The days of dropping live turkeys out of planes in Yellville could be over.

The future of the annual Turkey Trot festival was thrown into doubt in April when the Yellville Chamber of Commerce, the longtime organizer of the annual fall event, announced that it would no longer continue as sponsor. The festival has drawn massive controversy for the practice of tossing turkeys out of planes from altitudes of 500 feet or higher.

It was unclear whether the festival would continue without a sponsor, but the Mid-Marion County Rotary Club has stepped up to the plate, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. The Rotary Club voted 16-6 on Monday to take over sponsorship. However, it attached a key condition: It will only sponsor the event if no live turkeys are on the premises or dropped from planes. The president elect of the Rotary Club told the Northwest D-G that if a pilot flies over the festival this fall and drops turkeys, that will be the end of the Turkey Trot.


Backers of the festival, which has taken place annually for 72 years, have often stated that it’s about more than the ritualistic practice of dropping turkeys, sometimes to their death, out of planes. The festival also features a parade, food, and so on. “Turkey Trot is so much more than turkeys being released from an airplane,” the Yellville Chamber lamented in a statement last fall. “However, to outsiders, that is all it is.” A rhapsodic editorial in the Baxter Bulletin blamed the “flatulent cacophony” of PETA for killing the festival: “Much like the people and practices you decry for the obliteration of various animal species, you killed something without understanding it or attempting to even comprehend the destruction you caused.” And so on.

We’ll see whether fans of the tradition are satisfied with a Turkey Trot without turkeys dropping. No word yet from Dana Woods, who was revealed by various media outlets as the “phantom pilot” who has done the drops in recent years in 2016. The Phantom Pilot Facebook page was defiant when news broke that sponsorship was lost in April. Reacting to the Yellville Chamber’s decision at the time, Woods (I assume) stated: “The Phantom is saddened by this news, but urges others to be respectful of their decisions.” However, he went on, “It’s my understanding that though the chamber will no longer be involved, there are plans in the works to continue the festival. I wouldn’t revise my October schedule just yet.” There have thus far been no new posts since the news broke that the festival can continue with new sponsorship — but without a role for the phantom pilot.

“We treat the turkeys right,” Woods, a Mountain View pharmacist who runs Woods Pharmacy and serves on the Mountain View City Council, explained to the Democrat-Gazette in 2016. “We’re good to them.”

Wild turkeys typically fly only short distances, less than 100 feet. The domesticated birds dropped in Yellville are not in fact wild turkeys, though they are a breed resembling wild turkeys. For the “turkey drop” they’re flung out of planes traveling 70 miles an hour at altitudes of 500 feet or higher. Some of the disoriented birds manage to survive, some meet gruesome ends. The crowd cheers. The survivors who careen into the street are met by rushing festivalgoers eager for a selfie.

In addition to protests from animal rights activists, the practice has also occasionally run afoul of federal regulators. At one point, they switched to dropping them out of a second-story window, but in recent years they’ve gone back to an airplane.

The practice of turkey-dropping is regulated by the Federal Air Administration, which has deemed the it legal as long as the plane has an altitude of at least 500 feet and the birds aren’t dropped directly over the crowd. The turkey drop was not officially part of the Turkey Trot festival, although it was the main event and seems to have continued with the acquiescence of local officials and the festival sponsor. The Yellville Chamber of Commerce often complained about taking the heat for the practice of throwing live animals from the sky, claiming that it was only involved in planning official festival events, setting up booths, and selling merchandise, but “does not have a part in the release of turkeys from airplanes.” The Mid-Marion County Rotary Club has apparently decided that if it’s going to be sponsor, it’s going to quit winking and simply ban the practice from the festival.