Town Animal Control Officer Jenny Zahler, perhaps more than anyone else on Shelter Island, has a job that is anything but routine. She has no set hours in her full-time job — she works in a division of the Police Department — and can get a call any time of day or night, 24/7.
It can be a lost dog, or a call about wild critters in houses, like a raccoon recently. When she arrived, the raccoon was standing in the middle of a grand staircase, “posing, like he was ready for a fashion shoot.”
Bats in chimneys, bats in bathrooms, bats hanging upside down on kitchen curtains, turtles in roadways, frogs found in house plants, ducks stuck in chicken coops — are all in a day’s and night’s work for the animal control officer.
Just last week she got a call about an injured goose on Crescent Beach. When she arrived, she quickly summed up the situation. “Yes, it was injured. Because an eagle was killing it.”
In the season of the turkey (on the Island that’s every season), she was asked if there had been any more sightings of a cannibal — yes — turkey. “No,” she said and seemed happy to report it. Calls had come her way a while back from several people, and Police Officer Sean Clark also weighed in, starting his conversation with Officer Zahler by saying, “You’re not going to believe this.” A turkey was eating dead members of its flock — technically “rafter” — in and around Klenawicus Airfield.
Officer Zahler went by one evening and saw the bird, chowing down on a turkey wing. She said that it was a hen, and it was stranger still that it was alone on the ground, with the rest of the rafter roosting in trees, which turkeys do at night. It was one of the most baffling things Officer Zahler had seen in her three years on the job.
Asked if there were more of the eastern wild turkeys — or, to give them their Latin due, meleagris gallopavo silvestri — on the Island this year than in past years, Officer Zahler said, cautioning that she had no scientific data, and speaking anecdotally, that it seemed the population has increased. “I mean, they’re everywhere.”
Foxes are the natural predator of turkeys, and favor turkey eggs and the young birds, but Officer Zahler said she hasn’t spotted any foxes for a while. “People have said they’ve seen them, but I haven’t,” she added.
Back in 2018, red foxes made a comeback on the Island. Although it was never entirely depleted, the Island’s fox population was drastically low for many years, with sightings of them few and far between. But then for a time, the vibrant red canine appeared to be thriving once again.
That spring, five years ago the resurgence of the red fox, a.k.a. Vulpes vulpes, came on the heels of nearly a decade-long decline in their numbers, due to their susceptibility to mange, a disease caused by the mite Sarcoptes scabei.
But the fox population is cyclical and maybe nature’s cycle is spinning, so the turkeys are safe for now, although the future could become perilous for large flocks.
And there is another predator, however, that’s cutting into the turkey population. “People,” Officer Zahler said. One routine in a job, as said, that is almost always changing, is picking up dead or injured turkeys struck by cars.
“What’s so urgent?” Officer Zahler asked. “Is it really such a big deal to slow down or stop for 10 or 20 seconds? There’s always another ferry.”
If not hit by a car, a disease called avian pox takes its toll on turkeys, Officer Zahler said. Often transmitted by mosquitoes, she said, the birds are more affected in warmer weather or during particularly rainy stretches.
Some birds recover, but when she spots turkeys with large, dripping pustules — “Really gross” — she euthanizes them.
It’s the rare Islander who doesn’t enjoy the sight of these comedians of the avian world. They look clumsy, but they can fly, and when they take wing they’re as graceful as any bird, sometimes reaching speeds up to 50 miles an hour.
But they’re most content being earthbound, strolling around with the could-care-less attitude of bored aristocrats. They can also transform themselves in a flash into completely different beings, flaring out their feathers and changing the color of their fleshy necks to blue, gray or, being an American species, red, white and blue.
The toms preen like this when they’re scared or angry or looking for love. Though they look comic, the birds can get aggressive during mating season. So, the way to treat all wild animals, as Officer Zahler said, is to let them be.
One of the most difficult parts of her job, she said, is people having no understanding of wildlife. “People think wildlife make good pets,” she said. “No, they do not make good pets.”
Bringing that box turtle or adorable bunny home will only hurt them, and cause problems for the would-be owners. “You can’t replicate a wild animal’s environment,” she added.
And if you think it’s a good idea to get rid of what you consider a pest by yourself, or handling any wild creature, think again. Call a professional: 631-749-5771, or email [email protected]. She’ll answer the call.