A turkey falls from a plane during the Turkey Trot festival in 2015. The event has been criticized by animal-welfare activists, but proponents say it’s an Ozark Mountain tradition. (Courtesy of the Democrat-Gazette/Baxter Bulletin/Kaitlyn Schwers)

If all goes according to plan, a live turkey will be tossed Saturday from a moving airplane 500 feet above the annual Turkey Trot Festival in Yellville, Ark.

If history is any guide, one of three things will happen next.

Option 1: The bird drops like a rock and dies on impact.

Option 2: The animal awkwardly flutters to the ground, where it’ll be mobbed by excited townspeople who jostle for control of the frightened animal before it’s slaughtered.

Option 3: The bird catches a stiff, serendipitous breeze and glides into the sunset to freedom.

Anywhere else, you might call it animal cruelty, or maybe the “annual turkey sky death lottery.”

In Yellville (pop. 1,204), they call the turkey drop “an Ozark Mountain tradition” — one that has more or less remained intact for 71 years.

Due to protests and weather concerns, the drops were put on hold from 2012 to 2014. But they’re back and resumed like old times on Friday, and many locals are rushing to defend the practice.

Terry Ott, a county judge, downplayed concerns about the well-being of the birds during an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“They’re not going to crash,” Ott told the paper. “They’re birds. They can fly.”

He added that the event is “important to the community” and “brings in a lot of money.”

Despite maintaining that the birds won’t crash, Ott told the paper that pilots go out of their way to avoid crowds before the birds are dropped.

“Safety’s first,” he said.

Dana Woods, who has piloted the bird-dropping plane over the years, agreed with Ott, telling the paper that he prefers to say the birds are “released” instead of “dropped.”

“They can fly a long ways,” said Woods, a Mountain View alderman and former president of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association. “We treat the turkeys right. That may sound ironic, but we don’t abuse those turkeys. We coddle and pet those turkeys. We’re good to them.”

But many disagree, and the debate over whether the animals can successfully fly after being thrown from an aircraft continues to rage.

Max Brantley, a senior editor at the Arkansas Times, decried the practice in a blog post earlier this week, calling the drop “inhumane.”

“They could probably get a good crowd in Yellville for a drawing and quartering, too,” he wrote. “Here’s an idea for sport: A drop of frozen Butterball turkeys from 500 feet over the cheering crowd.”

Brantley went on to quote Yvonne Thaxton, a professor of poultry science at the University of Arkansas, who told the Democrat-Gazette that the birds naturally remain at an altitude of 100 feet or less. The turkey drop occurs at an altitude of 500 feet, the paper reported.

“Placing turkeys in an environment that is new to them is stressful,” she said. “In the case of an airplane, the noise would also be a stress-producing fear reaction.

“Dropping one from 500 feet is a horrific act of abuse,” she added. “There is no justification for this practice.”

Stephanie Bell, senior director of cruelty casework at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, agreed in a statement emailed to The Washington Post.

“Despite warning that turkeys don’t fly at high altitudes, birds were thrown from a plane for sheer amusement’s sake, and at least one died after what must have been a terrifying fall,” she said, referring to a drop’s this week. “The ‘Turkey Drop’ is cruel as well as illegal under Arkansas law, and PETA will seek vigorous prosecution of those responsible for this shameful, backward stunt.”

The organization recently posted an alert on its website urging people to call local officials and demand an end to the drops, which it labeled “barbaric.”

Mark Hutchings, a biologist supervisor for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, told the Democrat-Gazette that wild turkeys are adept fliers.

“Wild turkeys are strong fliers,” Hutchings said. “They are really built more for short, rapid flight. Most of the time continuous wing-beats would not continue more than a couple hundred yards, but they tend to glide intermittently and when they do, can sail for a mile or more. I believe flying speeds can be as fast as 55 miles per hour.”

Brantley argued that the problem with Hutchings’ analysis is that the dropped birds aren’t wild to begin with.

“The Game and Fish man was talking about WILD turkeys, I’d note,” he wrote. “These are not wild turkeys and they’ll be confined to a noisy plane before a drop from 500 feet, a good bit higher than the tree roosts from which a wild turkey might take off.”

Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Fort Worth, told the Democrat-Gazette that dropping objects from airplanes is a legal activity so long as people and property below are not damaged. He said the agency does not weigh in on animal cruelty issues, but noted that an investigator will be present to monitor this year’s drop.

“We don’t endorse the practice of heaving unsuspecting turkeys out of aircraft for entertainment purposes, but our regulations don’t specifically exclude live animals as ‘objects,'” he said in an email. “State and local animal cruelty laws would cover any alleged abuse.”

An ongoing Arkansas Times poll about whether the turkey drop should continue has produced unequivocal results thus far: 77 percent of the poll’s 2,750 votes deemed the practice “cruel to the turkeys,” while 23 percent of respondents voted the practice “important to the community.”

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