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Naturalist 'imprints' on turkeys in nationally recognized work
Wildlife scientist Joe Hutto, of Lander, is an expert on the process of "imprinting" by newborn animals. Photo by Jamie Drendel

Naturalist imprints on turkeys in nationally recognized work

Apr 12, 2012 - By Emily Etheredge, Staff Writer

A mother turkey comforts, nourishes, supports and patiently stays by her young. When Lander naturalist Joe Hutto was living in Florida in the early 1990s, he was given more than 20 turkey eggs and the rare opportunity to mother them through imprinting -- the practice in which a young animal acquires behavioral characteristics from its parent.

Hutto journaled his experience, which he later turned into a book titled, "Illumination in the Flatwoods," and a PBS "Nature" series documentary "My Life as a Turkey," being shown at 7 p.m. Thursday. April 12, at the Lander Library as part of the Earth Day Film Series.

Hutto currently spends time observing mule deer in their natural habitat near his home south of Lander.

"I have always been obsessed with wildlife," Hutto said. "Especially the mechanism of imprinting when any baby thing is born and the first thing they smell is a parent. I discovered this as a little kid and have always been a little nerdy congenital scientist who kept journals and things from my observations of wild animals."

Hutto was in between jobs and living in Florida when a farmer told Hutto that he was destroying turkey nests almost every day while mowing near his land.

Hutto had an interest in raising wild turkeys and told the farmer that he would enjoy having some of the eggs if he ever ran over another nest.

"I didn't even know the guy who was working in the area, and the very next day I came home and there were 24, 28 eggs on my doorstep," Hutto said. "I didn't even have an incubator at the time so I slugged out in the middle of the night and went to a friend's house, picked up an incubator and realized that this was a once in a lifetime experience for me."

About two or three days passed in which Hutto had time to reflect on the commitment that raising the turkeys entailed. After deciding it was worth it, Hutto left society for about a year and a half.

"I really just sort of disappeared," Hutto said. "My friend Jack later saw the film where I mentioned that I went into hiding, and he came to me and said he had always wondered what happened to me when he didn't hear from me for a while."

Hutto learned how to talk to the turkeys before they hatched, and he communicated with them while they were still in the eggs. Hutto's face was the first thing they saw while hatching, and he looked every single turkey in the eye so they would recognize him as their mother.

"The turkeys knew who I was immediately after they were born, because I was the first thing they saw, and I had talked to the eggs so they recognized my voice" Hutto said. "I think this is one of the reasons mothering them worked so well. They recognized me from the very beginning as their mother."

After the turkeys hatched, Hutto stayed by their side 24 hours a day. He would journal when the turkeys went outside to forage.

"When the turkeys would sit down and exhaust all possibilities of a new surrounding, I would pull out my camera or my ring binder and would just observe everything that was going on," Hutto said. "I did a lot of writing during that time."

Hutto said that he wasn't all that different from a turkey's mother. Both are relatively large, bipedal, omnivorous and ground-dwelling animals.

"I think this is one of the reasons my study worked so well," Hutto said. "Sure, there were probably times they thought I was different from them, but for the most part, I was able to talk to the turkeys, and there were times I struggled differentiating my voice with theirs. When they were 12 weeks old they started roosting in the trees, which I obviously couldn't do, but they were never resentful of my strangeness."

The hardest part of the experience for Hutto was when the turkeys reached the age they no longer needed him and flew away. In the purest sense, Hutto experienced empty nest syndrome.

Hutto said the experiment allowed for him to realize that everyone possesses a fundamental social bond in the natural world where everyone is hardwired to become a parent.

"It doesn't matter whether it is a puppy, a squirrel, a baby raccoon, a baby chick, an infant, if you are there when that creature is born, you are allowing yourself to be exposed to something very fundamental that we are wired to desire," Hutto said. "This young thing is giving itself up to you with trust that you will parent it, and that bond doesn't get any stronger than in that moment."

Observing mothers with their children as a young child, Hutto never understood why the mothers would appear so infatuated with their babies until he raised the turkeys.

"If you ever look at a young mother with her newborn she is totally infatuated with her baby, and she never takes her eyes off of that infant," Hutto said. "That is what imprinting does to you. These little creatures become immensely fascinating to you and suddenly every little nuance is interesting to you when it might not be that interesting to other people."

The documentary went to great lengths to recreated Hutto's experiences. The producers hired an actor to live on a ranch in South Florida, put radio callers on wild turkeys to know when they laid a clutch, and then film producers snatched up the eggs to re-enact what Hutto went through. Hutto warned the actor, Jeff Palmer, that he might hit a wall psychologically because he would not allowed to leave the turkeys during the filming.

"Jeff was essentially in the middle of nowhere with these turkeys in a cabin all by himself," Hutto said. "The cameramen would fly to the location once every two weeks for filming so Jeff would literally be left all alone for a large majority of the time."

The actor did have a hard time with the project, and counselors had to be brought in to help him.

"I think this whole process was very serious for Jeff, and it gave everyone a perspective of what I went through," Hutto said.

Currently, Hutto and his wife, Leslye, live on a historic ranch that backs up to the Wind River Mountains. Hutto said they live on a prehistoric winter range for mule deer, and that's where Hutto spends the majority of his time, observing them in their natural habitat. The couple can open their front door and call the deer by name. They could have 35 and 40 to feed every afternoon.

"Mule deer have the largest brain of any deer in the world and are, in fact, profoundly intelligent, with a curiosity for human contact," Hutto said.

It is evident that the deer are not afraid of Hutto and trust him as he walks around his property. When Hutto is not observing the deer, he is working on his new book, which will chronicle this new experience.

"I think I will always enjoy learning about new creatures and observing them and consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to do so," Hutto said.

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