New sponsor of Arkansas festival: Scratch turkey tosses from planes or event ends

Yellville antics ruffle feathers even in Washington, D.C.

Posted: April 26, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

A turkey is thrown from a low-flying plane over Yellville on Oct. 14 during last year’s Turkey Trot festival. The festival’s new sponsors say no more live turkey drops, and one member of Congress wants to ban anyone from dropping live animals from planes.

They're talking turkey in Congress.

Yellville turkeys.

The dropping of live turkeys from low-flying airplanes at the Yellville Turkey Trot festival has spurred a conversation in Congress about changing Federal Aviation Administration rules to forbid the practice.

Meanwhile, back in Arkansas, a new sponsor has stepped forward for this year's festival -- as long as no turkeys are present.

U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., plans to file a bill to stop the turkey drop, said Ben Rosenbaum, the congressman's legislative director.

Titus filed an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill that would have made it illegal to drop live animals from civilian aircraft while in flight, but the amendment was blocked from consideration because it wasn't made in order, Rosenbaum said.

Titus spoke Tuesday before the House Rules Committee, comparing the Yellville festival to a 1978 episode of the television sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati in which live turkeys are dropped from a helicopter for a Thanksgiving promotion.

"Well, something very similar to that exists in real life," she said. "The small town of Yellville, Ark., hosts an annual Turkey Trot. It's been in existence for 72 years. It attracts large crowds from across the region. They have a big parade, live music and a Miss Drumsticks beauty pageant."

Titus went on to explain the history of the airplane drops, which have occurred, with a few interruptions, for more than 50 years. The drops are done by "Phantom Pilots" who are supposedly anonymous, though the identification numbers of an aircraft can reveal the name of the plane's owner.

Most of the birds that are dropped from the planes spread their wings and glide to the ground, but some don't open their wings and die on impact. The practice has incensed animal-welfare activists.

FAA rules forbid dropping objects that could injure people or property on the ground, but they don't specifically forbid dropping live animals. So as long as the birds are released over a field adjacent to the festival, the FAA has found that the practice doesn't violate any of its rules.

Titus is a member of the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. On Feb. 5, she and the other three subcommittee members sent a letter to Daniel K. Elwell, acting administrator of the FAA, regarding the issue.

"As you may know, in Yellville, Arkansas, a small number of individuals organize an annual event in which live domestically bred wild turkeys -- that naturally fly only short distances and never higher than 100 feet -- are thrown from a private aircraft," according to the letter. "This cruel 'tradition,' which has been condemned in a number of editorials, often injures and/or kills the turkeys and always causes them severe distress."

The letter cites a quote that FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford made after several turkeys were dropped during the festival last October: "FAA regulations don't specifically deal with dropping live animals out of airplanes, so we have no authority to prohibit the practice."

Subcommittee members asked if the FAA planned to come up with a regulation to prohibit the practice, something they believe is warranted. The letter notes that the regulation could be written to allow sanctioned activities like using aircraft to stock lakes with fish.

Elwell responded in an April 11 letter, saying he understood the subcommittee's concerns but that the FAA doesn't have the regulatory authority to prohibit the turkey drop at the Yellville festival. Organizers have consistently complied with the regulations, he wrote.

"While there may be objection to the event in Yellville based on animal welfare concerns, the FAA does not regulate animal welfare," Elwell wrote. "This event poses minimal risk to aviation or public safety -- which FAA is authorized to regulate -- and has never been associated with an aviation accident or incident. For these reasons, the FAA is not in a position to propose the type of rule referenced in your letter."

Titus mentioned that letter to the Rules Committee on Tuesday.

"I've written to the FAA about this issue, and they responded they don't have the regulatory authority to do this," she said. "So Congress needs to step up and give them that authority.

"Now, some people might claim that animal welfare is outside the purview of the FAA, but that ignores the fact that there are numerous areas in the U.S. code where the FAA regulates or has policies impacting aircraft and animals. Congress has stood up time and time again against such kinds of destructive acts against animals in the name of entertainment."

On Monday, the Mid-Marion County Rotary Club voted 16-6 to take over sponsorship of the festival, but only if no live turkeys are on the premises or dropped from airplanes, said Stan Duffy, president-elect of the Rotary Club.

If a pilot flies by the Turkey Trot festival this fall and drops a turkey from the plane, that will be the end of the festival, Duffy said.

When asked how the Rotary Club would stop the rogue pilots, Duffy said: "We know 'em all. That's not going to be a big deal."

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was happy to hear of the new sponsor's commitment to animal well-being.

"The Mid-Marion County Rotary Club has voted for kindness by refusing to support throwing live turkeys from planes and buildings," said Gemma Vaughan, a senior cruelty caseworker for PETA.

She said the organization rescued four turkeys from last year's festival, including one that was wounded after being "hurled" from a courthouse roof.

"Over the years, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, including many in Arkansas, have spoken out against the 'turkey drop,' and PETA hopes the club's new sponsorship relegates this cruelty to the history books," Vaughan said.

Duffy said the Rotary Club already sponsored the parade that is held every year during the Turkey Trot event, and the club wanted to continue the festival, which many people view as a homecoming opportunity.

"We're taking it over because it's our history and it's our heritage, and we're not going to let that go," he said of the festival. "This would be a great way for Rotary to maybe get some funds to help our local kids on scholarships."

The Yellville Area Chamber of Commerce had sponsored the festival for many years but announced April 6 that it would no longer do so. The festival and the attention it drew from animal-welfare activists had become detrimental to local businesses, according to a statement from the Chamber.

"We feel we can no longer deliver the same experience that we have enjoyed in years passed," according to the statement. "Our decision was not entered into lightly. Safety concerns, rising costs and loss of funding were some of the determining factors in making this decision."

The Turkey Trot festival was held Oct. 13 and 14 last year. The activities are held on the downtown Yellville square. When live turkeys were dropped from an airplane, some people would chase the turkeys and return with them to the festival to show them off.

Wild turkeys can fly at speeds up to 55 mph, but they usually fly from treetop to treetop, at an altitude of less than 100 feet. During the turkey drop, the airplane is at an altitude of at least 500 feet.

Metro on 04/26/2018