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A TURKEY NAMED DAWG

 

A touching and funny story about a turkey that grew up at my house and thought it was a dog.

 

 

 
A TURKEY NAMED DAWG
by Lloyd Pye

I was raised in a small Louisiana town on what amounted to a farm. It wasn’t a real farm because my father was an optometrist. However, we were rural to the core and lived with a typical contingent of yard animals scurrying underfoot: dogs, cats, rabbits, and the usual range of domesticated fowl—chickens, ducks, and geese. There was nothing odd about this; many of our neighbors supported the same kinds of menageries.

One gray November day a local farmer (a real one) who owed my fa ther a favor paid it back with a common rural currency—excess yard stock. He delivered a cardboard box contain ing four of the ugliest crea tures my three younger siblings and I had ever seen: two-week-old turkey chicks. The farmer assured my father that at least one of the four should survive until the next Thanksgiv ing, assuming quite naturally that we would eat it rather than waste money on a “store bought” bird.

In this case it was the thought that counted because the farmer could not possibly know my eleven-year-old sister, Susie, would never allow one of her “pets” to be made into a meal, not for Thanks giving or any other occasion short of the Second Coming. That meant any of the four turkey chicks that survived would sur­vive, period, to meet whatever fate nature intended for it.

As with all new arrivals to our menagerie, we dumped the four turkey chicks in the yard and shooed them on their way. That was the most we could do for them because experience had taught us that our yard was nothing more than a quasi-civilized extension of The Wild, whose immut able law—“only the strong survive”—determined the hierarchy of life at all levels. There was no room for anything unable to make its own way; even Susie had come to expect a natural attri tion rate.

With childhood logic we assumed a place would be made for the turkey chicks among their apparent brethren: the chickens, ducks, and geese. But the homely little orphans were rejected by all the other fowl—and forcefully at that. Every time they tentatively drew near to a group they were pecked and bullied until they moved away. That left them with no choice but to scratch out meager livings from untended corners of our sprawl ing yard. After two weeks of such rigid isolation, all but one of the four chicks had withered in spirit and died, gone—as Susie put it—“to turkey Heaven.”

What set that lone survivor apart from its siblings we did not know, but somehow it managed to hang on into early adolescence, growing even uglier and becoming more of an outcast from its natural company. It had long since stopped try ing to join in with any other group in the yard. That just wasn't worth the pecks or nips or scratches it would get whenever it ventured forth to see if it was still a pariah. It invariably was.

Sometime after New Year's day, when the turkey was about eight weeks old and we could already see he was a young tom, our yard's latest puppy litter emerged from their whelping area under a tool shed, and the lonely turkey's fortunes began to change. Puppies know no prejudice, so when his path finally crossed theirs it was love at first sight, or at least toleration, which was more than enough for “the turkey.”

Susie saw to it that most of our senior animals got nor mal pet names, but initially the turkey was just “the turkey.” Nothing more distinctive needed to be said about him. But as he attached himself more and more to that puppy litter, taking a place among them, he began to stand out like the proverbial diamond in a goat’s rump. So gradually we started calling him “Dawg,” a name too obvious to give to any natural dog.

Unnatural or not, Dawg became one of those puppies. Where they went, he went; what they did, he did; they accepted him as a full-fledged member of their litter. Of course, their mother had some difficulties with him at first, especially the first time he tried to explore what nursing was all about. But eventually she learned to tolerate him as well as her offspring, to the point of letting him stick his snout into their puppy gruel and share it with them. (All puppies were fed apart from the senior yard dogs until they were old enough and strong enough to take a place at the senior dogs’ feeding tray.)

Please trust me on this: you have not lived until you have witnessed a typical rough-and-tum ble session between eight mongrel pups and a few-months-old turkey. Piercing yelps and growls and snarls blended with Dawg’s god awful gobble to create a cacaphony that had to be heard to be believed. And Dawg learned to give-and-take with the toughest of the pups. His puny beak was no match for their teeth-filled snouts, but he had sharp claws on the ends of his toes (for ground scratching) and a vertical leap to rival Michael Jordan's. Somehow, someway, they evolved some spe cial rules for each other. The pups only nipped his leathery legs, strong upper wings, and wattle-pro tected neck, while he never gouged or pecked anywhere near their eyes except by accident in the heat of battle. Again, this simply had to be seen to be believed.

As the weeks passed, natural attrition worked on the litter—disease, hawks, vehicles—until only three remained: two pups and Dawg. That trio then faced their ultimate test: taking places at the big commu nal feeding tray where our dozen senior dogs ate. This was always tricky because if a fully weaned pup could not take a place at that tray...if it could be bullied away by any senior dog...it was a goner, at least from our yard. And if it couldn’t find a place in some neighbor’s yard, it would die. That was how nature worked. Several of our senior dogs did not grow up in our yard, while many that grew up with us ultimately found homes in neighboring yards. The “fit” had to be right.

Dawg was lucky in that he didn't have to actually eat at the senior dog tray. He spent part of every day scratching out his normal living from the yard. His problem was that if he intended to remain a dog in our yard, he had to establish his right to eat at that tray. He knew how to do it, of course, from his many trips to the puppy dish. He would jam his beak right in among the dog snouts to take tiny beakfuls of the mushy gruel we fed them. But to swallow it he had to lift his head straight up, as most fowl do, which was not a problem when he was with the puppies. At the senior tray it was a problem.

Eating at the senior tray was an exercise in intimidation and resistance to it. Our alpha male, Moe, ate alone at one narrow edge of the tray. The other dogs had to fan out away from where he ate. No dog’s head went toward the gruel until Moe was lapping—then it was safe to eat. If Moe growled, or especially if he lifted his head into a position to bite, every other head lifted and froze until he was satisfied everyone was kowtowing properly. He would then resume eating, which permitted the others to do likewise.

When the time came—as it did for all fully weaned pups—we stopped feeding them separately, so it was find a place at the senior tray or start making plans to move out. It usually took two full days of missed meals and several sharp rebukes by mom before the pups figured out the jig was up. On the third day they would follow mom to the senior dog tray, and with this pair it was no different…except that, as usual, Dawg followed them. Nervously, tentatively, they watched her as she did the dance with Moe and the others. None of the subtleties were lost on them. Dawg, however, had no such sensitivity to the nuances of dog behavior. It was mealtime, the eating area had shifted, but as far as he could tell it was the same as always, just more bodies to contend with.

He was up to about twelve pounds by then, feathered out and looking more like a real turkey every day. When he shoved his way in to take up his first beakful of gruel, he dislodged a couple of dog bodies and caused a disturbance Moe couldn’t help but notice. He growled to signal his displeasure and all dog heads lifted and froze—but not Dawg’s. Dawg lifted his beakful all the way up and swallowed it. Stunned by that flagrant breach of etiquette, Moe promptly snarled and leaped at Dawg, trying to take a healthy bite out of his left side. Dawg’s head was up, so he saw it coming and was airborne in an instant. Moe’s teeth snapped loudly in thin air, then Dawg’s sharp claws came down hard on his head, after which his beak tip delivered a swift whack on Moe’s nose. End of argument.

Moe yelped in surprise as much as pain, recoiling from the skirmish as Dawg lightly settled back to the ground. An eye-to-eye standoff ensued. Moe growled as the hair on the back of his neck lifted. Dawg knew this routine by now and puffed himself out and squawked his loudest squawk. He was clearly ready to rumble. Two toughs in a pool hall could not have done that macho dance any better. And, as in a pool hall, just the act of standing ground was enough to settle the issue. Moe shook his head, lifted a paw to rub across his stinging nose, then he stolidly stepped back to his customary place and by doing so invited the other dogs—who had all scattered—to resume theirs.

Dawg’s place at the tray slowly evolved to be the position opposite Moe, at the other narrow end of the tray. Somehow the other dogs moved him there because he never did learn to pick up on Moe’s cues, and they did not want him blocking their view of the “boss.” When Dawg wanted to eat, he ate, regardless of what Moe was doing, and Moe never hassled him again; so Dawg became invisible to the others, a weird creature eating among them but not behaving properly. The “fit” was clearly not right, but none of them could figure out how to dislodge the cuckoo that had taken up residence in their nest.

Eating, it turned out, was not their only problem with Dawg. As summer turned into fall and he blossomed into a real tom turkey, he also began taking a place among the dogs as they performed their principle occupation, which was greeting vehicles coming into our driveway to alert those in the house that someone had arrived. They would bark wildly and circle the vehicle from several feet away, obeying a strict rule that passengers in vehicles were not to be accosted in any way. This rule became known to all of the area’s yard dogs by some osmotic process that passed it from one generation to the next.

Unfortunately for Dawg, his limited intelligence put him beyond the reach of osmotic perception, so he really got into the process of greeting arrivals with his buddies. Once he came to understand his obligations as a pseudo yard dog, he would barrel right past the invisi ble “stay-behind” line, right up to the driver's door, gobbling at the top of his lungs, his warty neck wattle quiver ing from the sheer ecstasy of it all, wings flapping mightily, bouncing up and down with energetic hops that put his disgust ing face eyeball-to-bulging-eyeball with invariably terrified drivers. And I can’t bring myself to tell you what it was like for those unlucky few who arrived with their windows rolled down.

Windows up or not, nearly everyone ended up with vertical scratches on their driver-side door, which soon made our family social pariahs. Even delivery people would no longer come to our house. It was a small town and the word about Dawg had spread. So ultimately my parents had to make a difficult decision…Dawg had to go. Not “go” in the usual get-rid-of-a-turkey-near-Thanksgiving sense—Susie would never stand for that. She had something more creative in mind. By then I had just started my freshman year at Tulane University, which was very near New Orleans’ Audubon Zoo. Susie asked me to find out if the zoo people would take Dawg in.

It sounded like a good idea to me, so I walked over and asked to see the man in charge of turkeys. I was sent to the director of the zoo’s domestic fowl pro­gram, a garrulous, excitable young redhead named Steve. I told him my problem.

"No problem!" Steve said. “Let me show you what we have here.”

He took me to the zoo's turkey pen. It was a large chicken-wire enclosure holding about twenty birds: three toms, nine hens, and assorted youngsters. The toms had divided the hens according to their relative degrees of dominance, but all three were big and old and looked brutally mean, much more than yearling Dawg.

"We'll start your guy right here, in the sick pen," Steve said, pointing to a small pen attached to the main pen. "Three days in there should accustom him to the others. Then we'll put him inside and he should fit right in. Don’t worry about a thing."

"Sounds good to me," I said. We shook hands and that was that.

The next weekend my family bundled Dawg into a pillowcase and loaded him into the back seat of our station wagon. Susie sat beside him the whole way, holding him in case he got nervous about his first car ride, but they said he never squawked once. He may have figured it would be improper dog behavior, but for whatever reason, they said he seemed to thoroughly enjoy the ride, constantly looking out and taking everything in.

At the zoo Steve removed Dawg from the car and carried him to the sick pen. He then opened the pillowcase so Dawg could move around freely. And from the moment—the very first instant—he heard the trilling echoes of his own eerie call coming from the main pen, he was lost to us. He stuck his beak through the chicken wire, staring in awe at what was scattered throughout the other side. He never looked back at us as we left.

The next weekend Susie called me to ask how Dawg was doing. I confessed I was too busy that week to check on him, but I promised to go right over to Steve's office that morning. When I entered his door Steve leaped to his feet, wild with excitement.

"Oh, man!" he blurted. "What is that thing you gave us?"

"What....?" I muttered.

"Come on! Come on! I want to show you somethin'!"

In one corner of the turkey pen were three bedraggled, cowering tom turkeys. Each was seriously scratched around the head and wattle area, whole chunks of feathers were missing, and they never took their eyes off the other end of the pen. In that area Dawg now reigned supreme, with all the hens and off spring serving at his undisputed command. He had fin ally come home to roost.

"Wildest thing I ever saw!" Steve told me. "Wildest thing any of us ever saw! We turned him loose after three days, and he went in there and made mince meat out of our guys! Kicked their big, fat butts somethin' awful!"

"Remember, Steve, I told you: he was raised with dogs."

"Dogs didn't have nothin' to do with that!" Steve insisted. "What your bird's got is heart! Hell, man, he's a fightin' turkey!"

(Keep in mind that cockfighting is still a major underground sport in Louisiana and throughout much of the Deep South, so this was by no means a trivial observation.)

"No, he's not a fighting turkey, Steve,” I assured him. “He's just…Dawg."

Steve couldn't accept that. "No, man, I’m telling you, it's heart, and we plan to breed it! We're gonna make a breed of fightin' turkeys that will make fightin' chickens look like wimps! You just wait and see!"

Since he was a bird expert and I had nothing better to judge against, his enthusiasm began to effect me. “You really think so?”

“Book it, my friend! That bird is gonna make us all famous—forever!”

"Okay, then,” I said. “Let me get back and tell the family about all this.”

Which I did, and there was considerable anticipation among us to see if Steve really did know what he was talking about. But we all realized it was going to take time because breeding and crossbreeding was a complicated process. We went back to our lives expecting Steve to call when he had news, and he did…on the verge of tears.

“I…I don’t know how to tell you this, man….but he’s gone…Dawg is gone.”

The first thought that ricocheted through my mind was that the three big toms Dawg had unseated from their thrones had somehow figured out how to gang up on him. But I had to be sure. “What happened?”

“I’d like to tell you he pleasured himself to death,” Steve said, trying to lighten the somber mood. “But the truth is, three days ago he took sick…really sick. We tried everything…but nothing worked. He just couldn’t stand up to whatever got him. He passed on about twenty minutes ago.”

“But he was so healthy!” I protested. “So strong!”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, “but he grew up with dogs, so he never developed any resistance to normal turkey diseases. I should have thought of that, and I’ll never forgive myself for not, but it just didn’t occur to me to take any special precautions for him.”

There was nothing more either of us could do or say, so I thanked Steve for all he had done and told him not to feel bad. Then I hung up and called home. When I told Susie the sad news, she was quiet for several seconds afterward. Then she heaved a heavy, little-girl sigh and said, "Turkey heaven won't be the same now, will it?"

No, I had to agree, it probably wouldn't.

 

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