Accessible only by ferry or crazy-expensive toll bridge, Staten Island is a wild and untamed place that’s home to bald eagles, runaway zebras, mayor-nipping groundhogs and a sizable population of feral turkeys.
Come December, however, as many as 100 members of Staten Island’s raucous rafter will be rounded up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and trucked off to decidedly more turkey-appropriate environs: an animal sanctuary in upstate New York. Here, they’ll join toms and hens collected last winter during a similar relocation program. Once reunited and settled in, the turkeys will likely kick back with a bottle of Kentucky bourbon and a bowl of acorns and reminisce about the good old days roaming the streets and causing a ruckus on Staten Island’s East Shore.
Will they be missed? Probably not. (Well, maybe just a bit.)
Like Staten Island itself, the relationship that borough residents have with the birds is complicated. This is especially true for homeowners living near the turkeys’ preferred roosting spot on the grounds of South Beach Psychiatric Center.
While the birds are a fixture in East Shore neighborhoods like Dongan Hills and Ocean Breeze, the novelty of living in a dense urban area where the large and often ornery fowl snarl traffic and destroy property on a regular basis has worn off in recent years. The origins of the non-indigenous turkeys date back to the late 1990s, when according to popular legend, a resident — some say it was a "he" while some say it was a "she" — deposited the first generation of birds outside the psychiatric center during the middle of the night.
“The legend that I've been told is about 10 or 15 years ago, there was a gentleman who had five or 10 of these turkeys in his backyard," animal activist David Karopkin explained to WNYC. “And he didn't want to keep them anymore, so he let them go. That's 10 or 15 years that these turkeys have been living on the south shore, on the beach, reproducing and so their numbers grew.”
It’s also no surprise that Staten Islanders possess a certain amount of pride when it comes to their resident birds.
The turkeys, however disruptive, have become part of the urban fabric — their presence is reassuring, identifying, emblematic. And like Sonic Drive-In and Republican representatives, Staten Island has something that the other four boroughs of New York City don't (okay, maybe they do but it's different). They may be a nuisance, but they're Staten Island's nuisance.
It’s a classic love/hate relationship, New York City-style, that comes complete with a (sadly no longer active) Twitter account.
But as the turkey population has intensified, so have turkey-related headaches for area homeowners. Public defecation, veggie garden vandalism, copulating en plein air … just another day in 10305. Many Staten Islanders want the birds to disappear — and for good.
But culled? Even the most exasperated East Shore residents do not want the turkeys, known for “coating sidewalks, roofs, cars and other surfaces with accumulations of their substantial feces,” to be rounded up and sent off for “processing.”
However, the most sensible and humane alternative to killing the birds, capturing them and setting them free in the wild, isn’t that sensible or humane at all given that the turkeys are wild/domestic hybrids, urban creatures that have lived their lives in a densely populated section of New York City. In the eyes of many, relocating them to the wild would be just as cruel a fate as slaughter.
After several failed attempts at controlling the turkey population, the USDA, with a full blessing from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), began eliminating the turkeys in small numbers in 2013. Last winter, the USDA laid out plans for a large-scale $16,000 culling operation.
However, after a public outcry, the operation was shelved and the turkeys’ received a well-timed reprieve in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. In December, 27 of the birds were collected from the grounds of the psychiatric center and relocated to a Catskills animal sanctuary where they were provided housing, water and, most important, fencing.
This past week, members of the Wildlife Services and Animal Care unit of the USDA embarked on the first steps — “site visits and pre-baiting” according to the Staten Island Advance — in a relocation effort that will see the birds retire from the mean streets of New York to the bucolic splendors of Greene County.
Recent counts have put the total number of turkeys living on the grounds of the psychiatric center, where the birds pose safety and sanitation issues, at around 50. Benjamin Rosen, a spokesperson for the New York State Office of Mental Health, is optimistic that the pre-baiting process at the center will attract turkeys roosting in other pockets around the East Shore.
“We believe obviously there’s probably more in the surrounding community that probably go on our grounds," Rosen recently explained to DNAinfo. "The first round of captures will occur in the first few weeks in December. Those will be ongoing until hopefully we hit the 100 mark."
Capped at 100 birds, the DEC-issued relocation permit expires in December 2016.
The tale of the Staten Island turkeys has been an epic one, spanning decades and filled with feathers, frustration, international fame and incredibly freaked-out dogs. And poop. Mountains of poop as high as the former trash piles at Fresh Kills Landfill. It's also a tale with a happy ending for everyone involved, toms, hens and humans alike.
And with the season of goodwill — and charitable giving — upon us, head on over to the And-Hof Sanctuary for Farm Animals to help these soon-to-be-former Staten Islanders comfortably adjust to their new home amongst new neighbors including goats, geese and a chicken from Queens.