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Why The Caged Bird Clings

For a turkey, things could be worse than a life at the zoo

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The North American wild turkeys at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium have names. What those names actually are isn't something Henry Kacprzyk can remember right at the moment. But the birds do have them. In the zoo's Kids Kingdom, where Kacprzyk is curator, they aren't referred to as numbers or symbols or "Yo, Turkey."

The pair, a male and female, spend their days in a pen just up from the kangaroos, scratching for acorns and bugs to supplement their diet of prepared pellets, lettuce and chopped seasonal fruit. Right now, in a cold November rain, they aren't doing much of anything, just trotting back and forth with pigeon-like head bobs. They aren't the most exotic creatures at the zoo, but they draw a lot of attention from schools. And they manage to ignore the school kids who are taunting them and singing about "turkey dinner, turkey dinner, yummy yummy drumstick, yummy yummy drumstick."

The zoo's turkeys don't live in the idyllic wilds of Pennsylvania forests, or even in the state's increasingly popular urban and suburban centers. They also aren't likely to move away any time soon: Each bird has had a tendonectomy in one wing to keep it from flying away. Still, it's a better fate than that of the turkey who makes his way from a feedlot to a grocery store to a holiday table.

The zoo's turkeys, after all, haven't been bred to produce great big breasts that get so huge they can't walk around or mate properly. The tips of their beaks haven't been sliced off to prevent them from pecking one another into infection or death in cramped quarters. When it rains, they get wet ... and when it's sunny, they can bask.

In fact, life in the zoo is decent enough that for about eight months, the turkeys had a guest: another local wild turkey who freeloaded with them, scamming free acorns and confusing zookeepers and visitors alike the first few times she paid the kangaroos a visit.

"One thing these birds are thankful [for] is they don't have to be eaten," says Kacprzyk. After spending 11 years at the zoo, their flesh wouldn't be nearly as tender as that of weeks-old turkeys raised for people to eat. "They're rangy," he says of the turkeys at the zoo. "At this point, it'd be like trying to eat Pele, the soccer player."

Kacprzyk says that turkeys are relatively intelligent animals "among bird brains. These animals were considered noble at one point. Ben Franklin wanted to make them the national bird." The wild turkeys, at any rate, are more intelligent than their "domestic" (read "Butterball") cousins, who'll follow their fellows to doom because they're so stupid.

Plus, Kacprzyk says, it's nice to see turkeys making a comeback in the wild. "When I was a kid, they were nonexistent. Now I see them in my neighborhood, which is a good thing."

But if you really want to see some action, he says, "Wait till spring." That's when testosterone starts causing the male, or "tom," to become really protective of the female, or "jenny." Then, Tom will be a lot more confrontational toward visitors in the enclosure. In the wild, turkeys aren't monogamous, but they do breed in flocks. In springtime, the toms try to round up and keep as many jennies as they can, which sometimes leads to aggression.

The male turkey here is about twice as big as the female. His naked head is red, and he's got a long curl of hairlike stuff -- called a beard, not surprisingly -- coming from the center of his chest. Kacprzyk says it's a secondary sex characteristic, and can be retracted. The blue-headed female keeps close to the male, following him on their rounds in the yard that's full of slippery fallen oak leaves.

Kids Kingdom has mostly native North American species, so a visit here can be about geography and social studies, too. "It's important that people have an understanding and appreciation for animals locally," Kacprzyk says, so they can then develop those attitudes toward all animals. "People should know what their meal looked like prior to going to Giant Eagle and being wrapped in plastic."

That's not what Kacprzyk's Thanksgiving meal will look like this year, however. In consideration of his son's vegetarian girlfriend, Kacprzyk's Thanksgiving celebration will include the venerable soy-based cliché of turkey-like glob that doesn't gobble at all: a Tofurkey.


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