When I was a graduate student in Southern California, reading copious amounts of literature and pursuing a Master’s Degree in English, I made the decision to adopt a turkey a month before Thanksgiving. My objectives: 1) To rescue an animal that was born and raised to die. 2) To intervene in a situation that appeared to be senseless cruelty excused in the name of tradition.
Those who share my passion for rescuing animals probably encounter the same questions: Why are you saving ONE animal? Is it a futile attempt to make a ridiculous point? Well, it’s difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t care why I care. How can someone put into words why the single life of a being traditionally mocked, slaughtered, and eaten matters to anyone at all? It’s something that I understand so innately I can hardly explain it–like love, or loneliness, or sensitivity. It just matters. Maybe it’s something that you have to learn for yourself.
Unfortunately, I may never be able to tell you what you probably want to hear. But what I can tell you is that after spending months with my turkey adoptee, I firmly believe that my feathery companion repaid my act of kindness, by miles. She was my friend, and my ward, and most importantly, she taught me to honor her right to have feelings. And that she didn’t have a choice to have feelings. Like us, she just had them.
My decision to adopt a turkey sprouted from two things: sheer frustration and current events. It is perpetually frustrating to live in a world where animals are routinely overpowered to serve human needs when you believe it is wrong and unnecessary–in absolutes. Additionally, another killer whale had recently died in captivity, in a chemically controlled tank about 50 years too early. And someone in my graduate school cohort was on a rampage defending orca captivity with every Humanities theory they could make remotely relevant. If there was a third clincher, I suppose it was that I had no dependents and a flexible lifestyle, so who better than me? About a month before Thanksgiving, I adopted my Heritage turkey and named her Yaka, after my favorite killer whale as a seven year old, who had died of pneumonia in a tank many years before. Generally speaking, seven-year-olds cannot effectively rescue killer whales. Generally speaking, graduate students can rescue animals that are small enough to carry around.
Yaka was young but old enough to appear as a giant to small song birds. She had a pink head and brown feathers, some of which turned white as she got older. I bought her and brought her home to the puppy gate that I had set up for her in my backyard. That day, I got my first turkey scratch from my adopted turkey who was a distant descendant of the velociraptor. The fate of this funny bird was in my hands, and I was not about to buckle–despite her instant distaste for my instant affection.
We had gardeners visit the house once per week, grad students coming over to study throughout the days, and the landlady occasionally dropped by. Yaka slept in child’s pose, roosting on the wooden benches outside. I’d wake in the morning thrilled to visit her in the backyard. And over time, she became happy to see me, too. And this gradual trust I earned from this non-human species was a gift. A gift that made me think about how you can actually relate to all creatures, if you decide you want to try.
What I Learned, and How
“The world is wider than our views of it” –Thoreau
One time the gardeners came an hour earlier than usual without warning, so I hadn’t yet brought Yaka into the garage to the fort I’d made for her. I heard the lawn mowers turn on, rushed outside to intervene, and as I stepped out of the house, Yaka came running over to me as fast as she could, terrified. I managed to pick her up and brought her into her garage fort, later explaining to the gardeners that she was my pet. It was not lost on me, that the young turkey was scared by the strangers and machines and had looked to me to protect her. If you can rearrange your mind a bit, you will understand that even if a non-human animal cannot do math problems, their capacity for fear, hope, and trust, does exist, and an example can be found in the scene I describe above.
Saturdays I’d spend hours with her in the backyard. Most of the time she would explore the yard, scratching. She drank a lot of water, ate a lot of food, and took dust baths–it was terribly fun to watch my giant bird friend create a small tornado of feathers and dust (and it made great Boomerang videos). When she was calm she hung out in the shade near me. She studied me while I studied her, and we got used to each other, in the same way you would get used to a cat or a dog that you didn’t grow up with.
If Yaka was in a good mood, she would let me pet her, and I respected when she didn’t want me to. As we continued becoming acquainted with each others’ habits, she became more accepting of my behavior. Where once she would become distrustful if I made sudden movements, later she’d look over at me with her black eyes, then turn back to whatever she was doing and let me approach her. Yaka cared very much about her comfort and taste, preferring sunlight during the day and an elevated spot at night. For a weekend, I tried to feed her chicken feed, and she would look at me quizzically and refuse to touch a single bit. Turkey feed, on the other hand, she could not get enough of. Over time, Yaka’s behavior made me realize that each species on earth has a different presence, different emotional habits, and a different mental state. These differences are not for me, or anyone, to place a value on. Humans shouldn’t get to decide who on this planet gets to live and who must die.
After a few weeks of caring for and spending time with Yaka, it become impossible to ignore the fact that Yaka was very lonely. Turkeys are very social and often have best friends, and in my home, she didn’t have anyone. She would sometimes make so much squawking noise in the morning that we would worry about the neighbors, and she would spend long stretches of time with my roommate’s cats (who didn’t like her as much as she liked them). Because I fed, housed, and protected her, she saw me as important, but I did not fill the void that another turkey would have because my behavior was simply different.
I learned from Yaka that all species of animals exist very firmly in their own world, just like humans exist very firmly in the human world. Turkeys interact, are emotional, show affection, get happy, become attached, and get sad. But their understanding of the world, and what they are meant to do in this life, is firmly different from any other species of animal. And this is not logically punishable.
After some time, I sent Yaka to live at my friend’s farm, and he reported that she had become a happy member of the chicken flock. I remain incredibly grateful for having made a friend so different from myself. To someone paying attention, she communicated friendship, hunger, happiness, loneliness, and trust very clearly. As David Attenborough said in Planet Earth, “there are a million species of animals on earth, and a million ways to survive.” And if we are all emotional, which we are, don’t our emotions deserve respect? As I continue through life, I will never see turkeys the same again, and I will apply what I learned from Yaka to other animals that I have not yet had the privilege of knowing. I remain grateful to my family who welcomed my funny adopted pet as “the newest member of the Bailey family.” And for anyone who is curious, Yaka lived up to the hype of turkey stubbornness and courage, never fearing my roommate’s cats for even a second. Not even when she was only a small, brown chick alone in my backyard.
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Photo: Ruth Caron via Unsplash