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The King of Dinosaurs

Training a Turkey

No easy task: Wildlife specialist Nikki McClellan trains Jake the turkey to enter his kennel

July 30, 2012
Nikki McClellan
Wildlife Specialist

If you’ve ever visited the Wildlife Center, you’ve probably seen one of our iconic animals—Big Jake the wild turkey. Jake came to us in August of 2002 when he was about one year old. He had been found in Findlay, Ohio where he appeared to be very tame due to people hand feeding him.

People mean well when they feed wild animals, but it is actually not the best thing for the animal. They can become too dependent on people to feed them and not be able or willing to find food on their own. It can also make them too complacent with people and thus leave them at risk to hunters. For these reasons Jake could not safely remain in the wild. He needed a place to live and we were more than happy to provide that for him.

Since arriving at the Museum, Jake has been very visible to all of our visitors as a resident of our deer yard. He is generally found strutting along the fence line, very brightly colored, and even occasionally gobbling. Most people think he is being friendly, but that is actually him showing off his aggressive side. If given the chance he would happily kick the people on the other side of the fence and show them who he thinks is boss!

When a new wildlife specialist begins his or her career in the Perkins Wildlife Center, the first thing he or she must do is chase Jake. We aren’t doing it to be mean, but we have to prove our dominance over him or else he will prove his dominance over us. For these reasons, Jake is not the easiest animal at the museum to train. Oddly enough, as aggressive as he is, he is actually very afraid of new objects and situations … like kennels.

This year I was looking for a challenge, and after a health scare last year with Jake (he’s fine now!) we felt it was time he became kennel trained so that he could easily be transported to the veterinarian for examination. However, since he is already 11 years old and pretty much terrified of his kennel, I was a little unsure of how things would go.

Training is definitely a step by step process and the first thing I had to do was get Jake used to seeing this new, big, scary thing in his yard. So I first had to just put the kennel in his yard and get him used to eating in front of it. He gets fed in both the morning and the evening and since his evening food is used to put him in his overnight area I had to use his morning diet for training purposes. His morning diet is also not his favorite, as it is just scratch (dried corn and seeds) so I added a few peanuts to sweeten the deal. He started eating in front of the kennel pretty readily, but when it was time to move to the next step of eating inside the kennel he was very reluctant. I had been trying to hand him the peanuts through the bars on the side of the kennel, and he wanted nothing to do with sticking his head in there.

At that point I realized I had to take a step back and get Jake used to eating out of my hand. Before this point we had always just put Jake’s food on the ground and let him eat while we fed the deer. Jake readily ate the peanuts out of my hand away from the kennel, but we had to inch our way closer and closer to the kennel. Finally one day we walked our way over the kennel and he took some peanuts through the bars! This may not seem like a big deal, but for Jake, it was huge! He had to stick his head and neck all the way in to reach the peanut in the kennel, but not his legs… that would come later.

From that point, it was just a matter of working with him every day that I was at the Museum until he trusted me enough to go all of the way in the kennel and turn around in it. We are now at the point where I can shut the door half way while he is facing forward in the kennel. Once I can have him go in the kennel, turn around and let me shut the door he will be considered kennel trained.

It may have taken a few months, but we are in the home stretch and now if Jake ever gets sick again he will be able to easily be transported to our veterinarian. I wasn’t sure Jake would ever be able to be trained, but I guess you can teach an old turkey new tricks!

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