Story # 1. Ducky the Turkey
Hello. I am Bill Crain, co-founder of the Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag, which is about eight miles north of the Village of Pawling.
My wife, Ellen, and I started the sanctuary in 2008 to provide a permanent home for animals rescued from slaughter and abusive conditions. We currently care for more than 70 animals, including goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, turkeys, and a mini-horse.
I am grateful to Pawling Public Radio for the opportunity to tell you stories about the animals. I plan to tell a new story each month.
This one is about a turkey named Ducky.
First, a bit of background. Six years ago, we adopted four young turkeys, including Ducky. They are all females. We don’t know much about their early lives, but we do know that they began life on a factory farm. We know this, in part, because they are all-white. Factory farms breed them to be all-white because customers don’t like colored pigment on their meat.
In addition, our turkeys are missing parts of their toes and parts of their beaks. On factory farms, the owners cram the turkeys so tightly together that the turkeys fight for space. Instead of giving them more room, which would stop the fighting, the owners cut their toes and beaks so fights do less damage to the owners’ products.
Factory farms breed turkeys to gain weight as quickly as possible, and they usually send the turkeys to slaughter at about four months of age. Turkeys like ours, who have somehow escaped this fate, carry enormous weight for the rest of their lives. As a result, their feet become damaged. Ducky has had particularly bad foot problems.
Each turkey looks similar to the others, but they all have their own unique personalities. Ducky is the feistiest, and she dislikes humans. When she was young she sometimes nipped at people. Another turkey often nipped Ducky to get her to behave.
But Ducky has shown concern for other turkeys and a lot of intelligence.
One day, when the turkeys were still young and light enough to fly, the turkey named Sadie flew over a pasture fence. Ducky became upset. Ducky apparently feared the separation and made distress calls. After a little while, one of the caretakers, a young man named Grant, returned from a swim in our pond and saw Ducky in distress. Ducky looked at Grant.
Grant wanted to get Sadie back, but he only had flip flops on his feet, so he first had to go to the cottage to put on his boots. When he started walking away from the fence and toward the cottage, Ducky went berserk. She cried out much more loudly and desperately than ever. Many scientists warn against attributing human thoughts and emotions to other animals, but Grant was certain she meant, “Stop! Don’t walk away from the fence! I need you to get Sadie back!!” Ducky’s cries only subsided when Grant returned. Then he was able to scale the fence and retrieve Sadie.
Turkeys are often believed to be stupid. But Ducky demonstrated a knowledge of mean and ends. She didn’t, by herself, try to get Sadie (which she probably couldn’t have done), but considered Grant to be the means for returning Sadie. Many scientists consider the grasp of means and ends to be a defining mark of intelligence.
As I mentioned, Ducky dislikes people. So what happened one day, when Ducky was about four years old, was very surprising.
A group of Buddhists, 50 in all, visited our farm. They were all initially from China, and only one spoke both Chinese and English. After touring the farm and having lunch, they asked if they could perform a blessing ceremony. The head monk, who was clearly revered by all, snapped off a few needles from a pine tree, placed them in water, and said some special words. He then led all the Buddhists in single file through every section of the farm. He led chants and sprinkled water here and there. The ceremony lasted half an hour.
Through the interpreter, I asked the monk if he gave a blessing, and he said he had. He had asked that the farmed animals, in their next life, return as humans so they can defend themselves.
After the blessing, the Buddhists were chatting together about 30 feet from Ducky’s barn when the surprising event occurred. Ducky, who, as I mentioned, had trouble walking and disliked humans, hobbled alone out of the barn and walked up to the head monk. Standing in front of him, she looked directly at him for several seconds. (Her contact with him might have lasted longer, but the crowd of onlookers intruded on this moment of silent communication.) Why Ducky approached the monk, singling out this human for attention, we will never know.
I asked the monk what he thought had occurred, but he only smiled. So your guess is as good as mine.
Domestic turkeys are not expected to live much longer than six years, which is the age of our turkeys. They get health problems. Ducky has had an especially difficult time walking in recent weeks. We hope our vet’s treatments will help, but Ducky has spent increasing time resting in one spot. Quite often, the other turkeys go over and rest with her. It’s as if they are trying to comfort their respected friend.