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opinion | jennifer graham

Make way for turkeys?

In the exurbs, the line between friend and food involves a veterinarian

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

In her book “Girl Hunter,” Georgia Pellegrini recounts how she killed her first turkey. The Wellesley graduate was working for a chef in New York, when he pointed to a flock of turkeys and told her to go slaughter five for the night’s dinner. “There was indeed that proverbial window through which I momentarily peered and contemplated life as a vegetarian,” she confessed. “But there was blood in the meadow that morning.”

Pellegrini came to grips with her inner butcher and thinks we all should, believing that hunting is an essential part of being human. This is a tough sell in a nation that is beginning to offer drive-through service at grocery stores — thank you, Roche Bros. — in case it’s too much trouble to go inside and pick up our fragrant rotisserie birds. Also, we have no time to hunt because we’re too busy taking turkeys to the veterinarian.

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I learned about this troubling devolution in our national character when a wild turkey hen and six chicks took up residence in our yard. At first, the children and I were delighted. We gathered at the kitchen window with binoculars and added cracked corn to the shopping list. When the family showed up minus a poult one morning, we clucked mournfully and invoked Tennyson, accepting that Nature’s red tooth and claw provided an owl or fox some nourishment.

But then, one morning, the mom showed up hopping on one leg, looking less like the lead in a blissful nature tableau and more like an all-you-can-eat buffet for the neighbor’s cats. A broken leg of the primary caregiver meant certain death for the family — unless, of course, we summon veterinarians and wildlife rehabilitators. Two are close — one at Tufts University’s Wildlife Medicine Program in North Grafton, and another at the New England Wildlife Center in Weymouth.

But this thought was followed by a vague embarrassment — and a fleeting, aromatic memory of the golden, crisp turkey legs they sell for $9 at the Big E. There is a thickly carved irony here, and suddenly I realize that the decline of two-parent households is tragic, not because children need disparities in gender, but because they need someone with a proclivity to kill. If Snow White lives in a cabin in the western suburbs, cavorting with bluebirds and chipmunks, she doesn’t need a prince; she needs the sword-slinging Merida from “Brave.”

But the suburbs and exurbs are full of my tribe, people for whom “bleeding heart” is a descriptive, not a meal. In among the HardiePlank-sided McMansions and gentlemen’s farms dwells an ambivalent populace. We won’t commit to cities, we can’t commit to farms; we want nature without its bloody realities. In our green acres, we are neither Eddie Albert nor Eva Gabor; when a turkey breaks its leg, we don’t get the axe; we call the vet.

At the New England Wildlife Center, Dr. Robert Adamski and colleagues treat more than 1,000 — sometimes closer to 2,000 — injured creatures each year, as part of their mission to educate the public about wildlife. The success rate is low, 30 percent, because their patients self-select; only the sickest animals can be caught. They treat wild turkeys, yes, cognizant of the irony of treating a wild animal that doubles as lunch.

“We operate from a welfare standpoint. If an animal is suffering, we feel a moral and ethical obligation to try to help,” Adamski told me. “Some people would say not to treat, which is also a valid decision. In the ecosystem, an individual animal doesn’t make a difference; if it dies in the wild, it becomes food for something else. Carnivores and raptors need to feed their kids, too.”

As do I. For now, the hen lives to limp another day, as I’ve no time for moral ambiguities. It’s summer, I havea full house of kids, and they want lunch.

Which will be turkey on whole wheat, but of course.

Jennifer Graham lives in Hopkinton and writes regularly for the Globe.
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