Turkey, Reheated

Many people believe that turkey tastes best the next day, slathered in mayonnaise and sandwiched between two slices of white bread.ÿIn general, we do not agree. Leftovers are yesterday’s news, and we like to look forward and continue to tackle the issues that are most important to the Harvard Business School community.

But recent events compel us to take another look at the turkey issue we first addressed in our April report on our own campus bird, Turk Turkee. In a world already shaken by swine flu, economic distress and political turmoil, the tension between man and turkey is also seizing headlines.

This week in Landsdowne, Virgina, a 20-pound tom barricaded a police officer in his cruiser. The officer was forced to call for reinforcements from the department of animal control.

Meanwhile, a brazen bird staked out a New Jersey Turnpike toll plaza, wreaking havoc on an already overburdened state transportation system.

And this tension knows no borders. Our colleagues at ABC Sydney reported in August on the escalating scourge of suburban brush turkeys. Urban ecologist Darryl Jones commented that these brush turkeys have become a “source of chaos” in the lush gardens of wealthy Sydney suburbanites. Professor Jones also noted that “lots of brush turkeys actually take advantage of people’s pets.”

Also this August, back in the United States, the government of Minnesota quarantined an entire flock of commercial turkeys.

In light of these events and the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, we urge the Harvard Business School community to revisit and reconsider the relationship between man and bird. It is in this spirit that we reprint, in full, our investigative report from April.

HBS Goes Cold Turkey

An Investigative Report by Edward Scott (OB) and Carter Williams (OB)

The wild turkey. Meleagris gallopavo. A prehistoric beast, swift of foot and stout of heart. A fierce fighter and a tender lover. Ben Franklin called it a “true Native of America. a Bird of Courage” and implied that it would be a better emblem for our country than the lazy and cowardly bald eagle. Mr. Franklin might be pleased to know that, more than 200 years after he celebrated the virtues of the turkey, one of these proud birds became the de facto emblem of the Harvard Business School. We called it Turk Turkee, Julius, neighbor, nemesis, and friend. And lately, we call it missing.

Now that spring has arrived and flowers are in bloom, many members of our community have fixated on an increasingly frantic question: where is the flocking turkey? Is she hibernating? Has she soared off to greener pastures? Will she ever return?

In this exhaustive investigative report, we will tell Turk’s story, from her arrival on campus in September of 2007 until her mysterious disappearance in December of 2008. Like a turkey searching for grubs in a shadowy forest, we will leave no stone unturned. And we will not shy away from the hard truth.

Turk’s arrival at Harvard Business School can be seen in a broader context of turkey repopulation here in Massachusetts. Wild turkeys, common during the colonial period, faced intense pressure from hunting and deforestation as human settlement progressed. By 1851, turkeys were extinct in Massachusetts. In 1972, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife relocated 37 New York state birds to southern Berkshire County. This initial population expanded rapidly. Experts estimate that there are now 15 thousand turkeys living in this state.

These birds, once considered rare and elusive and capable of surviving only in isolated forest areas, have since proven to be highly adaptable and well-suited for a variety of habitats. By most accounts, Turk arrived on the Harvard Business School campus in September of 2007. She was attracted, undoubtedly, by 40 acres of tree-lined paths and manicured grassy courtyards, insulation from traffic, ample food sources, and perhaps also that special aura of young minds hard at work.

Initially, students, faculty and staff enjoyed Turk’s presence. She spent most of her time strutting about the campus, admiring herself in windows, impressing visitors and providing a welcome respite from days of cases and classes. But by the start of the 2008 school year, Turk’s mood had changed. Once shy around humans, Turk became increasingly confrontational. She began to chase students, reporters, police officers and children and to lash out with her talons and her beak. Our feathered friend was a disaster waiting to happen.

Jim Cardoza, a wildlife biologist at the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, the head of the Massachusetts Turkey Project and the architect of the 1972 turkey relocation, said that this behavior is nothing new. “As wildlife and humans intermingle,” he explained in a phone conversation, “some conflict is almost inevitable.”

Indeed, incidents like the ones at Harvard have been common throughout history. The first recorded interaction between turkeys and humans occurred within the nascent Aztec empire. The Aztecs had a complicated relationship with “huexolotlin.” While two festivals a year were held in the bird’s honor, the Aztecs also viewed the turkey as a manifestation of Tezcatlipoca, the trickster god. As wild turkeys migrated to North America, they began hectoring Native American tribes, starting with the Navajo. The Navajo struggled to keep turkeys from destroying their crops, but the birds were relentless and the Navajo were frightened. The Navajo managed to turn the tide of the battle by feeding, fencing and domesticating the turkeys over time. This truce was not to last. As human populations grew in the Americas, turkeys were driven nearly to extinction, particularly in more populated areas.

In more recent history, a resurgence of turkey populations has again threatened the delicate balance between man and bird.

In April of 2008, the Associated Press reported that mailmen in Madison, Wisconsin had more to fear than just dogs and disgruntled postal workers. A roving flock of 10 birds had targeted the letter carriers, even to the point of pecking them in their mail trucks. Postal workers were eventually armed with water pistols. The water worked temporarily, but the cunning birds soon shrugged off the spray as though it were water off a duck’s back. The carriers have since resorted to more powerful weapons such as sticks and umbrellas.

In March of this year, wild turkeys rampaged in Michigan. The Jackson Citizen Patriot reported that turkeys have attacked truck drivers and mechanics at Tri-County International Trucks in Jackson. Employee Dave Dodes commented, “They’re not afraid of traffic, and now they chase people around.” He remarked that wild turkeys have been spotted around the business for a long time, but have only recently turned aggressive.

And just a few weeks ago, in Buckfield, Maine, police reported that a wild turkey knocked a 23-year-old man off his motorcycle, breaking his collarbone.

The root of the problem, Mr. Cardoza said, is that wild turkeys “like chickens, live in flocks and establish a pecking order.” Turkeys enforce this pecking order, or natural hierarchy within the flock, by intimidating subservient birds. As turkeys grow accustomed to human beings, more dominant birds will try to assimilate people into their social structure, often with violence. If a person responds to a turkey’s bluster with confidence and aggression, the turkey will generally submit. Conversely, if a person shows fear or weakness, the turkey will consider him or her to be a fair target for bullying now and in the future. On a campus like Harvard Business School, it is almost impossible to establish the appropriate relationship between birds and humans. Some community members will be poised and confident enough to put a turkey in its place. Many others, when faced with a charging 25-pound turkey, will react with enough fear and uncertainty to invite future attacks on them and others.

“Sadly,” Mr. Cardoza noted, “once a bird becomes aggressive, it is difficult to deter and must often be removed.”

Back at Harvard, Bob Breslow, Director of Administration in the Operations group of the Business School, knew that something had to be done about Turk Turkee. Complaints about the bird had multiplied, and the nature of the attacks on community members and property seemed to be escalating past the realm of amusement into a real danger zone. On several occasions, parents were forced to sprint, carrying their children, from day care to the safety of their cars to avoid the onslaught of an angry Turk. One woman said that she was afraid to leave her apartment for fear of a turkey confrontation. Reporters who came to campus to visit Turk were attacked and beaked bloody.

Mr. Breslow recalled, “We have faced some other animal issues before. A fox running around campus. Some rogue squirrels in dorm rooms. But this turkey was really the perfect storm.”

Harvard reached out to the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife for advice and support. The state has clear rules when it comes to dealing with animals that threaten people or property. Such “problem animals” may be harassed until they leave an area of conflict. If non-lethal disruption fails to dislodge a problem animal, the state mandates that the animal be trapped and destroyed, in a humane manner, by a licensed problem animal control agent.

Mr. Breslow reflected, “We really wanted to explore other options for removal of the turkey. But once the turkey began to pose a real threat to the community, we had no alternative but to hire a state licensed problem animal control agent. Ultimately, the turkey just didn’t have tenure.”

The saga of Turk Turkee, like most great mysteries, does not end with a smoking gun or incontrovertible proof. There are no wishbones on the windowsill or feathers in the furnace. There is simply an unyielding state mandate, a quiet removal, an unmarked grave, and an end to an era here at the Harvard Business School.

We can only hope to extract some valuable lessons from this experience. Turk Turkee, with us for a transformational year and half, brought to light important issues like tolerance, diversity, and where future leaders of the business world actually fit into the natural pecking order. This turkey, which so eagerly admired its reflection in windows and shiny car doors, has perhaps given all of us a chance to more fully examine ourselves.

Edward Scott has worked as a landscaper, consultant, freelance writer and biotechnology deal analyst. He enjoys running, boxing and riding his bike.

Carter Williams previously worked in the education and mobile technology spheres. His interests include water skiing, boxing and the Periodic Table of Elements. He also likes to watch movies.

November 23, 2009
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