All we could do was run’: the strange story of Gerald, the turkey who terrorized a city

The Guardian
by Kari Paul –

The turkey locked eyes with her from across the park.

Like many Oaklanders, sixteen-year-old Jojo Thompson had heard plenty of stories about Gerald, the “feisty” turkey harassing visitors in the city’s rose garden. But before visiting the seven-acre public park with a friend on a recent October afternoon, she thought the tales had been exaggerated.

After seeing the agitated turkey closing in on some people nearby, Thompson and her friend took refuge behind a tree. But they weren’t safe for long – Gerald soon had the teens in his sight. The bird started stalking them, menacingly, Thompson recalled, then chased them up the hill and out of the park. She lost both her shoes in the process.

“I had heard of his attacks, but I never thought it would happen to me,” Thompson said. “All we could do was run.”

Gerald’s unusually aggressive behavior in the rose garden has taken on an almost mythical status in parts of the California city over the past six months. Stories of his reign of terror in the otherwise tranquil spot first spread across town, then sparked national and international headlines.

The reports were often similar: Gerald would spot an unsuspecting victim from across the garden. He would take off running, either chasing them away or, if they stood their ground, mounting and scratching them until they fled. He often targeted the young and older people – those who could not quickly outrun him. He seemed particularly attracted to wheeled vehicles including, unfortunately, baby strollers.

When angry, he puffed up his chest, towering over 4ft tall. And despite his bulk, he was swift – a typical adult male turkey can weigh up to 25lbs, run at 25mph, and fly at up to 55mph. Wild turkeys have a 270-degree field of vision and can see three times more clearly than 20/20 – making it easy for Gerald to spot his victims from across the garden.

Gerald’s antics transfixed the city, with residents hunkered down at home because of the pandemic and wildfire smoke following the saga on social media, blogs and news reports. A fierce debate emerged: what should be done? Ban visitors from the park? Move Gerald to less frequented areas? Should he, perhaps, be euthanized?

The discussions played out in thousands of online threads that at times turned neighbor against neighbor. At least three city agencies and the state department of fish and wildlife became involved, an expert animal trapper was called in, and an electrical company entered the fray.

Once we locked eyes he sprinted towards me, wings outstretched. I just barely made it to my car
Julia Williams

On the surface, it was the story of a ticked-off turkey menacing an otherwise bucolic neighborhood. But beneath, the battle over Gerald’s fate revealed far more about his human neighbors, their response to a historic pandemic, and whether they can coexist with nature – or with each other.

‘A winged boogie man, a Cerberus of the rose garden’
It is unclear how long Gerald had roamed the rose garden, or when he was given his name. Some say they saw the bird fly into the garden about four years ago. Many started recognizing Gerald because of his fanned tail, missing a prominent feather on the left side.

What is evident, however, is that Gerald began to turn on his human neighbors this year.

According to a Guardian tally of online reports, Gerald harassed more than 100 people in 2020.

Attacks from the turkey became so common that some people would not enter the rose garden without a weapon: a stick, a rake, or an umbrella were widely suggested. One person said he used pepper spray. Some people stopped going to the park altogether.

Even those who stayed out weren’t safe. Julia Williams, who lives nearby, describes a typical encounter with the bird. “I was carrying a basket of laundry to my car when we saw each other,” she recalled.

“Once we locked eyes he sprinted towards me, wings outstretched. I just barely made it to my car but completely threw my back out in the process. I was in bed unable to walk for over a week.”

In online accounts, some victims described simply being chased, while others suffered lacerations from his claws and bruises. At least one person claimed to have been sent to the hospital for stitches. Not all accounts of run-ins with Gerald could be verified, but interviews with victims and review of photos and videos of attacks confirmed many.

“He had this habit of loitering by the stairs of the garden, almost daring you to walk up or down,” said Maria Hunt, who has lived near the garden for more than a decade and was attacked by Gerald two separate times in 2020. “Gerald was like a winged boogie man, a Cerberus of the rose garden who would have been comical if he hadn’t been so menacing.”

‘This is not normal behavior’
Gerald was once a mellow guy, often seen standing in line with people waiting at the casual carpool, a community-driven ride sharing service, or calmly stalking around the fountains of the garden.

But in late 2019 or early 2020, he started to change. “This is not normal behavior,” said Alan Krakauer, a turkey behavior expert.

Krakauer explained that male turkeys fight each other for dominance and over flocks of hens. But occasionally, some males misdirect that aggression to include people.

The big question is why Gerald’s relationship to humans soured.

Turkey populations have been on the rise in California in recent decades, after years of conservationists’ attempts to encourage populations in the wild. The bird is a common sight in Oakland – there are often two or three pecking around the garden.

Many attribute Gerald’s behavior changes to garden visitors feeding him, including one woman well-known in the neighborhood for giving him daily snacks. Indeed, Krakauer said, feeding turkeys may make them dangerously accustomed to humans and more likely to approach them. But others doubt this theory, arguing Gerald had been fed for years before his behavior took a turn.

Another common theory is that a rise in Oakland’s population, and a decline in natural spaces where turkeys can thrive, increased the potential for turkey-human conflict.

“Gerald was not an issue until Covid hit,” said Susan Jones, who has lived next to the garden for more than a decade and has been familiar with Gerald for years. She added that had never seen the garden as crowded as it was in the early months of the pandemic.

Many more, including the author Jenny Odell, blame the pandemic too. Odell wrote much of her well-known talk about how we engage with the natural world, How to Do Nothing, while sitting in the Rose Garden. She often observed Gerald, then a perfectly mild-mannered turkey, meandering around.

But with few outdoor oases in walking distance and gyms shutting down, the rose garden got more visitors. Residents of the surrounding neighborhoods came to the garden more frequently. Gerald became increasingly agitated.

Odell recalls how Bay Area parks became flooded with visitors after the Covid lockdowns pushed stir-crazy people outdoors. “In the pandemic, so many of us are going for walks for peace of mind, but often instead of communion with nature we are thinking about getting what we need from it.”

‘It tore the neighborhood apart’
As damaging as Gerald’s presence was to people in the garden, perhaps even more explosive was the conversation on Nextdoor, a popular social media platform for neighbors to discuss local issues.

Nancy Friedman, a longtime resident and neighborhood “lead” on Nextdoor, said she had never seen such a divisive topic on the platform, “with people attacking each other more often than the turkey attacked people”.

Everyone was being so judgmental of each other, and of the turkey
Jojo Thompson

Rumors and accusations flew around the neighborhood, and the police were called at least once in response to a woman who fed Gerald.

“Some of the rifts this created – I don’t think they will ever be healed,” said one neighbor, who did not want to speak on the record for fear of repercussions from the community, of the arguments both on Nextdoor and offline.

Discussions quickly turned nasty. Some in the pro-Gerald camp wanted to cede the garden entirely to the bird. “Lose the garden, keep the turkeys,” one person said. Meanwhile, the anti-Gerald camp lobbied to have him euthanized or otherwise removed as soon as possible. “Relocate the turkey to the wild, or cook him for Thanksgiving,” one comment said.

“I’m an animal lover, but come on people!” wrote another. “Do you want to see this ‘lovely bird’ taking an eye out of your child?”

On 29 May, the city closed the rose garden to give Gerald some space and “train the turkey to keep distance from humans”. This further infuriated the anti-turkey camp, who argued humans should not be locked out of one of our few green spaces in Oakland during the stifling pandemic.

“Why are you so angry? Why are you attacking people?” one commenter spat at another in a typical thread. “You are rude to others and this is sad to me,” said another. “Don’t be so snappy.”

“If I see one more post about the rose garden I’m going to lose it,” yet another exasperated commenter wrote. “Shut the whole thing down: it causes more distress and upset than any single other thing on this site.”

Thompson, who posted about her Gerald encounter on Nextdoor, said she faced immediate vitriol.

“Someone told me to get psychiatric help, other people blamed me for the attack,” she said. “It just didn’t make sense – everyone was being so judgmental of each other, and of the turkey.”

The rift over Gerald split along those who believed he “belonged” in the garden and was simply defending his home, and those who believed he had no place there.

The anti-turkey camp was quick to point out that turkeys are not native to California – having been introduced as hunting targets in the early 20th century – and are seen by some as invasive. It is thought that the brood of rose garden turkeys to which Gerald belonged were forced there in 1991 following major fires that pushed them out of the nearby hills. Valerie Winemiller, who lives a few blocks from the Rose Garden, sees his aggressive behavior as a symbol of human encroachment into natural spaces.

“The fact that it has been given a human name is indicative of the problem,” she said. “I’ve witnessed a number of people getting too close to the birds while attempting selfies or even wanting to treat it like a pet – a potentially costly mistake for both parties. It is a wild animal.”

‘Save Gerald’
As attacks increased in number and severity the city of Oakland was forced to act, obtaining a permit to euthanize and remove the turkey, which is classified as a “nuisance animal”.

Gerald was scheduled to be killed on 22 June, to the horror of many on Nextdoor.

“Why is it we always feel the need to restrict the animals and not the people?” one commenter said. “It’s [the turkeys’] home and they are protecting it the same way you would with your home.”

A petition on to save Gerald quickly amassed more than 13,000 signatures. Concerned neighbors wrote emails to Oakland animal services and the city. A Virginia-based animal rights group called United Poultry Concerns joined the campaign, and an animal sanctuary offered to take Gerald in.

Meanwhile, a war was being waged via flyers posted around the rose garden. “Wanted” signs encouraging the killing of Gerald appeared. Soon after, artistic homages to Gerald reimagined the bird as an Egyptian god.

In response to the intense backlash, the city began looking for alternatives. Representatives from Oakland animal services attempted to re-train Gerald to fear humans – a regimen that involved, among other things, startling him with swiftly opened umbrellas – but to no avail.

Eventually, the decision was made to capture and relocate him to a less-populated part of the city. A spokesperson from the department of fish and wildlife said it was “exceedingly rare” for it to relocate a turkey rather than kill it but called the situation “a bit of a unique occasion” due to the volume of support for Gerald.

However, capturing the turkey proved complicated. According to reports in the Oaklandside, staff from animal services and the department of fish and wildlife used ground nets, net guns, robotic turkey calls, and an umbrella painted to resemble a male turkey, all without success. They even tried to lure Gerald with his favorite foods: blueberries and almonds. Yet by June, more than 20 volunteers had tried and failed to capture him.

Backup was called in the form of Rebecca Dmytryk, the director of Wildlife Emergency Services, a private volunteer group based in California’s central coast. Dmytryk describes herself as an expert animal trapper, but she still struggled to close in on Gerald.

She staked out the park over the course of a month before settling on a new method. She decided to act like Gerald’s favorite prey – an enfeebled old woman. She crouched over as if unable to move, luring in Gerald, before grabbing him by the neck.

“He just had this stunned look on his face, I will never forget his expression,” she said. “It was like he was saying, ‘What? Little old me?’”

‘The story is hardly over”
Gerald’s new home was a patch of wild land in the hills of Berkeley, owned by an electric company that had agreed to allow the turkey to live out his days in peace and quiet.

His retirement dreams, however, did not last long.

According to the department of fish and wildlife, Gerald found his way into the playground of a new park within a week.

“The staff called us because they recognized him from news stories,” said a spokesperson. “Our law enforcement officers went and picked him up again and took him to another location.”

Gerald’s story lives on with local residents who fondly remember his legacy as the garden’s top bird. In his absence, one person made an oil painting memorializing him. Another is writing a children’s book inspired by his plight. As for the garden, it still isn’t turkey-free.

On Nextdoor, a comment left after Gerald’s removal noted that there were several young male turkeys around. “The story is hardly over,” it concluded.

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