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first person

Chelsea O'Byrne

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This week, First Person explores memorable encounters and relationships between humans and animals.

I met him on my early morning rambles along the river. He was distinguished-looking and tall, with a runner’s long legs. At first I avoided meeting his gaze, feeling nervous with only my small dog to protect me. But after weeks of regular encounters, I grew bolder and stared him straight in the eye. Seeing intelligence there but also something darker – perhaps a touch of madness? Or maybe it was just a different way of looking at the world.

He was Niagara-on-the-Lake’s desperado turkey. Orphaned last winter, in this small Ontario town, when his parents suddenly disappeared. Taken by coyotes, maybe, or humans, we dog-walkers speculated but never learned the cause.

By springtime, Turkey Jr. had developed a reputation. He was ornery. He was getting too close to pedestrians. I never felt threatened, though, because he was afraid of my Sheltie. When Parker barked, the turkey ran. I felt as safe as a crew member of the Starship Enterprise, protected by deflector shields at full power.

Some folks thought he hated all people, especially joggers. My theory was that he was just a typical young tom looking for a mate. The poor guy was randy. With no other turkeys around he considered anything two-legged to be fair game.

As the weather got warmer and more people were out and about, enjoying the splendour of springtime in Niagara, he grew bolder. His idea of courtship was to run headlong at any biped, squawking and gobbling his best romantic turkey incantations. Local dog-less walkers began carrying long sticks for protection. People often jogged by looking like ancient Olympians at a javelin-throwing competition. We’d exchange turkey-sighting stories. “Have you seen him?” “Yup, just up around the corner.” “Good to know, thanks,” and off the runner would trot, spear hefted high, just in case.

Tom Turkey was extremely brave, if somewhat misguided. He wasn’t afraid of vehicles and often stood in the middle of the Parkway, a scenic two-lane road that passes for a major thoroughfare in our quiet hamlet. There he'd pose, vocalizing defiantly at motorists, stopping traffic completely for minutes on end. I once saw him take issue with a cop car, another time with an ambulance. On both occasions, the turkey lost the battle of gobble vs. sirens but he did his best before giving up and stalking off with dignity into the woods.

As spring turned into summer he became quite a tourist attraction. I saw many cars pulled up by the roadside with families exclaiming in awe and mom or dad snapping pictures. I’d sometimes provide colour commentary, feeling like a hometown sportscaster covering a local phenom. Our turkey was becoming a celebrity.

But with the hot weather came more people, and our turkey grew bolder. He took runs at tourists, cornering them against trees as he ran around them in triumphant circles. Parker and I felt like superheroes on two occasions when we intervened and sent the turkey flapping away. In both cases, the joggers were grateful and calm, and I helped them find sturdy whacking sticks before they ran off again.

As this was a bumper year for Niagara acorns, our turkey ate well. He protected his turf, and got bigger and stronger. Scarier, too. By early fall, the local papers were reporting his misdeeds.

Feisty Gobbler Taunts Old Town,” read the headline in the Niagara-on-the-Lake Advance.

Angry Turkey on the Loose,” screamed The Lake Report.

Our Tom had taken on the role of Godzilla and was on the warpath, going after anyone who dared invade his territory. He scratched. He even drew a bit of blood. Ultimately, he caused a minor traffic accident.

The townspeople cried out for protection. And Niagara’s Finest responded. They stalked our bird. For days, he evaded them, running into the woods and cackling maniacally as the hunters stood helplessly by. We turkey-observers kept vigil for days. “Have you seen him?” we’d say. “Nope, but I heard him.” We were almost a secret society of dog-walkers by then, our password, “The turkey lives.”

During these final days, Parker and I had a very close encounter. We were walking with friends, also dog-people, when we rounded the corner to Fort George and saw a pedestrian being pestered and cackled at by an angry or possibly amorous turkey. One of the dogs took a bounding leap and managed to grab the turkey by its tail feathers. There was a mighty squawk and the giant bird took to the air, flapping its wings madly.

I was told later that I screamed hysterically throughout this incident. I have no memory of doing so, but apparently shouted, “Don’t kill our turkey!” Not once, but over and over.

Fortunately, the dog let go. The turkey landed and ran like the blazes into the woods, with a slightly lopsided bottom. And then, feathers rained down upon us. There were seven long ones and they were beautiful. The colours of nature, black and browns with gorgeous gradations. Each one unique and perfect, healthy and glowing. I brought two home. I admire them daily.

The day came. The awful silence. No gobbling. No tourists calling for help. Nothing.

On Oct. 1, the headline in The Standard read, “Aggressive Turkey ‘Removed’ by Parks Canada Staff.”

I wish I could believe he was taken away to the Land of Happy Wild Turkeys. I wish he could have a mate and some chirpy little babies and a never-ending supply of the most delicious acorns in the world. But I know he’s good and gone. According to The Standard, he was “removed by trained resource conservation professionals from the Southwestern Ontario Field Unit using a shotgun at close range.”

I suppose they had to do it. People were scared. Families were avoiding the riverside and Fort George. And our poor turkey probably couldn’t be relocated successfully. It was likely for the best.

But it makes me sad. He was magnificent. We were invaders in his territory.

He was just being a turkey.

Sally Basmajian lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.