The 1953 turkey drop starts as the first bird is tossed from a low-flying plane.
The 1953 turkey drop starts as the first bird is tossed from a low-flying plane. (Wallace Kirkland / The Life Picture Collection / Getty)

Tossing a Bird That Does Not Fly Out of a Plane

A Thanksgiving story about the limits of human empathy

YELLVILLE, Ark.It is October in the Ozarks. The grass has dried out and the trees have bronzed and browned. Deer lie glaze-eyed in the back of camouflaged pickup trucks. High-school football helmets crack every Friday night. And seven days a week, workers in processing plants are helping to kill, gut, pluck, and truss turkeys for Thanksgiving tables around the country.

Here in Yellville this cold and rainy weekend, there are turkeys everywhere—turkey shirts and turkey costumes and turkey paraphernalia. There is a raffle giving away birds for Thanksgiving dinner. There’s a brisk trade in turkey legs, too, pulled out of a barrel smoker. At the bandstand, a judge announces the winner of the “Miss Drumsticks” contest, who gleams and sparkles in her pageant finery. “It’s Miss Drumsticks because they’re judging who has the best thighs,” an older woman explained to me, matter-of-fact.

But—and this is unusual, and much to the dismay and consternation of many locals—there are no live turkeys. None in a cage towed behind a pickup. None thrown from the courthouse roof. None pitched off the bandstand and picked up by screaming teenagers. And none dropped out of an airplane. That is what the Yellville Turkey Trot festival is famous and infamous for, you see: living, breathing, squawking birds getting lobbed out of a low-flying aircraft.

Turkeys, it seems worth mentioning, do not fly. Although the wild, dark-feathered ones you see in flocks on exurban roads are capable of fluttering up into and in between trees, the factory-farm-bred, white-feathered ones you eat on Thanksgiving are closer to the penguin side of the avian flying-ability spectrum. The birds can slow their descent by flapping wildly and catch the wind and glide, should they find themselves free-falling from 500 feet. But some die on impact, fleshy anvils with useless wings.

Once a year for the past seven decades, with just a few breaks, Yellville has had a dozen or so fowl demonstrate this gravitational reality. The Turkey Trot is a much-anticipated event for people with a lot of Ozark pride but without a lot of money, organizers and attendees explained—a transgressive event that locals love to love, love to hate, love to go to, and really love to talk about. “There’s a festival that goes on in Fayetteville that’s huge. They have booths there where you walk up and you just stop in your tracks and go, ‘Holy cow, that’s neat!’” Bob King, the owner of a local retreat property, told me. “We’re a small-town festival. It is important to people.”

Yet the tradition might be as dead as the turkeys whose legs were getting smoked and sold in the street. Years of negative and mocking media attention, criticism from animal-welfare groups and their supporters, and the involvement of a variety of regulatory and legal authorities have led to the live-turkey part of the weekend getting shut down, perhaps for good.

As the lip-synch contest echoed and the quilting guild showed off its wares, some worried that the everything-else portion of the weekend would wither away, too. Local-business owners fretted that a vital source of income was gone—with some hoping that a plane foisting the birds would show up, cops and politicians and op-ed writers and vegan busybodies be damned. “We will have to see how the numbers end up,” said Keith Edmonds of the chamber of commerce, a note of resignation in his voice. Every time an aircraft passed overhead, little kids checked to see if a bird would come out.

Was it worth it, ending a town’s beloved annual event to save a few birds from a few moments of confused terror? Was it meaningful, given how many billions of birds raised for meat face a far more gruesome life and death? Would it stick, given the steeliness of the residents of this corner of the Ozarks and the devotion of Americans to their meat-eating and cold-weather traditions?

I was not sure before going to the festival, and I was even less sure after it. But I knew this: This was not a Thanksgiving story about throwing a bird that does not fly out of an airplane. This was a Thanksgiving story about the human will to throw a bird that does not fly out of an airplane.

Children watch a boy climbing a tree to grab a turkey that landed in branches. (Wallace Kirkland / The Life Picture Collection / Getty)

The Turkey Trot is tradition in a part of the country where tradition still matters, where the people are big-C Conservative and small-c conservative, too: That was a consistent refrain I heard in Yellville. It got started as World War II ended, when the town’s American Legion post sponsored an autumn turkey-calling contest with a turkey giveaway. A few years later, a local pilot tossed some turkeys from a plane for the crowd assembled below, giving the event its wings.

The origins of the Turkey Trot were silly. They were outrageous. But they were also noble, or so the story goes. “The day’s activities were intended to be a wild turkey–conservation activity, calling attention to Arkansas’s dwindling turkey population,” according to one history. A few birds were meant to survive and flourish in the thick Ozark woods, while others went home to be prepared for dinner.

The Turkey Trot remained a hometown, word-of-mouth kind of thing over the next several decades, with pretty much every resident of Yellville and many people from the surrounding region flocking downtown once a year to eat, chitchat, and perhaps walk away with a bird. Contrary to what a few older folks told me, the event does not seem to have been the inspiration for that famous episode of the old sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati; hurling a bird that does not fly out of an aircraft is the kind of peculiar idea that has struck more than one great American mind, evidently.

Things started changing when the National Enquirer took notice. In the late 1980s, the tabloid sent two reporters to the turkey drop and ran an exposé titled “It’s Sick! Yellville Turkeys Tossed Out of Planes—For Fun.” The story described the “nightmarish scene” of the birds plunging to their death below.

One turkey slammed into a power line so hard the wire bent down about three feet before snapping back up. The bird hit the ground, shocked and dazed, and tried to walk … pitifully trying to run on two obviously broken legs before it was crushed to death by a pileup of kids … After smashing into a tree and coming to rest on a branch, one of the birds was pursued by a gang of kids who captured and fought over it—using it in a grisly tug-of-war that ended when one boy tore the turkey’s wing off.

(A news-of-the-weird addendum to this news-of-the-weird story: I am relying on a secondhand version of the Enquirer article. The publication’s archives were destroyed after being contaminated with anthrax.)

The prose was purple, the descriptions overwrought. But not by much. Ample documentary evidence recorded in the years since, as well as the testimonies of a number of townsfolk, indicate that this was and is pretty much what happens when you drop a turkey from hundreds of feet in the air. The panicked animals try to right themselves. Some catch a gust. Others do not. Some die when they hit the ground. Others survive with broken bones. Yet others are grievously injured when they are fought over by local kids. Some perish of apparent shock. A few, it is fair to note, are rattled, but physically unharmed.

“I was standing in the alley behind one of the buildings in town, and that plane came right overhead,” said Rose Hilliard, who attended last year’s festival to try to save some of the birds. “We’re all trying to chase it down and I’m thinking, Oh my God, I can’t outrun 15 kids! There’s no way. They weren’t supposed to drop them over town. They were supposed to be across the river there, across the creek. But the pilots kind of think they can do no wrong and they’re proud of it.” The turkeys she encountered were heat-stressed and in shock and bruised, she told me. “It is not entertaining to watch a frightened animal trying to get away from a crowd of people. That’s—I don’t call it entertainment.”

But it was, in some strange and compelling way. After the Enquirer piece, the turkey drop became not just a local-media staple but a national-media fascination. The coverage that ensued was horrified, mocking, condescending, and eye-rolling—the Turkey Trot depicted as a fall festival for the kind of people who grocery shop at the gas station, as a baroque example of human delight in animal suffering, as a can-you-believe-it bit of weird Americana.

It was not just the media that noticed. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals got word of the event more than 20 years ago, Daphna Nachminovitch, who leads PETA’s cruelty-investigations department, told me, and has agitated against it in some way or another ever since. “When Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas, we started receiving complaints about it,” she told me. “Complaints from local people. We’ve been aware of it forever. It almost sounded as if somebody made it up, because who would think that it’s funny to throw a live animal out of an airplane?”

PETA blasted information on the event out to its followers. It petitioned the event’s organizers. It also offered $5,000 for information leading to the arrest of the pilot who drops the birds, and at one point hired a private investigator to look into things. Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe, among others, campaigned with PETA to stop the drop. “Arkansas offers plenty of cool outdoor gatherings that don’t rely on sadism,” he wrote in an open letter. “I’m writing to add my voice to the thousands of others asking you to help deep-six this sick stunt.”

The media attention fostered activist attention, political attention, and the summoning of various local and national agencies to figure out whether there were legal means to prevent the birds-and-planes part. But animal-cruelty laws are surprisingly lax, particularly when it comes to farm animals. They are species- and purpose-specific, meaning that a scientist might be able to legally vivisect a research rat, but not her pet dog. And, of course, they need to be enforced, which they often are not. If you want cheap burgers, you need a degree of animal cruelty that most Americans would consider horrifying if confronted with it.

Hilliard made a complaint at the local sheriff’s office. “I physically did have to do that,” she told me. “I filed a complaint for animal cruelty against the pilots of the plane. They did nothing about it. They said, ‘Well, we’d have to catch him in the act of doing it before we could even do anything.’” Ultimately, she said, “they pretty much just blew me off.”

Animal-rights activists also looked into getting the Federal Aviation Administration involved, given that it seems unwise to let Americans fly around chucking farm animals out of planes near population centers. Last year, Lynn Lunsford, a spokesperson for the FAA, said the agency did not have the right to intercede. “FAA regulations don’t specifically deal with dropping live animals out of airplanes, so we have no authority to prohibit the practice,” she said. Representative Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat, attempted to spur the FAA to act, but that went nowhere either.

As I interviewed folks about what various legal authorities were trying and failing to prevent, I marveled at how little was actually said about what needed preventing. Whose turkeys were these? Who arranged the event? Who knew what?

Small-town omertà kicked in as I asked those questions. Yellville’s mayor would not comment for the story, a receptionist told me, because the town had nothing to do with it. “It’s a private event put on by private groups,” she said—never mind the fact that public schools shut down for the day to celebrate it, or that the birds got thrown off the courthouse roof, or that the town’s police would seem to have jurisdiction. Edmonds said the Chamber of Commerce had nothing to do with the turkey drop itself; in recent years, a since-identified “phantom pilot” had been the one to do the high-altitude work.

Nevertheless, a conditional-clause, passive-voice, no-ma’am-not-me sense of how this thing might happen emerged. The birds might have come from a backyard-type operation, not a big farm or an auction. They might have been domesticated heritage birds, not wild ones, as some Yellville residents thought. A few guys might have helped load them into an open-cage trailer behind another guy’s truck. Then it might have gone to a local airstrip, because maybe someone had a plane and thought the whole thing was a hoot. Imagine how loud and messy it would be in that tin can!

The political and media attention on the hoot became too much. Members of the Chamber of Commerce began to receive thousands of messages, some threatening, about the event. “Local businesses were getting their servers shut down,” Edmonds told me. “They were receiving credible threats: ‘I hope your kids die a horrible, painful death, as if they were being thrown from an airplane.’” This spring, the Chamber of Commerce decided to stop sponsoring the Turkey Trot, a decision made unanimously but tearfully. The Rotary Club said it would take over as sponsor, provided that there were zero live turkeys on the premises.

Was it overkill to focus so much attention on one town’s small, if unsavory, fall tradition? The point was never to stop the town from having a fall festival or celebrating in the way it saw fit, Nachminovitch of PETA said. “There was this idea that this was us thumbing our noses at them, but that’s not it,” she said. “It’s about the turkeys. It’s about animal cruelty. It’s about human decency. Where animals are being abused, that’s where we are.”

But in town, PETA was cast as the villain of the Turkey Trot saga. “Congratulations, your followers’ flatulent cacophony of violent threats and extremism have killed the Turkey Trot Festival after 72 years of success,” wrote Josh Dooley, a photojournalist for The Baxter Bulletin, a local paper. “Much like the people and practices you decry for the obliteration of various animal species, you killed something without understanding it or attempting to even comprehend the destruction you caused.”

The festival always had strong partisans on both sides, though. A number of folks felt that it gave the town a bad image. A number were disgusted. “Let’s face it: It is just plain mean. What kind of folks are we?” read one April 2018 letter to the editor in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “If only they could speak, would turkeys not gobble out pleas to be spared the forced flight so they might be humanely join the 100 million turkeys to enjoy their God-given destiny … to have their scrawny necks severed from their unsuited-for-flight, outrageously enlarged breasted bodies” for Thanksgiving dinner.

A boy crossing the square toting a turkey he caught in the kids' scramble (Wallace Kirkland / The Life Picture Collection / Getty)

The letter writer made a good point. What happens to farmed birds is far worse. That reality is well understood in this corner of Arkansas, which produces a good chunk of the birds that end up on Thanksgiving tables. The nearby town of Ozark has been dubbed the “town that runs on turkey.” Butterball is currently constructing a hulking plant just outside of Yellville.

Laying hens probably take gold in the farm-animal misery Olympics. Male chicks are threshed to death. Female chicks grow up to be hens placed in boxes so small they cannot stretch out their wings, incapable of performing any of the activities that make chickens feel like chickens. Though chickens can live for well more than a decade, laying hens are killed as soon as their egg production slows down in a year or two, if prolapse or septicemia or cannibalism does not kill them first.

Turkeys have it only a little better. Born in hatcheries, poults head to warehouses where they will spend the rest of their life, conditions becoming more cramped as they get bigger and bigger. Because the stress of being packed in leads them to peck one another, sometimes to death, the birds have parts of their beak and toes clipped off. Toms also have their snood—the colorful flesh that dangles near their beak—removed. Then they grow, standing in their own urine and feces, eating pellets. Many develop sores and fractures. Few receive individualized medical care. It is not unheard-of for badly injured turkeys to die of starvation.

On the way to the slaughterhouse, they are crammed into cages, a process that frequently results in broken bones. (One million turkeys die en route to a slaughterhouse each year, due to crushing, exposure, or another cause.) When they arrive, they are strung upside down by their feet—more broken bones—before their head is dunked in electrified water and their throat is cut. Turkeys, like chickens, are not covered by the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. This means there are few penalties for companies that grievously mistreat turkeys. The production lines run so fast that birds are sometimes still alive as blades cut them, alive as they are dunked in scalding water.

Their very bodies are no less cruel than what humans do to those bodies. Turkeys, as you might remember from elementary school, are native to the Americas. Domestication occurred hundreds or perhaps even thousands of years ago. Right around when the Yellville Turkey Trot was getting started, in the 1940s, big agricultural companies began to breed domesticated turkeys intensively to obtain more meat from them, faster. The experiment was an astonishing success: The broad-breasted white, the bird that is most likely on your Thanksgiving table, went from a 15-pound bird in 1960 to a 30-pound bird today, and it grows to that weight far more quickly than nature intended.

These are Franken-creatures, like bulldogs or racehorses. They cannot reproduce naturally, and their body is incompatible with a healthy, long life. The birds, if not slaughtered, face grotesque problems with their skeleton, their heart, and their respiratory system, as their cartoonishly oversized breasts distend and stress their body. “They get these compound fractures and leg injuries—often these things can’t be fixed—because they grow so fast,” said Susie Coston, the national shelter director of Farm Sanctuary, a major farm-animal rescue organization. “They are just too big.”

Another strange thing about them: The birds suffer from compulsive insatiability. If you leave food out for them to eat at will, “they just never stop eating,” Coston told me. “I’ve never seen anything like it. They eat so much that they injure their intestinal tract.”

If you withhold food, as is necessary to keep them alive, she said, “they are always hungry.”

Falling from a plane might be a reprieve for a turkey.

In Yellville, some birds do escape, repopulating the Ozarks as the event’s founders intended, though only briefly, given their human-cast physiology. Some are raised as pets. And some make it to farm sanctuaries. Hundreds of miles from the Ozarks sits a pocket rescue farm managed by Lisa McDonald and Joe Dinan, who also run a brewery and evince a spirit of crunchy goodwill.

The nonhuman residents of Sweet Bear Rescue Farm include a bristle-haired pig that occasionally presents his belly for scritches; two goats; a variety of chickens, split into two warring gangs; and a number of shaggy dogs. I visited the farm to meet a turkey that had survived Yellville. Volunteers had picked him up and helped get him and some of his brethren to Farm Sanctuary, which sent a pair to live at Sweet Bear. The turkeys were named Paul and George, after the Beatles.

As I walked with McDonald into a paddock in front of a barn, followed Disney-princess-like by chickens, dogs, and the pig, George came running out to meet us. “He loves people,” said McDonald, as George went on peacock-like display, the fleshy parts on his face coloring as he puffed up his iridescent feathers. McDonald pulled out a Tupperware container of tomato pieces to feed him by hand, which he pecked at berserker-like. “He loves blueberries and blackberries—those are his favorite, favorite things,” she told me.

Now he gets to be a turkey, doing the kinds of turkey things that farmed animals rarely get to do. He bathes in the dust, roosts in a barn, picks at mud, and cleans himself. He enjoys human company and preens for attention, vocalizing for and socializing with the other farm animals. (Turkeys are highly communicative prey animals; in transport and in slaughter they shriek to let their brethren know of the danger.)

George was happy. But the drop had scarred the two birds, McDonald explained. Paul “had the worst injuries of the ones who survived,” she said. “We think there was a post-traumatic-stress thing going on with him, where his heart was weakened from the event.” Just after making it to Sweet Bear, he died. “The day before, he was fine,” she told me, petting a one-eyed chicken. “It was devastating and came out of nowhere. But he had something so unnatural and terrifying happen to him. These stories of animals that survive these crazy events—they are such symbols of strength. And you are like, ‘No, this is not supposed to be this way! You are supposed to have a good life! You’ve already made it through the bad stuff!’”

George had not been the same since the death of his friend, McDonald said. “They were together when Paul died,” she said. “Joe found Paul in the morning. At first we thought, Well, maybe George does not know what’s going on. But he’s fully aware. He lost his person.”

“He doesn’t want to hang out with you as much anymore,” she went on. “The only person who spoke his language around here is gone, and now he’s just getting bossed around by some chickens. For the first week, it was hard to even get him off his roost. He had to grieve, and he’s very lonely now.” She choked up a little. “We’re just hoping to get him another companion soon. There’s always turkeys to be rescued around Thanksgiving.”

She knelt down to smooth his feathers. “It just is not the same for him.”

That George had recovered from the turkey drop but not from the death of his friend. That he had physically recovered, but was emotionally devastated. That was the only thing I encountered while reporting this story that made me cry. I got in the car after meeting him and sobbed while cleaning muck off of my boots. Couldn’t that one bird just feel some peace?

I felt nothing for the turkeys whose legs were for sale at the Yellville turkey drop, and nothing for the birds in the surrounding hills—even when I knew they were sitting, crowded by their neighbors, legs broken and beak cut, awaiting the electric bath and the scalding tank and the dinner table. I felt nothing for the turkey toms threshed to death as soon as they were born. I felt something for the birds chucked out of the plane, flapping wildly to try to stay upright. I felt something for the birds panting and panicking when caught by children below, pinned down with their heavy breasts and thick thighs and thin bones. I felt perhaps too much for George, that fabulous ham of a turkey that had rushed out to greet me but was too shy to take some tomato out of my hand.

To think this way and to feel this way is, of course, to be human. To paraphrase Joseph Stalin, one turkey thrown out of a plane is a tragicomedy; 46 million turkeys killed in a slaughterhouse is Thanksgiving dinner. You can hold the suffering of one being in your head and your heart, but the suffering of many becomes static.

The turkey drop got to people not just because it seemed excessive or baroque, but also because it happened to single birds whose plight they could see and feel and imagine. That uncanny image of a bird incapable of flying, nevertheless falling through the country air—it made the birds individuals, not a mass; a “George,” not a “turkey.” This is why animal-rights activists focus so much on charismatic individuals in their pleas to the vast, meat-eating, habitat-destroying public. “The theory is that if you can get people to care about one animal, you can get them to think about what is happening to all of them,” said Bruce Friedrich, a longtime PETA staffer who now leads the Good Food Institute. Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, put that sentiment in a striking way to me: “I spend a lot of time talking about who you eat, not what you eat.”

Animals are both who and what to humans, who are cruel and humane and contradictory above all. The same people who love and pamper their dogs eat chickens bred to suffer and die. Half of Americans say that slaughterhouses should be banned, but nearly all eat meat. Many would never purchase foie gras and would happily protest a town that throws turkeys out of a plane, but think nothing about what needs to happen for them to consume a cheap bologna sandwich. The Turkey Trot is a carnival of disgusting and tasteless excess, but Thanksgiving is just Thanksgiving.

Of course, none of this incongruity was lost on the people in Yellville, many of whom keep animals at home and work in turkey-processing plants and grew up on farms. What had happened—what got the festival shut down—the argument went, was that a lot of national attention got focused on a nice local event whose quantum of animal cruelty was insignificant given what happens in the Ozarks, or the country broadly.

That left them feeling their own kind of loss. “It was hard on my wife,” Edmonds told me. “We went to Hot Springs to get away from it all” during this year’s Turkey Trot, he said. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing for Rotary. I’m hoping they have success with it. It is what it is.” I hummed along some acknowledgment and continued taking notes.

He paused for a moment. “You know, there were actually turkeys released from a plane this year,” he said. “It was just kept quiet, I guess.”

I was stunned. “What? I didn’t see that.”

“Happened on Friday. They released on the south end of the city limits, and I don’t know for sure if or how many were released on Saturday.”

“Do you know anybody who might have either seen it happen or picked up the birds?”

“I just know about it from a Facebook post. No idea.”

That tip led me to Wesley Shipman, a longtime Yellville resident. Reached by phone, he was initially coy about what had happened. “Nothing was hurt or anything. I never even got out of my vehicle,” he said.

But in time, he opened up. The birds were not thrown out of a plane this time, he said, just off the back of a truck. It was a small, private bird-throwing event for devoted locals. “It was just a word-of-mouth thing because there had been so much controversy,” he said. “It’s nothing official, so everybody goes away happy.”

All was as it should be, he said. Tradition continued, humans being humans and birds being birds. “PETA would come down here and jump on these little people,” Shipman told me. “It seemed like they didn’t care if you ate a dead turkey leg there at the festival. But PETA did not want those turkeys to have a fighting chance.”