Turkey with death wish wins hearts of Ypsilanti

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Ypsilanti Township — For six months, this community delighted in an ill-tempered animal with a death wish — a turkey who made a busy intersection his home.

Whittaker the turkey, who liked to rule the Ypsi roads, was killed by a car last week.

When the inevitable happened — he was killed by a car last week — the town turned him into a folk hero.

A makeshift shrine grows by the day. Money was raised for a permanent memorial, an engraved brick. A remembrance service will be held Thursday by the township and Humane Society of Huron Valley, burying his ashes near the interchange.

Tributes and photos continue to flow onto a Facebook page, “Whittaker, the Rogue Ypsi Turkey.” And the pictures! This jake has more photos than the Kardashians combined.

There’s Whit lying in the middle of Whittaker and Textile roads. There he is strutting past a lawn sign for a church’s chicken dinner.

There he is cleaning his tail feather as a sport utility vehicle patiently waits behind. There he is ogled by children whose laughing faces fill the windows of a passing school bus.

Residents in this Washtenaw County town view these pictures and are surprised to find themselves crying. Among the bleary eyed was Wendy Murphy, who on Friday brought flowers to the memorial.

“It sounds silly, I know, but I loved a crazy turkey who lived in the middle of the street,” Murphy said.

At a time when the national discourse seems especially low, residents bonded over the folly of falling in love with an ill-fated, exasperating, jaywalking turkey.

He was everyone’s favorite road hazard, they said. He marched to his own drumstick. It was sweet and silly all at the same time.

Fly high, you crazy gobbler.

“It’s stupid to say I will miss a turkey, but I will,” said Gina Zwiernikowski of nearby Willis.

Running afoul of authority

Like a refugee from Thanksgiving, the year-old Whittaker appeared in this woodsy township in December — and refused to leave. The rebellious youth ignored all entreaties to stay off the road.

He waddled along like he owned the joint, residents said. To him, the cars were the interlopers.

When not chasing joggers and pedestrians, the mottled-brown creature walked up to autos idling at the stoplight, poked his head above the hood, admired his reflection in the door, peered into the window, pecked at the tires.

His sheer audacity tickled people. They drove out of their way to catch a gander. He was a simple pleasure, a daily gift, a welcomed diversion, they said.

Photos such as this one have poured into “Whittaker the Rogue Ypsi Turkey” Facebook page after his death.

“He’s about the most popular turkey in the world. He certainly has more friends than me,” joked Vicki Echegoyen, a high school Spanish teacher from Ypsilanti.

Not everyone was bemused by the bird. Motorists honked their horns and shouted as he blocked their path. In a video on the Facebook page, a motorist pleaded with the fearless fowl.

“Get off the (blanking) road,” he shrieked. “You’re here every (blanking) day.”

But woe to those foolhardy enough to leave their cars. Another video shows the spindly legged Whit, eyes blinking and head bobbing, chasing a man around his vehicle several times until he scampered inside.

Another time, a woman ushered Whit to the curb but, when she turned her back to return to her car, he followed her. Like a vaudeville act, the routine repeated itself several times.

Residents had a spirited debate about whether Whit should be moved to a spot far from four-wheeled machines. But moving Whit meant catching him, and despite his omnipresence, he was an elusive quarry.

The state Department of Natural Resources tried twice and failed. The Huron Valley Humane Society laid out a metal wire cage, which someone promptly stole. Another group chased Whit with what looked like an oversized butterfly net.

“Brdcntr 0 DNR O HSHV 0 Turkey 7,” read the business sign for Whittaker Road Animal Clinic.

Turkey with tender touch

After Whit was hit by a car July 3, his Facebook page turned into a remembrance journal.

Hollie Lynn recalled seeing him a few months earlier. She was going through a fraught time at work, trying to hide tears from her children in the back seat.

She was used to seeing Whit, but on this rainy day, he was particularly haughty, squatting in the left turn lane. Lynn felt the dark clouds start to lift.

She also came up with a motto used whenever the stress returned — be the turkey.

Whit has been memorialized with T-shirts, prints, posters, paintings and a memorial site.

“I know it’s silly, but the thought of this silly bird laying in the road, not caring what people think, has helped me through a hard time,” she wrote last Thursday.

Whit was even more of a godsend to Barbara Patton, an Ypsilanti nurse whose husband died in November after a three-year fight with brain cancer. She discovered Whit in January and suddenly she was smiling for the first time in a long time.

She felt doubly blessed when the bird approached her car and began thumping her tires.

“He has been a little ray of sunshine for me since,” she said.

Whit has been memorialized with T-shirts, prints, posters and paintings. Residents raised $400 for an engraved brick that will become a permanent part of the entrance to the humane society.

There’s talk of organizing an annual turkey trot in his honor to raise money for charity.

The makeshift shrine expands every day with new flowers, balloons, children’s drawings and a stuffed turkey doll.

“Keep calm and gobble on,” reads one sign.

One well-wisher, Penny McCurdy of Ypsilanti, said she has a pretty good idea where Whit is now and what he’s doing.

“He’s probably in heaven telling everyone off,” she said.


Remembrance ceremony

When: 5:15 p.m., Thursday

Where: Civic Center Grounds, 7200 S. Huron River Drive, Ypsilanti, MI 48197

What: Walk to corner near a tree where Whittaker’s ashes will be buried

Source: Human Society of Huron Valley