Jodie Smalley lives in a Corvallis mobile home with her turkey and two cats. Plastic is strewn across the floor and Smalley’s feathered friend waddles to place herself in front of an electric heater, settling into her bronze feathers for a snooze.
Once small enough to fit in a coffee can, Smalley’s 30-pound turkey was found as an abandoned chick in the middle of a rural Washington road on Easter Sunday, 2014.
Her friends found the lost chick on their way up the road to visit Smalley and her husband. At the time of Easter’s rescue Smalley’s marriage was going downhill fast.
“It was a cold, desolate time,” said Smalley.
The mysterious chick sparked something in Smalley, who discovered the bird was a breed of domestic turkey after a Google search.
“I just had this mental image of having this little turkey companion riding in the car and just like hanging out with me,” said Smalley. “It was this weird eureka revelation moment.”
Smalley named the chick Easter and grew a strong, maternal bond with the bird. She stayed close at night when Easter would cry, cuddling on the couch and keeping her warm in a bathrobe sleeve.
“She bonded with me, imprinted on me and I became turkey mom,” said Smalley.
Easter wasn’t the only one benefitting from the newfound bond, however.
“[Easter] was that one constant in my life,” said Smalley. “No matter how sad or dark my day was, she was a ray of sunshine; she always made me laugh.”
Easter now serves as Smalley’s emotional support animal, or ESA. She’s accompanied her human companion on planes, to Seattle’s bustling Pike Place Market, and even a warehouse rave.
A many-faceted woman, Smalley is a fire performer and stilt walker, has spent much of her life working outside as a forest ranger or ski patrol, and has even worked for Microsoft. As of spring quarter she is LBCC’s new mail clerk and attending classes as a 37-year-old freshman. Smalley has come to enjoy sharing her unusual pet with passersby, strangers, neighbors, and other students, saying that her turkey brings unique, irreplaceable moments into the lives of the people she meets.
“It’s like giving people cookies,” said Smalley.
Before she moved to Corvallis in November, Smalley experienced the dissolution of her marriage and the death of her husband to cancer, who passed on the day she signed divorce papers, rendering them null.
Smalley says she could never have made it to LBCC without Easter.
“Even when I got her as a tiny poult, she was there as an emotional support animal, even though I had no idea what an emotional support animal was at the time,” said Smalley.
Her counselor later explained to Smalley the role Easter was filling in her life.
“With emotional support animals, there’s a loving emotional connection, there’s a bond there,” said Smalley.
Easter’s presence as an ESA helps Smalley cope with deep emotional stress.
“If something can feel that confident around me and feel that secure, then maybe I’m not as unstable or as vulnerable or as unconfident as I think I am,” said Smalley. “So she’s reassuring, she’s a mirror. If she can trust me, why can’t I trust myself?’
Smalley describes Easter as the catalyst that drove her to stand up to her husband, whom she says had a narcissistic personality, engaging in emotionally abusive and gaslighting behaviors. Smalley was isolated from friends and family and dependent upon her spouse, which can be common in abusive relationships.
“She’s my liberty bird. She galvanized me,” said Smalley.
After a long road, Smalley and Easter have found stability and community in Corvallis and LBCC.
“Working at LBCC and being a student there, I’m really proud of the fact of how much they try to be open and accepting and accommodating to people in all their different facets of life, including having service animals or support animals,” said Smalley.
Smalley hopes to bring Easter to campus to bring some cheer to students during the stressful weeks of school and she’s already brought an entertaining dose of turkey into the lives of her friends and neighbors.
“Easter looks like a feathered ball of meat with stick legs, a long neck and a tiny dinosaur head. That alone is enough to provide endless laughter,” said Hope Eksten Yancey, Smalley’s friend of 15 years.
“She [Smalley] loves that damn turkey,” said Ken Eshelman, Smalley’s neighbor and longtime resident of the Corvallis Mobile Home Park. “I’m getting used to that turkey too. Round here, it’s something different. As somebody that just hasn’t been around turkeys, I get a big kick out of it.”
Eshelman has become Easter’s unwitting pet-sitter and is nothing but tickled by the turkey’s behavior.
“I don’t know how it gets out sometimes,” said Eshelman. “It waddles on down the road over here and cackles and raises hell until I get her a goodie.”
Easter, however, is sick with an enlarged heart and unknown mass encroaching on her lungs and kidneys. Her days as an ESA turkey may be numbered.
“On one end of the spectrum Easter provides a safe, low maintenance relationship and a life to focus on instead of emotional turmoil,” said Yancey. “In the worst case having a non-conventional ESA brings housing challenges and typical pet health expenditures.”
During Easter’s time as an ESA, Smalley and her turkey gained national attention when flying on planes together; once to visit family, and the second time to spread the ashes of Smalley’s husband. Videos of Easter being wheeled through the airport in a chair, then waddling through security and hopping on a plane went viral.
“She started a whole media wave,” said Smalley, bringing conversation and awareness to ESAs and their owners.
Some reports painted Smalley as a grieving widow who needed the companionship of her pet. Other reports and comments were what Smalley described as “brutal,” implying that she was abusing the ESA system or stigmatizing her need for emotional and mental support.
“That’s something I want to bring awareness to, that whole stigma of seeking help and getting counseling. It’s just caring for yourself and there’s nothing wrong or shameful about it,” said Smalley.
However, Smalley thinks that people who abuse the ESA protections by claiming an animal not serving real mental health needs do so at the detriment to those who truly need their animal companions, creating societal disdain and stigma towards ESAs and their human relationships.
“This is unconditional love, and we all need that in our lives,” said Smalley. “It may not be the human flavor, but it is still need and recognizable.
Story and Photos by Emily Goodykoontz