Wild Turkeys From a Psych Hospital Drive New Yorkers Crazy

Staten Islanders say feral fowl are destroying their neighborhood. Mark Bonifacio/NY Daily News/Getty

Barbara Laing takes a drag on a menthol cigarillo, maneuvering her maroon power chair between chalky piles of feral turkey feces strewn across the yard. Mr. Darcy, a teacup Yorkshire terrier in a skeleton jumpsuit, shivers by her feet, yipping as more and more turkeys, the ones responsible for the poop, perch on Laing’s leafless red maple.

A few brown birds peck at the now-naked dirt in front of her house. A few more linger in the street. Drivers honk. Passersby snap photos. (Sometimes, onlookers even throw the turkeys bagels.) Laing sighs, wondering how to get rid of the 100 or so turkeys that have laid waste to her home and neighborhood for more than a decade.

“There’s no more grass because they eat it all,” Laing, 70, said of the rafter, which roosts nearby at Staten Island’s South Beach Psychiatric Center. “And they s*** all over the place.”

The heavy turkeys sit in her flower beds, fatally smashing the petals. They feast on the increasingly meager fruits of Laing’s fig, pear, and cherry trees. Their waste so extensively litters the lawn that it gets caught in the wheels of Liang’s power chair and tracks into her house. The mailman, Wharton, has refused to deliver letters because there’s simply too much guano on the ground.

“We don’t get no help,” she said.  

Laing and her neighbors, which include her parents, sister and cousin, are again pressing public officials to remove the turkeys that wander away from the grounds of the state-run mental hospital to roost on her block. They congregate around 4 p.m. every day and turn the quiet residential street into a fowl “bed and breakfast,” Laing laments.

“When the sun comes up, they all come down from the tree, screaming,” she tells Newsweek. “Then, they walk all the way down to the psych center. And that’s where they hang out all day.”

Alas, getting rid of the turkeys – the ancestors of which were allegedly dumped by a resident on South Beach’s campus about 15 years ago – has proved more difficult than it would seem, raising the spectre of other troublesome urban bird management controversies in New York and elsewhere.  

New York's Department of Health, which runs the hospital, and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, have tried since 2008 to use non-lethal methods – such as oiling the turkeys’ eggs and installing “no feeding” signs – to control the population. (Though the rafters are said to be related, the hospital’s request is separate from Laing’s entreaties; officials there say that the birds pose health and safety risks to patients and staffers.)

As the benign deterrence tactics didn’t work, the DEC asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services to remove the birds, which, of course, is a euphemism for dispatching them to the slaughterhouse. The first round-up took place in August 2013, when about 90 turkeys were sent to “poultry processing,” according to pro-turkey activists.

In September, animal welfare advocates brokered a deal with the USDA to ship about 28 Galliformes to a sanctuary deep in the Catskills. But in October, USDA agents collected another several dozen turkeys and sent them to “poultry processing”, which is not a refuge but an abbatir, turkey defenders say.

David Karopkin, a law student who leads GooseWatch NYC, “an advocacy group committed to the preservation of New York City’s Canada geese,” said the reapings reflect poor wildlife management practices. Since the Miracle on the Hudson, when a jetliner was forced to land in the Hudson River after a goose flew into its engine, the USDA has culled geese citywide to prevent airstrikes against planes flying out of both John F.  Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports. Karopkin claims the methods don’t work and that city just wants to do away with the problem birds.

“First it was just geese. Now it seems to be spreading to other animals,” he said of the killings. “People get very upset about the poop and their park being taken over but the problem is, they’re not really doing anything substantive about it.”

“Within a month or two, there will be more because – guess what – they fly.”

Even Laing and her family members don’t want the turkeys to die, despite them being ongoing nuisances.

“We’ve seen a lot of these turkeys grow up from babies,” she said. “There’s another one that’s hopping around with a broken leg, staying in the leaves over here to keep warm. We haven’t been raking these leaves so that turkey will stay warm.”

“We’re not cruel people,” she said. “Why don’t they put ‘em in the woods?”

The USDA contends that the turkeys can’t be put in the woods, as the state environmental agency determined that “these aren’t just wild turkeys” but “appear to be a hybrid of some domestic turkeys.”

“They’re not wild turkeys? Then what are they?” retorts Laing, who has grown tired of the bird battle, especially as she’s recovering from illness and a recent leg amputation. “Of course they’re wild turkeys. Nobody takes care of them.”

The USDA maintains that the turkeys can’t just be transferred, leaving few options if a sanctuary doesn’t step up to save them. Euthanize them and throw the corpses away, or slaughter them and give the meat to a homeless shelter.

“If the meat tests fit for human consumption, it will be donated to charity,” the USDA spokeswoman told Newsweek.

It’s unlikely the turkeys will make it to tables in time for Thanksgiving or any holiday this season. Even if they prove to be contaminant-free, the director of a local food bank said she has no interest in serving them to her patrons. The meat is now being kept in a freezer until a decision has been made about how to dispose of it. 

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