Visiting “My life as a turkey”

This night before Thanksgiving, I saw a stunning and quite surprising film on PBS – part of its Nature series. Entitled My life as a turkey, it chronicles the hatching, growing, learning, exploring and socialization of two groups of sibling wild turkeys and their adopted man-mom, naturalist Joe Hutto (played by Jeff Palmer). Remarkably,
Joe was “born into a hardcore turkey hunting family and culture.” Fascinating
and utterly moving, this film illustrates a somewhat enviable experience of living with young turkeys (‘poults’):

These animals were telling me how to live my life; also, we [humans] do not have a privileged access to reality.

Joe Hotto and brotherStories of human-turkey relationships only provide greater credence to the families any of us may form with other creatures – dogs, cats, rabbits, rats – all of whom deserve our affection and rescue from otherwise terrible ends by human hands.

The scene that prompted this post: two of the birds had died, and we see Joe digging their graves. Burying a turkey? We ask ourselves, especially at Thanksgiving, why we would collectively bury one animal yet would eat another. In this case, it isn’t regarding different species (e.g., dog vs. pig), but a comparison of turkey with turkey. How can a distinction be conceived? It has less to do with the species of animal, and more to do with our perception and relationship with them: if they are conceived as part of a group or as individuals, as a resource or a person(ality). For Joe it is simple: they were family.

We may think about and explore such questions more in the future; for now, here’s a quote from the film, inspired by Joe’s book, Illumination in the Flatwoods, regarding his and the surving birds’ reaction to their shared loss:

Today I lost two birds to some unknown illness, and I feel heartbroken. There’s no question about my connection to this family. There’s no question that we all feel some deep sadness. The effect on this group is palpable. Emotions are certainly not peculiar to the human experience. In their observation of death, the death of another turkey that is a member of their group, it’s a very conscious behavior, as if they’re trying to understand what the meaning of this is.

Later, we observe a particularly strong relationship maturing with one turkey whom Joe names Turkey Boy: we see it shift from parent-child to brother-friend, to an all out sibling attack. Such a turn has bearing on the work of Family Spirals™ (the organization which hosts our Green Pet-Burial Society).

There are some unfortunate aspects about this film. One scene – ironic in a film overtly sympathetic towards these birds – depicts a snake swallowing a young turkey (it is unlikely that CGI was used in a nature film). Additionally, in an interview with the public, Hotto comments on the making of this PBS film:

the State of Florida trapped wild turkey hens, installed radio collars in Spring, robbed nests when they started laying, and the backwoods savvy actor, Jeff Palmer incubated and began “imprinting” the eggs. (Hens, by the way, will nest a second time or even a third if they are unsuccessful on the first try.) … The guy you see with the birds is always Jeff. They did in fact film for over a year in order to record all the development and life cycle.

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/my-life-as-a-turkey/qa-with-naturalist-joe-hutto/7389.

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