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Molly Flanagan met Gerald about three years ago, during one of her visits to Oakland’s Morcom Rose Garden, a miniature valley tucked off Grand Avenue where volunteer gardeners tend beds of flowers blooming among giant oaks and redwoods. She described him as a “magnificent individual,” alternately friendly and stoic. Gerald, a wild turkey of the Meleagris gallopavo species, would occasionally puff up his chest and display his feathers in her presence. Flanagan said she never felt intimidated. She watched him saunter about the garden and sometimes stand near her in line for one of the casual carpools that pick up passengers on Oakland Avenue. Gerald had become such a regular neighborhood presence that Flanagan considered him a member of her community.
But something changed in the winter of 2019: the bird’s once-friendly relationship with people turned hostile. In a recent interview, Flanagan said she first noticed the change when she was in the rose garden with a friend and Gerald wouldn’t leave them alone. The bird “fixated” on her friend, sending what Flanagan described as “a lot of energy” their way. Flanagan managed to de-escalate the situation, but it seemed clear something had shifted. Flanagan, who bristles at the term ‘aggressive turkey,’ described seeing a “new and unfamiliar side” of the bird.
Around that time, other Oaklanders started reporting disturbing confrontations. At his worst, Gerald—readily identified because of his size, and because he was one of the only male turkeys known to inhabit the neighborhood—would set his sights on someone and, for seemingly no reason, make a beeline across the rose garden or the street, jump on their back, and start to peck. Over time, Gerald’s behavior got worse. Oakland Animal Services, the city agency that normally responds to calls about stray cats and dogs, started getting calls about Gerald and his attacks.
Oakland resident Alexis Morgan watched Gerald chase an older woman until she was forced to climb a tree to escape. When Morgan tried to help, the turkey landed a “kangaroo kick” on her, leaving the imprint of a turkey foot on her thigh. Another woman ended up in the hospital after injuring herself while running away from Gerald. Tara Kaneko packed up her picnic basket several times to get away from Gerald, who kept following her around the park until she eventually fled the scene. “Talk about an alpha,” Kaneko said. People reported feeling traumatized, said Ann Dunn, director of Oakland Animal Services. One woman told Dunn, sobbing, that she was afraid to leave her home after an attack.
By this spring, the rose garden had lost its identity as a tranquil place. Before the change in Gerald’s disposition, visitors often picnicked on the grassy slopes to the left and right of the park’s centerpiece, a multi-tiered cascade lined with pink ‘Pride of Oakland’ roses, a special variety named for the city. But Gerald now ruled this roost. He spent most of his time on the hillside and stalked unsuspecting visitors.
On May 23, city workers barricaded the entrance to the rose garden, posting warning signs about the aggressive bird. Animal Services hoped that a break from human contact would do Gerald some good, but people continued to report confrontations on neighboring streets. As Gerald’s reputation grew, residents began to debate what to do about him on Nextdoor and Facebook, with some people defending the animal as misunderstood, and others casting him as a beastly danger to the community. Local and even international media eventually picked up the story about the “menacing” turkey “terrorizing” The Town.
Gerald was eventually captured and moved out of Oakland—we’ll tell that wacky tale below—but the conversation about how humans and wildlife coexist in our city is far from over. At its root, the conflict between Gerald and Oakland’s human residents raised age-old questions about our relationship to the wild, and more recent concerns about habitat loss and biodiversity. To find some answers, we need to look back at the history of turkeys in California, how they became urban birds, and the role that people played in that story. As people introduce non-native species in new places, wild habitats shrink, and urban spaces provide a stable food supply, turkeys—and many other “wild” animals—are increasingly living among us. Gerald’s drama is a particularly contentious and visible example of humans’ strained relationship with nature.
Why did Gerald go ‘bad’?
No one really knows why Gerald transformed from a “stoic” bird into an “aggressive” raptor-like creature. Dunn of Oakland Animals Services sought insights from wildlife experts and eventually came to believe Gerald became overconfident because park visitors were feeding the turkeys. His relationship to humans became confused, the theory goes, and he lost the fear necessary for healthy interactions.
Flanagan, the neighbor who became Gerald’s advocate, wasn’t convinced. She had watched one woman feed Gerald on a daily basis for years without any noticeable change in his behavior. Gerald trusted humans, she thought. Why did he turn on them now? Flanagan believes that Gerald felt threatened when people started visiting the park in increasing numbers during shelter-in-place. However, without graduations, proms, or other events bringing in thousands of visitors this year, it’s not clear the park actually saw more visitors. As Gerald’s notoriety grew, people did start paying more attention to him: some visitors snapped selfies or even taunted him. The attention could not have helped, Flanagan thought.
There are other theories. When Gerald first came to the rose garden, he was a young, solo operator. Three years later, he was a male bird in sexual maturity with a family to protect. Gerald was at his most aggressive in the early spring and summer during mating season. Perhaps he was just defending female turkeys and chicks?
Another, darker theory emerged: maybe the bird was actually an imposter who killed the real Gerald in a fight last winter. Royal Krieger, a rosarian—a park volunteer who logged more than 1,400 hours tending to the roses last year—witnessed a fight between two male turkeys and later found a carcass. Did park visitors mistake Gerald’s killer for the once-friendly bird? Krieger personally believes Gerald won the fight and the carcass belonged to his younger challenger.
Whatever the cause, Gerald’s behavior wasn’t normal. Turkeys don’t usually stalk across busy streets or chase people unprovoked. For the most part, wild turkeys are harmless, but every once in a while, there are local reports of these birds attacking humans. In 2018, turkeys outside a Concord hospital trapped patients in their cars, threatened staff, and scratched vehicles. In 2013, parents worried about aggressive turkeys in Albany and were reluctant to let their children play outside. In 2016, a turkey living in Davis named “Downtown Tom” regularly frightened shoppers into calling the police for help.
Aggressive turkeys have been making headlines in Northern California since their numbers started to explode in urban areas about 10 years ago. Why a few turkeys become aggressive is up for debate, but we do know that humans have played a major role in the long story of how turkeys came to California in the first place, and eventually became our urban neighbors. What we should do about urban turkeys is another question.
Are humans to blame for interspecies conflict?
Stories of aggressive turkeys are relatively new because the birds haven’t inhabited our urban landscapes until recently. In fact, wild turkeys aren’t native to California, though a similar, smaller species called Meleagris californica lived here around 10,000 years ago, before it went extinct.
In the late 1800s, hunting and deforestation decimated native turkey populations east of the Mississippi and in the Southwest. To prevent extinction, turkeys were introduced in every state but Alaska. Ranchers brought California’s first turkeys to Santa Cruz Island in 1877, and in 1908 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife began the first of what would become many attempts to introduce turkeys as game birds. The state released thousands of turkeys, but the attempts failed, in part because these birds were raised in captivity, were more docile, and had no survival skills. Self-sustaining turkey populations didn’t exist in California until the 1950s, when hunters started capturing wild birds in other states and relocating them. By 1999, turkey populations had taken off and the state stopped releasing them, and their numbers have only grown since then.
“This is a conservation success story where we have, in some circumstances, become ‘victims’ of our own success,” said Alan Krakauer, a biologist who completed his Ph.D. at UC Davis on the social and breeding practices of turkeys. “Through more tightly regulated hunting, reintroduction efforts, and habitat changes, the populations have rebounded—and then some.”
As non-native turkey populations have grown, biologists have worried about their impact on local ecosystems. Might turkeys out-compete the native California quail, who live in similar habitats and eat similar food? Could they threaten rare native lizards, or spread sudden oak death by eating an infected oak tree’s acorns? So far, short-term studies suggest that the answer to these questions is no, though more systematic research is needed and things could change as the turkey population grows. Still, humans brought turkeys to California to be hunted, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife still considers turkeys a “nuisance” animal, not an integral member of California’s ecosystems. Should we treat turkeys the same way we treat native species?
Flanagan, the neighbor who knew Gerald before he gained an aggressive reputation, thinks that the question of whether turkeys are native or not has no bearing on how we should treat them. She was troubled by the sense of entitlement some people showed in Nextdoor posts advocating Gerald be forcibly removed from the rose garden. “Get rid of him or cook him in November,” one neighbor wrote about the turkey.
“There was a strong sense that the rose garden is our space and that we’re not going to be put out by an animal,” said Flanagan. “We need to question this idea that all other species are here for our purposes and our convenience, and that if it’s not convenient, we can just push them out. That’s what we’ve done for centuries, with other human beings, too, and we still do.”
Some people posting in the Nextdoor group for the rose garden neighborhood called not only to kick Gerald out, but to also ban a group of homeless men who occasionally spent time in the park. “Those homeless people and Gerald were made for each other,” someone wrote. “It will look like a special edition of Wild Kingdom.”
According to Pam Young, executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, relocating Gerald misses the bigger question of who is encroaching on whose space. “When we find that a particular wild animal is doing something we don’t like and we can relocate that animal, we have resolved the issue that’s important to us,” Young said. “The bigger question that everybody should consider is: what are we going to do to ensure that we have high-value habitat and ecosystem services that are intact?”
Wild spaces everywhere have been shrinking due to agriculture, urban development, and climate change. In the Bay Area, an estimated 90% of tidal marshes, for instance, have been eliminated. Some animals are forced out of their habitats and into our urban spaces, Young said. And the longer such animals make urban spaces their home, the less we think of them as wild or having a right to exist alongside us.
“Even though Gerald is an overly hormonal jerk, I still think turkeys are a symbol of the wild. The idea that nature only occurs miles from the nearest road is mostly a thing of the past,” said Krakauer, the biologist. “These are wild animals that are making do in our modified habitats. This is a story of a really adaptable species, with broad diet options, that has managed to not only thrive in ‘natural’ habitats but have even found some way to do pretty well in heavily urban areas like Oakland.”
Steve Beissinger, a professor of conservation biology and ecology at UC Berkeley, said the idea that turkeys are “displaced” when they’re living in a city area isn’t quite right. Rather, turkeys are thriving in urban areas partly because they’re shielded from natural predators like coyotes and happy to scavenge everything from bugs to the scraps of In-n-Out burgers. In fact, an undergraduate student who studied turkeys with Beissinger found that California’s turkey populations actually increased with urbanization and agricultural development, probably because of easy access to food. Other animals have found their own niches in urban spaces: crows, hummingbirds, rats, raccoons, squirrels. But Beissinger wonders what will happen if their numbers grow and eventually draw in predators. Generally speaking, we can live with turkeys, even ones that chase and peck people. But it’s harder to live with mountain lions.
Operation: Capture Gerald
As the spring wore on and Gerald’s behavior escalated, it seemed likely he would be euthanized. California Fish and Wildlife had denied Oakland Animal Services’ request to help them relocate the bird, but something had to be done. Flanagan was horrified. She started a Change.org petition to save Gerald. “We believe that killing someone is not a valid way to solve human-wildlife conflicts,” she wrote. The petition eventually earned over 13,000 signatures. A Virginia-based animal rights group called United Poultry Concerns even got involved.
Dunn of Oakland Animals Services was moved by the activists; she was concerned about public safety, but she didn’t want Gerald to be killed. Backed by volunteers, Dunn’s team pursued another, more daring plan. First, they tried to reinstill a sense of fear in Gerald so that he might avoid humans on his own. They hazed him by charging him and opening umbrellas in his face, though they avoided the most extreme idea— throwing rocks at him.
When the hazing didn’t work, California Fish and Wildlife agreed to relocate Gerald. But first, they had to capture him. They initially tried luring him with food in hopes of caging him, but one park visitor continued to feed Gerald on a daily basis, rendering the bait ineffective. They tried tossing loose nets over him, but he ran away. Oakland Animal Services stepped in, laying netting on the ground, hoping to scoop Gerald up in a snare, but he escaped. Benjamin Winkleblack, assistant director of Oakland Animal Services, baited Gerald with robotic turkey calls, several decoy hens, and an umbrella painted with the likeness of a male turkey. All told, the entire staff at Oakland Animal Services, a number of employees from California Fish and Wildlife, and a team of twenty volunteers failed to capture Gerald.
What finally worked was using a human being as bait. At their wits’ end, city officials asked Rebecca Dmytryk, director of Wildlife Emergency Services, and her husband Duane Titus to get the job done. On October 22, Dmytryk and Titus sprang their trap on Gerald. They threw blueberries and sunflower seeds to get his attention, but at the last second, the net gun they were planning to fire and safely trap the bird malfunctioned. Titus ran back to the car to get a replacement, leaving Dmytryk alone with the turkey. Gerald, true to form, had suddenly taken an interest in her. Playing into his fixation, Dmytryk posed as a fearful person, hunching her shoulders and crying out in feigned alarm. Gerald came closer until, finally, she grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, wrapped her arms around his wings, and got him into a cage.
From there, Gerald was relocated to Orinda. Where exactly, Dunn cannot say: she is “sworn to secrecy,” but the hills around Orinda are covered in oaks with tall grass and numerous creeks, perfect habitat for turkeys.
Even though Gerald is gone from our city, this isn’t the last time turkeys will make their home in an Oakland park. Krieger, the park’s rosarian, just hopes it won’t be the rose garden again. Without Gerald, it appears the hens have also left. Krieger is relieved to be free of all the turkeys, who he said dumped dirt on the paths and damaged the roses he tirelessly tends.
“This place is a work of art,” Krieger said of the garden’s carefully curated collection of over 2,500 roses. Some are rare, including a single Spanish rose that appears to exist nowhere else in the world. (Krieger asked The Oaklandside not to share the name of the rose so no one would harm it). The garden is becoming “a big deal” in the rosarian world, and he doesn’t want the turkeys to return and jeopardize that. “Turkeys do a lot of damage. People say, ‘We can live together.’ But not if you want to have a world-class rose garden.”
Others would like to see Oakland make space for even more turkeys. Young, from the Audubon Society, wants to see wildlife refuges expand, but she’d also like urban spaces to become more natural, especially by integrating native plant species that will thrive. “This is an important opportunity to see where the story of Gerald can take us,” Young said. She imagines a greener future where the boundaries between the city and the wild become blurrier.
This new concept of wilderness would require human empathy for non-humans, said Flanagan. In Gerald’s case, she maintains that the ideal would have been to “try to understand what was causing Gerald’s stress and figure out how to make it work as an interspecies community.” Like many others on all sides of the Gerald debate, Flanagan drew a parallel between how we treat animals, and how we treat each other.
“If we had a neighbor who was making people feel unsafe, hopefully we wouldn’t kill or exile them,” Flanagan said, though even she admits that coexisting in the park with Gerald was no longer working.
Gerald’s life was spared. And while he was relocated, he may not have been exiled. His new Orinda home is a mere seven miles away, a distance turkeys regularly travel within their habitats. It’s unlikely, but not implausible, that Gerald could return to the rose garden one day, Beissinger, the UC Berkeley biologist, said. “Or maybe, he’ll like it better in the suburbs.”