Imprinting Turkeys

The PBS television series, Nature, has recently won an Emmy for its episode “My Life as a Turkey.” This documentary features a rafter of turkeys that have been imprinted on an actor and are raised from hatchling to adulthood. The premise of the documentary is based on another naturalist’s previous experience of this very activity. As means to learn more about turkeys, humans act as “mother” to the young. During critical early stages of life, humans intervene to allow hatchlings to form understandings of their behavior and development. The human “mother” makes sure poults are attracted to the human through use of sound, movement and smell when they are first born. Once this connection is established, the young will continue to look to the human for guidance.

Just as young turkeys develop strong relationships with the human, actor Jeff Palmer discusses his experience in a photo slideshow on the series’ website. Certainly, this animal-human connection can be incredibly powerful. Palmer likened seeing the poults hatch and look at him for the first time to the moment his daughter was born. Perhaps this seems extreme. I admit, I laughed at the confession but having never played “mother” for animals, I cannot say. He further explains he was not an observer but a participant in the raising of these turkeys.

As we look at nature and its landscape component, we see that we interact with it as both observer and participant. From painting a landscape to walking through one, we experience a range of observer/participant relationships similar to how this documentary engages these relationships on various levels. First, imprinting young turkeys is evident as not only observing turkey actions by acting as their leader but as participant by directly eliciting specific turkey behavior as “mother.” Secondly, the very production of this film takes on an observer/participant relationship. The fact that an actor and filmmaker recreated a naturalist’s previous experience links to the role of observer but also participant because they had to imprint another flock of turkeys themselves. Possibly, the next time we think we can play mother to another species, we should consider whether or not we truly have all it takes. Or will we end up creating a lot of observers who cannot engage with their own species and habitat?

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