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A festival of cruelty

By Paul Greenberg, Tribune Content Agency on

The phantom pilot who's tossed live turkeys from his airplane for 15 years now over the annual Turkey Trot Festival at Yellville, Ark., is a phantom no more. Now that he's been succeeded by a different pilot flying a different aircraft, he's proudly revealed his identity. He turns out to be Dana Woods, pharmacist and alderman from Mountain View.

"My plane is on the ground," Alderman Woods texted during the festival, playing the hero of this sad story rather than the villain he is. Naturally enough, he's offered a lame excuse for his (mis)behavior, mainly that his critics care more for birds than they do for people. He claims all these "bird-loving" types who've spoken up for the poor turkeys had nothing to say when a 4-year-old child was killed in the vicinity last November. His is an old and unconvincing rhetorical ploy that ought to fool no one.

Meanwhile, the law in those parts has turned a blind eye to this annual rite of fall. Even though, according to Arkansas Code 5-62-103, cruelty to animals is a misdemeanor that comes with a penalty of up to a year in jail and a fine not to exceed $1,000. And a repeat offender becomes a felon eligible for psychiatric evaluation. If what's been going on in Yellville isn't cruelty to animals, it's certainly not kindness.

Yvonne Vizzier Thaxton, a professor of poultry science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, has a saner attitude toward these goings-on. She's described the turkey drop as a "horrific act of abuse." What we have here, besides a failure to empathize with a fellow creature, is a simple failure to connect the dots. Someone who grows up being taught to laugh at the pain and suffering inflicted on an animal may soon enough learn to ignore the suffering endured by his fellow man. This is the kind of self-perpetuating cycle that winds up with a death row crowded with killers, each of whom may have his own sad story of childhood abuse to explain how he got there.

If there were justice in this world, and the punishment fit the crime all too literally, without the grace of mercy to soften the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and teach us all to walk humbly with our God, all those gleefully watching the abuse of these creatures would themselves be taken up in a light aircraft and then "released," that is, thrown out over Yellville's downtown square to the jeers of the crowd below, young and old alike.

Whatever one thinks of the self-promoting and often enough self-destructive tactics of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, they do have a point on sad occasions like this one. Gemma Vaughan, who works for PETA, said that outfit was watching as the sky above Yellville became full of falling turkeys, some dropped by this year's phantom pilot and others thrown from the courthouse roof. That's right -- the courthouse, where law is supposed to be handed down with dignity and decorum. But there's nothing dignified or decorous about this Roman spectacle at Yellville.

"We rescued four turkeys," says PETA's Ms. Vaughan, "one who was trussed by his legs and tossed onto the concrete where he lay panting as spectators walked over him, and another found bleeding from her neck and legs. Both are being rushed to a veterinarian for their injuries. Anywhere else, the participants would be in jail, and officials' failure to prosecute those responsible makes Yellville synonymous with cruelty to animals. The turkey drop is a throwback to a sorry time when human beings were bone-ignorant of animals' feelings."

Some of the celebrants in Yellville were said to be planning to take the dropped turkeys for their holiday dinner. They must have an indestructible digestion to enjoy such a meal knowing the history of the main course.

The turkey drop is supposed to be just good, wholesome fun, its apologists contend. Which may have been what the Romans told each other when they set out for the Colosseum to watch the Christians being fed to the lions.

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(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

 

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