Smithsonian, “Wild turkeys, as the first settlers found them, were as trusting and unwary as they were plentiful.”

A record of observations bears this out:

Wild turkeys drinking at the river were so undisturbed by a nearby hunter that he took away their broods of chicks without difficulty. They came so close to people they could be shot with a pistol. They were notoriously indifferent to disturbance at roost, which made shooting them at night very popular. They appeared to hover near our fire so we killed them. Turkeys could be so trusting that an observer might believe they were domestic.

It isn’t that these wild birds weren’t alert, savvy, and fully capable of living successfully in their natural environment; they just hadn’t yet learned to live under a relentless human assault. Absent the “constant external stimulation” of human violence toward them, wild turkeys had a tendency to revert to the trustfulness of their ancestors. By the same token, it was not uncommon for domestic turkeys “to revert to the wild,” according to reports that went on to say that, allowed to wander, domestic turkeys “became so wary that they could be recovered only by shooting them.”

The 20th-century disdain for the domestic turkey was held by a 19th-century hunter regarding the wild turkey whom he considered a “stupid, unwary bird.” Who could respect a bird whose flocks maintained their repose upon the sand as steamships rolled along the Mississippi?

Who, then, are wild turkeys versus trusting turkeys?

The wild turkeys of today are as much a rhetorical invention as they are an aboriginal species that has been “restored.” Restoration of turkey flocks, decimated in the 19th century by relentless killing and destruction of their ancient lands, involved extensive manipulation of the birds and their habitats – everything from specialized feeding programs, crop plantings, and breeding enclosures, to wing-clipping, artificial incubation, artificial insemination, and culling of captive-raised birds to conform to shifting and competing standards of “purity” and “wildness” ranging from color to cunning. Add to these measures the use of immobilizing drugs, airplane drops, and release of thousands of game-farm hybrid turkeys and “surplus gobblers” prior to hunting season, and you get an idea of the extent to which U.S. tax dollars were spent by the government to resurrect “wild” turkeys so hunters could enjoy having fun with a gun.

Not surprisingly, the combination of human interventions, random matings, turkey escapes and vanishings, has resulted in “stock of doubtful purity,” wildness “tainted with domestic blood,” and diseases in wild turkey populations.

Despite the effort to recreate or construct a “true wild turkey” distinct from commercialized food-industry turkeys, the so-called wild bird keeps revisiting the human scene, walking around in suburbia, midtown, the Bronx. “Wild turkeys have proved to be more adaptable than we ever thought,” a biologist commented. “They often seem unperturbed by people, especially when tempted by a feast and not chased by dogs or guns.” – Karen Davis

This article is adapted from More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality.

This scholarly and authoritative book examines the cultural and literal history of turkeys. I discuss their personalities, biological needs and concerns along with examples of hunters’ pornographic delight in luring “love-sick” turkeys to their death with simulated mating calls.

Now available as a
free PDF from UPC.

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