Apologized for asking Twitter followers to make turkey hunter’s life “a living hell,” but made point of pitching pit bulls
KILN, Mississippi––Sports announcer, broadcast journalist, and political commentator Keith Olbermann, 60, on March 27, 2019 apologized “unreservedly” for calling upon his Twitter followers two days earlier to make the rest of Hunter Waltman’s life “a living hell” for shooting a wild or feral white turkey.
Pushed turkey sandwiches for Boston Market
Olbermann’s apology came 22 years after he promoted turkey sandwiches in 1997 for the fast food chain Boston Market. Those sandwiches were––and are––made from domestic turkeys whose short lives have already been a living hell.
After tweeting his apology, Olbermann returned to several days of trying to change the subject by posting adoption promotions for at least 20 different pit bulls said to be at risk of euthanasia at various animal shelters––and allegedly deleting critical responses from advocates for pit bull victims, both human and animal.
Responding to a March 25, 2019 Mississippi Clarion-Ledger puff piece about how Waltman shot the turkey, one day previous, Olbermann tweeted to an estimated million followers, “It be rare and beautiful so me should kill it. This pea-brained scumbag identifies himself as Hunter Waltman and we should do our best to make sure the rest of his life is a living hell. And the nitwit clown who wrote this fawning piece should be fired.”
Olbermann apologized to Waltman after Clarion-Ledger editor-in-chief Sam Hall called his tweet “recklessly irresponsible.”
Wrote Hall, “I guess I should have fired our outdoors writer for writing about a hunter killing an unusual turkey during turkey hunting season. In our newsroom, not writing a story about a hunter bagging a turkey would be a fireable offense.”
Olbermann missed mark with animal advocates
Olbermann, who has more-or-less made a career out of amplifying provocative statements on a range of topics, apparently hoped to gain support from animal advocates.
From an animal rights point of view, however, which holds that “animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment,” the issue was not that Hunter Waltman killed a white turkey, or any turkey, but rather that he killed an animal for fun––essentially a sadistic act.
From an animal welfare point of view, which accepts that animals may be killed for food if “humanely” treated before the killing, the matter is complicated by recognition that the three-or-four-year-old white turkey Waltman shot had almost certainly had far better quality of life, and no worse a death, than almost any of the estimated nine billion animals raised and slaughtered for food in the U.S. each year, including at least 70 million turkeys.
Most animal advocates would agree that while recreationally killing animals is inherently wrong, shooting a turkey to eat is more humane than eating factory-farmed meat from the supermarket.
“Nitwit clown” investigated what the hunter shot
Lost amid the fracas over Olbermann’s remarks and hypocrisy, meanwhile, was the question raised first by Mississippi Clarion Ledger reporter Brian Broom, the alleged “nitwit clown” who first reported that Waltman shot the white turkey, as to whether the turkey was genuinely wild, feral, or a hybrid of wild and domestic ancestors.
“I’ve been having him on camera since back in October,” Waltman told Broom. “My neighbor told me about him. When I bought the property he said he’d seen a white gobbler out there. He’s been hanging around for three years.”
Recounted Broom, “The bird’s plumage was solid white. His spurs and nails were white, too. His beard was black. His eyes were the same as a normal turkey, so that ruled out albinism. He was an anomaly in the world of turkeys,” with a beard of just over nine inches, about normal for a male of his age.
Pet or domestic livestock?
“Waltman estimated it weighed between 17 and 18 pounds,” Broom wrote. “When a photo of the bird was posted on social media, it was met with a mix of reactions,” including from viewers who “said it was someone’s pet or domestic livestock.”
Responded Waltman, “I took it to a taxidermist in Louisiana and he said it was 100% wild turkey.”
A taxidermist, however, who stuffs dead animals for hunters, is not a taxonomist, trained in the science of animal species identification. Unless the unnamed taxidermist also often stuffs dead domestic turkeys for the broiler, he probably could not be considered an expert witness.
Biologist forgot about heritage breeds
But Bob Eriksen, introduced by Broom as “a certified wildlife biologist and Natural Resources Conservation Service technical service provider,” backed Waltman in an email asserting that, “The naked head and neck do not appear to be as ornate as one would expect in a domestic turkey gobbler.”
This claim, however, overlooked that the head and neck of the Beltsville Small White turkey, once the most common domestic turkey in the U.S., are not ornate at all.
“Even in a first-generation cross between an eastern wild turkey and a domestic bird there would be evidence of domestic traits such as a very large, ornate head and neck and an excessively large dewlap,” Eriksen continued, “In addition a [first-generation cross] would exhibit short lower legs that would be heavier than those of a wild eastern [turkey].”
Beltsville Small White & the Royal Palm
Again, though, these statements are not true of the Beltsville Small White turkey, developed in the 1930s at the United States Department of Agriculture research station in Beltsville, Maryland, decades before the first of the bigger, heavier domestic turkeys of today were bred.
Neither are all of Eriksen’s generalizations true of Royal Palm turkeys, developed by Enoch Carson of Lake Worth, Florida, about ten years before the Beltsville Small White turkey came into vogue.
Formally recognized as a breed by the American Poultry Association in 1971, the Royal Palm turkey resembles the 200-year-old “heritage” European turkey varieties called the Pied, Crollwitz, and Black-laced White.
Heritage turkey breeders describe Royal Palms as active, excellent foragers, and good flyers, with a calm nature, and small breasts, unlike other domestic turkeys, growing only to the approximate size range of the bird Waltman shot.
“Instead of a cross with a domestic turkey, Eriksen said he believes [the bird Waltman shot] is partially albino,” Broom wrote.
Eriksen mentioned that “The toe nails and spurs are pinkish white, which also suggests partial albinism. Based on these characteristics,” Eriksen concluded, “it appears to me that we are looking at a specimen of a partial albino eastern wild turkey gobbler, unusual indeed.”
Broom collected a second opinion from Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks Wild Turkey Program coordinator Adam Butler, who said he had never heard of or seen a wild white turkey in Mississippi.
White domestic turkey breeders
There are not many white domestic turkeys in Mississippi, either. Though Mississippi ranks fifth among the 50 U.S. states in chicken production, “There are no commercial turkey farms in Mississippi,” says the Mississippi Poultry Association, not counting “heritage” producers.
But there are Royal Palm and Beltsville Small White heritage turkey breeders in Saucier and Ocean Springs, Mississippi, each within 45 miles of Kiln, where Waltman shot the white turkey.
There are also three commercial turkey farms in Louisiana within about 80 miles of Kiln. Turkeys being trucked from eastern Louisiana to slaughter in Mississippi might escape much closer to Kiln than that.
White wild turkeys common in places
Also relevant is that even if Butler, Eriksen, Waltman, and Broom have never seen white turkeys in the wild, whether fully wild, feral, or recently escaped from a farm or truck, they are actually not unusual in much of the country.
Hybridization of European-bred white domestic turkeys with wild eastern turkeys began as early as the arrival of the Puritans aboard the Mayflower, birding writer Melissa Mayntz explained in the February 16, 2019 edition of The Spruce.
The European-born turkeys, descended from specimens brought from the Americas in 1519, “were allowed to breed with native wild turkeys,” Mayntz wrote.
Inevitably, some escaped to contribute recessive melanistic feather coloration to the wild gene pool.
Reintroductions & introductions spread melanistic genes
More recently, hybridization of wild and domestic turkeys has been involved in turkey restoration and introduction efforts undertaken by wildlife agencies and hunting clubs.
These projects “have been spectacularly successful in restoring the species. But these programs have also been successful in mixing up turkey genetics,” wrote Joe Smith of The Nature Conservancy in a November 24, 2014 article entitled “The Great Turkey Shuffle: How Restoration Has Changed Gobbler Genetics.”
“Today, determining turkey subspecies requires the skills of a wildlife crime scene investigation team,” said Smith. “In the early days of restoration, wild turkeys were captured from any place they were still plentiful and released elsewhere to restore populations. Out of necessity, there wasn’t much regard for the subspecies of turkeys coming and going from place to place.
As a result, recent genetic research has shown that certain regions now have a curious mix of subspecies and hybrids.”
Until and unless DNA research is done on the white turkey whom Waltman killed, whether that turkey was wild, feral, or domestic will remain anyone’s guess.
More certain is that killing any white wild animal will not be well-accepted by much of the public, regardless of beliefs about the ethics of hunting and use of domestic species.
Thirteen states, for instance, have legislation protecting white deer from hunters, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Carolina, which are three of the states with the most licensed hunters per capita.
“White animals are revered”
“Among many Native American cultures, white animals are revered,” explained Chief Arvol Looking Horse, of the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, to Theresa Braine of the New York Daily News.
Chief Looking Horse “is the Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe,” Braine wrote. “Though not aware of the controversy surrounding Waltman’s situation, he said people who kill white animals just because they are white are seen as ‘spiritually disconnected.’ The appearance of a white animal of any kind is ‘a blessing, but it’s a warning for all creation,’ he said, adding that it could portend drastic environmental changes.”
Chief Looking Horse “did not, however, echo Olbermann’s sentiment that Waltman’s life should be made a living hell,” Braine continued. “He said indigenous people would be more inclined to pray for the hunter.”