Tina Finocchiaro likes thinking back to the day last summer when Popeye the peacock stopped traffic. She heard honking outside her home in Clarksboro, Gloucester County, and saw cars gridlocked in both directions along the normally empty West Cohawkin Road.
Then a bright flash of blue, and iridescent feathers flickering between bumpers.
“There was Popeye, just walking straight down the center yellow line,” she said. “Not walking, sauntering. But that’s the way he was. He was a renegade."
More than that, Popeye was the mascot of Finocchiaro’s small community. He lived on Finocchiaro’s property, but it seemed there was no one who hadn’t seen the wild peacock prancing through a yard, tapping on a patio door with his beak, or perching on a car.
Then the unthinkable happened: Someone shot Popeye in August, and days later the beloved bird was put to sleep. Police launched an investigation, but no suspects emerged.
Meanwhile, the outpouring of grief surprised even Finocchiaro, who found herself consoling kids and adults.
“I saw how sad the children were,” said Finocchiaro, 68.
So she decided to do something about it.
Clarksboro is a mostly rural town of about 2,600 people, sitting 10 minutes from the Delaware River and about 15 miles south of Camden. Finocchiaro’s family has lived in the area for generations, with Finocchiaro and her husband, Philip, raising three children. The community remains a mix of farms, forest, and modest family homes.
When Finocchiaro’s parents lived on the property, they were often visited by a flock of wild peacocks that came out of the woods to wreak havoc. Eventually, neighbors got fed up and called animal control.
“Because they were loud at night, which they are, and pooping in driveways, which they will, and pecking at cars, which they do," Finocchiaro said.
Officers captured the birds, but like a plumed E.T., one was left behind. And when Finocchiaro and her husband moved into the home about a year and a half ago, there he was.
A lifelong animal lover with three rescue dogs, Finocchiaro bonded with him. Popeye liked shiny things, cat food, and eating all the blueberries from the bush in her yard. He ran with a pack of wild turkeys, though they ostracized him during mating season.
Popeye roamed for miles, so far that residents in towns outside of Clarksboro developed their own names for him: Petey, Mikey, and Kevin. Children and adults were delighted to see Popeye strut by, fanning his tail feathers with their shimmering eyes.
“The first time I met him, he was strolling along the back end of my property,” said Jean Lucas, of nearby Mickleton. “His tail was wide open, just showing off.”
Then one day in mid-August, a neighbor saw Popeye hobbling along the road toward home and called Finocchiaro. Thinking he’d been hit by a car, she had a friend take him to a veterinarian. The doctor hoped to operate, but discovered a severely infected wound on Popeye’s leg. And looking closer, something else: an embedded bullet.
Neighbors contributed more than $3,000 to a GoFundMe campaign for his medical care. But in the end, nothing could be done and Popeye was put to sleep.
East Greenwich police asked the public for information about the shooting, but no suspects were identified, and the case apparently went cold. Police last week did not return requests for comment. The money raised for Popeye’s vet bills is now a reward for information about his killer.
Finocchiaro believes the killing was an accident, maybe by someone who only meant to scare Popeye away. She still hopes the perpetrator will come forward and apologize.
In the days after Popeye 's death, Finocchiaro realized how much he meant to the community, including to people she’d never met. She knew what she had to do.
“I said, ‘I’m gonna get us a peacock,’” Finocchiaro recalled.
It took a few months, but Finocchiaro got two. Anthony Putorti, a Woolwich farm owner who keeps more than a dozen peacocks on his land, learned of her quest and donated two birds.
In November, a peacock and peahen named Adam and Eve moved into an enclosure Finocchiaro and her husband built on their property with a covered area and perches for sleeping. The fencing is decorated with photographs and a memorial plaque reading “Popeye: Forever in our hearts.”
Finocchiaro said she and her husband planned to expand the habitat to give Adam and Eve more space. But she was fearful of letting them wander as Popeye used to.
“Find me the shooter, then they can roam free!" she said.
But the birds aren’t Finocchiaro’s pets. They belong to everyone, she said, like the neighbors who leave bags of pet food on her doorstep for them. The birds also eat mealworms she buys online, as well as insects, corn, seeds, or spaghetti and meatballs.
“They came from an Italian family," Finocchiaro joked.
More than 50 people attended an open house last month to introduce Adam and Eve to the town, and in the following weeks visitors stopped by most every day to see them. Finocchiaro intended to put more benches outside the pen next year so that she and others can sit and admire the birds.
But her plan was upended one afternoon late last week when her husband went to feed the peacocks and they dashed out from their new coop and into the woods. Finocchiaro has since seen them roosting high in the trees together, not far from home.
She worries that with Popeye’s killer still on the loose, maybe they would have been safer back on their farm. She hopes they just want some time to explore and will eventually wander back in search of snacks — just as Popeye would.
“I still catch myself looking over toward the woods to see if he’s there,” she said. “I miss him so much. He was a good bird.”