- Associated Press - Friday, April 6, 2018

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The longtime sponsor of a northern Arkansas festival that included dropping live turkeys from a low-flying airplane to crowds below said Friday it would no longer organize or promote the annual gathering.

Yellville Chamber of Commerce board member Lesley Edmonds said a flap had continued since the 72nd Annual Turkey Trot last October. She didn’t know whether other organizers might come forward.

“For many years, we have enjoyed the days of a family-friendly festival that served as a homecoming; an occasion every fall to gather and enjoy a parade, live music, crafts, festival food, and camaraderie,” the board said in a statement posted on its Facebook page. “We feel we can no longer deliver the same experience.”

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The tradition of a “Phantom Pilot” dropping live birds to crowds below began 50 years ago, but protests mounted in recent years.

“Our goal is to help our local businesses grow and the festival has been more detrimental to them than prosperous,” the board’s statement said.

The Federal Aviation Administration has investigated but said the pilot was not running afoul of aviation rules. Regardless of whether any laws were broken, animal rights activists wanted the turkey drops stopped.

“We hope to speak to people involved with the event to try to find a way to promote businesses in the community some other way,” Gene Baur, the president of Farm Sanctuary, said Friday. “Dropping birds out of an airplane is unacceptable and outside the norms of society.”

Baur’s group said it had taken in four birds that survived last year’s fall.

Arkansas is one of the nation’s top turkey-producing states and the festival, coming six weekends before Thanksgiving, has drawn thousands.

Early on, live birds were dropped from the courthouse roof, but at least 50 years ago the birds were taken aloft in an airplane. After animal rights advocates offered a $5,000 reward for the pilot’s arrest, flights stopped for a time before resuming in 2015.

Whether wild turkeys can fly was the subject of a “WKRP in Cincinnati” episode in 1978 after a radio station stunt involving birds dropped from a helicopter went horribly awry. In the wild, they typically only flutter from tree top to tree top rather than fly long distances.

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