Why Turkeys And Other Birds Make Great Therapy Animals

The woman who made headlines after bringing her pet turkey on a plane shares her side of the story.

Most mornings start the same for Jodie Smalley. She wakes up, gets ready for the day, kisses her 25-pound Wild Turkey goodbye, and drives to work. Like any loyal pet owner, it’s not easy for her to leave her animal alone for the entire day. But what makes it more challenging is that the turkey, a female named Easter, is Smalley’s emotional support animal, or ESA. “It must be how parents feel leaving their kids home with a babysitter,” she says.

Smalley has owned Easter, a broad-breasted bronze, for almost two years. The full story of how the turkey fell into her lap is a long one, but here’s the short of it: It was Easter Sunday in 2014 and two of Smalley’s friends were driving to her home in Duvall, Washington, just outside Seattle, when they saw an abandoned turkey chick on the road. They took the chick to Smalley’s house, and it was love at first sight. The timing could not have been more perfect, Smalley says, because she was going through a separation from her husband and was looking for comfort. “It was difficult living on my own. I don’t have any family out here, so she’s all I have,” she says. Still, it wasn't until later, after Smalley's ex-husband died of cancer and she began seeing a therapist, that Easter was classified as an ESA. After the therapist determined that the bird was providing legitimate support in helping her grieve, Smalley got her turkey registered.

In the time since she adopted Easter, Smalley says the turkey has become an invaluable part of her life. “She helps me realize that I am okay, and not as bad as I think I am,” she says. In some ways, Easter has been even better than her therapist. “I can’t kiss and cuddle my therapist.”

Unlike registered service animals, ESAs aren’t regulated under the American Disabilities Act, so they don’t have the same rights and access, like being allowed in restaurants and hotels. But they are permitted in some public places. Last month Smalley and Easter made headlines when the duo boarded an airplane together.

Some may look askance at the idea of a turkey trotting around business class. And there’s reason to be skeptical—the ESA system is abused by many. Aubrey Fine, a board member at Pet Partners and author of The Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy, says lying about having an ESA or obtaining a fake ESA certificate is an all-too-common practice. “I really care about my animals, but I’m not going to call them my ‘emotional support animals,’ because I’m able to function without them,” he says. Smalley, for her part, agrees that it should be more difficult to get an ESA.

But that doesn’t discount the idea of an ESA altogether. Marty Becker, a veterinarian and author of The Healing Power of Pets, says owning an animal for emotional support is better than any medicine. “It’s a medicine that’s trusted and doesn’t have any side effects. And on top of that, it’s free. How do you beat that?” Fine says that, unlike dogs and cats and other traditional pets, birds have a unique social aspect that many people find appealing. “Having a bird can be very engaging—some say words and sing songs. Once that connection is there, owning a bird that chirps when you come near them is really special.” (The New York Times Magazine recently published an article about parrots helping veterans overcome their trauma.)

For Smalley, Easter is more like a family member than a pet. She rides in the front seat of the car and sticks her head out the window. “I imagine her thinking of flying,” Smalley says. She has a kennel at Smalley's apartment, and she uses a diaper when they travel. “She’s a ray of sunshine," Smalley says. "She’s innocent, but can be mischievous, just like a toddler."