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
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
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
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
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'
"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
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
“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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