“Wild turkeys are very tricky to raise,” Jenny Tkacz said. A resident of the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in Cross River for more than 21 years and an avid animal lover, she hosts a variety of pets, ranging from your standard house variety to a speckled owl, horses and ponies, and in years past even a peacock.
But come Thanksgiving season the star of her animal companions is a standard bronze turkey named Virgil. Raised by Ms. Tkacz, Virgil has gone from being a wild turkey orphaned along a Florida road to a Hollywood show-bird rubbing shoulders with the likes of such pop-culture stars as Lady Gaga.
Several years ago while on vacation in northern Florida, Ms. Tkacz spotted a large female turkey standing alongside a busy stretch of road. An hour later she passed by the same spot, but this time the mother turkey was lying dead alongside the road.
“Wild turkeys don’t just allow themselves to get hit, unless they are busy watching their brood,” she said. “So we stopped and I heard peeping from the woods.”
She was able to coax two chicks away from their siblings and with the help of a local sheriff who happened to be raising his own turkey chicks at that same time, domesticated the birds.
Using a makeshift carton with blankets and hot water bottles for warmth, she managed to bring the chicks on her flight back home.
Not just any turkey
“While most turkeys end up in the oven, Virgil lives a life of glamour,” Ms. Tkacz said.
Cousins of his breed, the broad-breasted white turkey, are a staple of industrial farms for their high yields of white meat.
“Virgil is a lucky boy because he can still see his feet,” Ms. Tkacz said.
Unlike his cousins, Virgil is not fed to a debilitating point in order to produce more meat, she said.
He is also unique as he has taken a real liking to the limelight.
His career in show business has included a Thanksgiving Day commercial for Lady Gaga, a music video for a group called Conversation 19 and various stills for magazines, including one with the actor and writer John Hodgman.
In addition, he has been a special holiday guest at the Wolf Conservation Center for two years in a row.
Virgil’s predecessor was Clarence, who worked with famed portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz.
Clarence unfortunately fell prey to coyotes a few years go, Ms. Tkacz said.
“I don’t blame the coyotes. That is like leaving a Twinkie on the playground — what do you think is going to happen,” she said.
Having a turkey for a pet might make one reconsider some traditional Thanksgiving traditions, but for Ms. Tkacz it is just the opposite.
“I actually prefer a fresh-killed turkey because the ones you get in the store are factory farmed,” she said. “At local farms the turkeys have a better life and they have a better end.”
Raising and butchering your own food sources is part of a revival in small-scale, personal farming that has largely disappeared, she said.
“I have actually butchered a few,” she said. “What better life is there than living in a relatively small group out in the sun, eating bugs and grass and your end is quick and stress-free.”