Is tossing live turkeys from airplanes in Arkansas during an annual turkey trot a crime?
Yep, this one's verified.
Lauren Jarvis- Public Services Manager at the Arkansas State Archives
Marion County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney
Sheriff Clinton Evans- Marion County Sheriff's Office
A Verify viewer sent us this petition claiming aerial turkey drops happen every October in Yellville, Arkansas during the annual Turkey Trot. The petition says the "Phantom Pilot," as the locals fondly call him, drops live turkeys from the cockpit in front of a crowd of festival-goers.
“The turkey trot festival started in 1946," Jarvis said. "During the initial festival they were dropping turkeys from the courthouse roof, until airplanes started doing it in 1948.”
Jarvis explained the turkeys weren't intended to die.
"The thought was that they could glide to safety, that's the argument that's always been used," Jarvis said. "The idea seemed to be that once released the turkey could run around and if people caught it they could keep it for Thanksgiving dinner."
Our Verify team set to answering whether this 80-year tradition is against the law--and it is.
A person commits the offense of cruelty to animals if he or she knowingly subjects any animal to cruel mistreatment....carries or causes to be carried in or upon any motorized vehicle of boat an animal in a cruel or inhumane manner," according to Arkansas Code § 5-62-103.
We tried to Verify why no Phantom Pilot has ever been charged with animal cruelty.
To get the answer we spoke with Sheriff Calvin Evans heading up Marion County Sheriff's Department. He explained this is the first year anyone's formally complained in writing.
Rose Hilliard is behind the complaint. She used to work for a spay and neuter nonprofit in California. She's retired now in Bruno, Arkansas, but still an animal activist fostering kittens.
Rose had heard of the infamous tradition and filed a complaint with the Sheriffs' Department against last year's phantom pilot on October 2.
The Turkey Trot was held on October 13-October 14 and this was the first year Hilliard went.
Together with a group of animal activists she rescued four turkeys that were thrown off the Marion Courthouse roof and transported them to sanctuary in New York.
One of the turkeys thrown out of a plane was captured by a local attending the festival and Hilliard explained she paid his $20 for "his" turkey.
After watching the "brutal" display of turkeys smacking the ground, she filed a second complaint against this year's phantom pilot on October 16.
Our Verify team soon learned that the Deputy Prosecutors Attorney in Marion County decided not to file charges against the phantom pilot. Rose Hilliard never got an explanation.
Our researchers also spoke with Federal Aviation Administration, the agency responsible for airplane rules and regulations. Despite years of complaints to the FAA from local Arkansans, there's nothing the agency can do.
"FAA regulations do not specifically prohibit dropping live animals from aircraft. This does not mean we endorse the practice," a FAA spokesperson told Verify. "Our regulations only cover 'objects,' and specify that they can be dropped from aircraft as long as they don't pose a danger to people or property on the ground...the pilot did not violate FAA safety regulations because the turkeys were dropped over a creek and a park, well away from crowds at the festival."
Our researchers went one step more. Every airplane has a unique number, it's called the "tail number" and it's printed on the plane's tail. We found articles throughout the years that captured images of the planes dropping turkeys overhead.
Using Flight Aware, we searched Phantom Pilots's tail numbers and found the registered owners of those planes (there are multiple pilots that passed the mantle over the years). We called two pilots from separate Turkey Trot years and were hung up on multiple times.
Still, we can verify live turkeys are being tossed from moving airplanes in Arkansas, and it's a tradition celebrated for nearly 80 years.
Both PETA and local petitioners are trying to end a tradition most would consider bizarre and others call brutal. The petition has almost met its goal of 170,000 signatures, but there's no telling what happens once that goal is met.