Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hold the gravy!

Tell this fine feathered friend he's not a proper pet and he'll tell you to get stuffed

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Basil follows visitors around Shannon Paille's farm near Birds Hill Park.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Basil follows visitors around Shannon Paille's farm near Birds Hill Park. Photo Store

As pets go, you have to admit Basil is a real turkey.

That's probably because Basil is a real five-year-old, 20-kilogram, broad-breasted bronze tom turkey with a healthy ego and an even healthier libido.

This fine, feathered Romeo lives on a hobby farm along the fringes of Birds Hill Park with his loving owners, Shannon Paille and Rod Jagger, and a menagerie that includes dogs, ducks, chickens, a smattering of sheep, some assorted horses and a miniature donkey.

I first got wind of Basil from Julie Carl, who is an associate editor at this newspaper and a longtime client of the pet-sitting business (visit www.petsense.ca or email Shannon@petsense.ca) run by Basil's mom, Paille, a veterinary technologist.

When Julie boasted her pet-sitter had made a family member out of a creature typically reserved for Thanksgiving dinner, being a crusading journalist, I was a tad skeptical, so she decided we would take a road trip to visit Basil in the flesh and -- forgive me -- talk a little turkey.

When we pulled into the driveway on a sweltering summer afternoon, two of the couple's dogs, Molly and Grace, raced out to greet us, with Basil waddling along in hot pursuit, kicking up dust and trundling as fast as his tiny turkey legs would carry him.

"He's 45 pounds of pure turkey love," Paille jokes as Basil zeroes in on Julie, his chest puffed up, making impressive huffing and chuffing noises. "He's been hanging around the front door all day wanting to play.

"He's mostly interested in showing you how sexy he is. He's way more taken with Julie than he is with you, Doug."

Moments later, we were seated at a picnic table under a shady tree and while I grilled Paille and Jagger about the joys and challenges of raising a pet turkey, Basil strutted around to ensure he remained the centre of attention.

If I had to describe him -- and I do -- I would say Basil most closely resembles a fully inflated set of bagpipes, albeit covered in fluorescent black and bronze feathers, with a bright-red fleshy "snood" dangling over the top of his beak and lumpy red "caruncles" at the base of his neck.

Throughout the interview, he stuck by our sides and kept up a steady stream of loud turkey chatter.

"He gobbles a lot if there are loud noises," Paille explains. "God forbid if the neighbours are hammering a fencepost; he'll answer every hammer stroke with a gobble. But he's a handsome devil and we love him very much."

This one-of-a-kind love affair began about three years ago when a poultry breeder asked whether the couple were interested in buying a breeding pair of turkeys. Having some turkey eggs and meat around the farm seemed like a good idea, so the answer was yes.

"He drove here with the two turkeys in a little dog kennel," Paille says as Basil rubs against her leg. "When they came out of the kennel, I'd never seen a bird that big. It was kind of intimidating... I've heard of turkeys that attack, but he's the only one we have a relationship with and he wouldn't hurt a fly."

The female turkey quickly became sick and died. Basil was also extremely ill, but with Paille as his devoted caregiver, feeding the big bird by hand with a syringe, he pulled through.

That's when Basil transformed from mere poultry into beloved pet.

"He's a part of the family," Paille says. "I always think of him as a very manly man. He's like the big muscle-bound guy in the Speedo on the beach, walking around, flexing his muscles and drinking his protein shake. He's all about the ladies."

This ladies' man isn't much on fetching or cuddling, but there's no questioning his loyalty. His goal in life seems to be spending as much turkey time as possible with his owners and gobbling in alarm when strangers arrive.

"He'll follow you just like a dog," Jagger says. "He'll walk with us when we do chores. He's got no fear of the horses."

Adds Paille: "When you do go inside, he waits at the front door. He lies down and pecks in the dirt and waits for you to come out."

Like a frisky dog, Basil is not shy about -- how can we put this in a family newspaper? -- seeking intimacy with a human leg or cowboy boot when the mood strikes. As proof, Jagger thrusts out a leg, which proves too much for Basil to resist. Frowning, Paille good-naturedly scolds: "Get him off you! Don't encourage that sort of behaviour."

Home for Basil is a comfy heated shed with a sign over the door that reads: "Cat House."

"He's inside (the shed) at night," says Jagger, a contractor who runs a foundation-repair firm. "During the day, he's got an outdoor run if nobody's home. He'd prefer to sleep outside the house, but it's not safe. There are dogs, coyotes and owls that could prey on him."

Speaking of which, last Thanksgiving, Basil was attacked by a pack of stray dogs. "He had some serious injuries," Paille says. "Rod took him to the vet in Oakbank right away."

At the vet's office, the first question was whether Basil -- ironically named for the herb used when cooking poultry -- was destined for the dinner plate.

"I said: NO!" Jagger recalls. "They were very good. They cleaned him up. He had holes in him. His drumstick was gone and his butt had been chewed into."

The memory of that night still unnerves the couple. "If that's the test to decide if he's a pet, that's it," Paille declares. "I was just sick about it. Not knowing if he was coming home or if they'd have to euthanize him. It was very difficult."

I couldn't help but ask whether this animal-loving couple still eat turkey. "Yeah, we do," Paille confesses. "I'm starting to struggle with it. If you can make a pet out of a turkey, where do you draw the line?"

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2013 D5

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