“I realized that this was going to be a very personal, emotional ride for me, and not just a science experiment.”—Joe Hutto, wildlife artist & naturalist.
What better way to usher in the Thanksgiving holiday than with a film about one man’s remarkable relationship with a clutch of young turkeys…the wild kind that is, not their farm-raised cousins served up on a platter for Thanksgiving dinner.
I’ve always loved films featuring the work of Jane Goodall and others who share her passion to protect, rehabilitate and bond with endangered wildlife. My Life as a Turkey takes a more unorthodox dive into that milieu…one that began with a gamble and ended as a touching family saga. As fresh and timely as it was when it debuted on PBS in 2011, the film returns to PBS NATURE tonight, Wednesday, November 24, 2021, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and below for streaming and DVD availability.
Based on the true story documented by wildlife artist and naturalist Joe Hutto in a journal that subsequently became a book, the film recreates the year (1991) that Joe spent “parenting” more than a dozen wild turkey hatchlings in the terrain surrounding his isolated cabin in the Florida Panhandle. As portrayed in the film by Jeff Palmer, Joe Hutto is a sensitive loner who parlayed his fascination with imprinting and the wild turkeys that populated the region into a transformative life experience.
A bowl full of abandoned turkey eggs, an incubator, and Joe’s knack for “talking turkey” to the eggs and, Voila!, more than 20 baby chicks emerged from their shells, made eye contact and instantly bonded with their new “mom” and protector, Joe Hutto! Joe was hooked, but he had no idea what it would take to single parent this brood of dependent chicks through the most difficult transitions of their first year.
“I’m ignorant about being a turkey mother,” Hutto lamented. But his learning curve was swift.
The imprinted chicks were relentlessly needy. They wanted to cuddle. They followed him over hill and dale to explore the terrain and hunt for food. He followed them into their pen every night and sat with them until they fell asleep. He worried about predators and strange diseases that struck when he least expected it.
It was a grueling parenting gig, but one that enlightened him about the birds’ surprising intelligence, innate survival instincts, emotional attachments and distinctive personalities. Joe even named a few. The tiniest of the lot, Sweet Pea, loved to be petted when she snuggled with him; and the boldest, Turkey Boy, briefly bonded with Joe like a brother. But first feathers led to first flights. Male-female shenanigans spurred fights for sexual dominance. And finally, like all cute kids, Joe’s turkeys grew up and flew the coop. Off they went, for better or worse, leaving Joe with an empty nest and a broken heart.
Jeff Palmer’s understated performance as Joe Hutto, seasoned with Joe’s sensitive original journal musings and drawings, and highlighted by extraordinary nature footage all mesh marvelously to turn My Life as a Turkey into a touching evergreen family film that underscores not only how much we have to learn about species of wildlife that seem foreign to us but also the common threads that bind us as co-inhabitants of this planet.
Produced by David Allen, My Life as a Turkey is a production of Passion Pictures, THIRTEEN and the BBC in association with WNET New York Public Media.
The hour-long film will be rebroadcast on PBS tonight, Wednesday, November 24, 2021, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region; http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming info, concurrent with broadcast; and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.
And if you’re interested in finding out more about Joe Hutto’s backstory and his turkeys, check out his book, Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season Living Among the Wild Turkey (Lyons Press). Happy Thanksgiving!–Judith Trojan