A noted Vineyard naturalist and wildlife expert said late last week that a Chilmark police officer responded correctly when he shot and killed a wild turkey that had attacked him and a fellow officer.
“Some turkeys just turn bad and can be a real threat to humans,” said August Ben David 2nd, former longtime director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary and owner of the World of Reptiles in Edgartown. “If a small child had gotten involved, it could have gotten quite serious. I can tell you right now that if that animal had been captured it would have been euthanized,” he said.
Mr. Ben David was speaking about the death of a male turkey named Tom who was gunned down by a Chilmark patrolman on June 15 after it had exhibited unusually aggressive behavior.
The story of the turkey, which was reported in both Island newspapers last week, was the subject of much discussion across the Vineyard over the weekend.
And while it was naturally the brunt of many bad jokes (“Are you serving hot turkey sandwiches today?” asked one diner at a Vineyard Haven eatery Saturday afternoon. “My wife likes white meat and I like the dark meat, but we’ll just take something without gunpowder.”) —
the incident also has a serious side.
Chilmark resident Jonathan Haar, who said he had fed the turkey by hand and treated it like a pet, faces criminal charges after he reportedly attacked the police officers who shot Tom.
Mr. Haar, who police said rushed patrolman Jeffrey Day and special officer Matthew Gebo and struck them several times with a closed fist, has been charged with assault and battery on a public employee, assault and battery and resisting arrest.
He is scheduled to appear in Edgartown district court for a pretrial hearing June 30.
Mr. Haar could not be reached for comment over the weekend. In an e-mail to the Gazette, his wife Linda said she and her husband were limited in what they could say because of the pending legal charges.
“Obviously there is a whole other disturbing side and facts to this story. We will tell the other side of the story at the proper time and place, [we] really don’t think it is appropriate to let it play out any further in the press,” Mrs. Haar wrote.
But in a comment posted on the Gazette Web site Friday morning, Mr. Haar questioned the manner in which the two responding officers handled the situation on June 15.
“They endangered our lives, killing an animal that was running away from them at the time. What would you do if someone fired a gun repeatedly toward your wife? Send a memo? . . . Who is the victim here? Is there a better way to handle a nuisance animal than putting people’s lives at danger with a deadly weapon?” Mr. Haar wrote.
The incident began when two employees of Bear Baby Equipment Rentals arrived at a private residence on Old Ridge Road to drop off some equipment for a summer family who had not yet arrived on the Island. A large male turkey later identified as Tom was in the front yard, acting strangely and aggressively.
The scene then became part Alfred Hitchcock movie and part Benny Hill Show sketch, as the turkey charged the employees, flapping its wings and pecking madly. One employee was chased around the delivery van while the other tried to send the bird away by waving her arms and yelling.
The turkey became even more aggressive.
After getting back inside the van, the two employees pushed the baby equipment they were delivering out the van window and called the Island communications center to alert the police.
“I have never in the last 25 years of living here seen such an aggressive turkey,” one of the employees stated in an eyewitness account to police.
When police arrived Tom turned his wrath on Patrolman Day and Special Officer Gebo. After a scuffle with the turkey, Mr. Day drew his service firearm and fired off two shots. The shots did not kill the turkey and it fled into the nearby woods.
The two officers followed, and Mr. Day fired two more shots, killing Tom.
Just after the final shots were fired, the police officers were approached by Mr. Haar, who was reportedly shouting obscenities and insults.
“The man was visibly upset,” Mr. Day wrote in his report. “He stated you guys are [expletive deleted] idiots . . . when the man got close I saw him strike Officer Gebo in the mouth area of the face with a closed fist.”
Mr. Haar reportedly resisted arrest and the physical altercation continued. He was then arrested and charged.
The turkey tale continues to spark comment around the Island and in reader forums on the two Island newspaper Web sites. Opinion is sharply divided — some believe the police overreacted, while others believe the reaction was appropriate.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ben David strongly advised against hand-feeding wild animals, including wild turkeys. He said the practice causes the bird or animal to lose its natural fear of people, and as a result they become overly territorial.
“That bird was just protecting his territory, he knew he had a free and reliable source of food nearby, and when he sees people — especially new people — he views them as a threat. Basically he is looking at people as if they were other male turkeys, and he is doing what comes naturally,” he said.
He concluded: “When you start habituating them to human behavior, that is when they create a threat . . . you’re basically creating a monster when you start hand-feeding these animals.”