Every year, just before Thanksgiving, the President of the United States is given a turkey by the National Turkey Federation, and he pardons it.
But what happens to the turkey after that?
Why does the president get a turkey anyway?
Horace Vose, a turkey farmer from Rhode Island, donated a turkey to the president every year from 1873 until his death in 1913. After that, there was no regular White House turkey donation until 1947. This time, the gift wasn’t given as a sign of respect but as part of a lobbying effort.
In 1947, Harry S. Truman’s administration introduced “Poultryless Thursdays.” Unfortunately, that year, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year all fell on a Thursday, so the National Poultry and Egg Board was outraged.
Eventually, a truce was called in early November, and turkeys were allowed back on the menu. While the controversy might be behind them, the National Poultry and Egg Board, together with the National Turkey Federation, continued to give the president a turkey just before Thanksgiving.
Turkeys were initially spared but not pardoned
To begin with, the presidents ate the turkeys rather than pardoning them. But in a rather roundabout way, turkey pardoning crept into the process.
On November 19, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was given a turkey with a sign reading “Good Eating Mr. President.” But Kennedy returned the bird to the farm with the comment of “we’ll let this one grow.” He didn’t officially pardon it, but newspapers such as The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times referred to it as a pardon.
Richard Nixon also spared two during his time as president.
The first pardon
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan was asked about pardoning Oliver North in the Iran-Contra affair. He made a joke about pardoning the turkey as a way of deflecting political questions.
But it was in 1989 that George H.W. Bush gave out the first official pardon with the words: “But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy – he has been granted a Presidential pardon as of right now.”
As the custom grew more popular, two turkeys were taken to the White House – one star turkey to be pardoned, and another to act as a standby, in case the first turkey is unwell.
Where do the turkeys go when they’re pardoned?
In the beginning, the first turkeys to be spared were merely returned to the farm that they came from. First Lady Rosalynn Carter went one step further by sending the turkeys to petting zoos, but it was done quietly, with no official ceremony.
Ronald Reagan sent his turkeys to petting zoos as well, and over the years, the destinations changed.
To begin with, the birds ended up at Kidwell Farm, located in the disturbingly named Frying Pan Farm Park in Fairfax County, Virginia. However, between 2005 and 2009, the turkeys were sent to either Disneyland in California or Walk Disney World in Florida, where they were included in the Thanksgiving Day parade.
Between 2010-2012, the turkeys were sent to Mount Vernon, the former estate of George Washington. However, Washington had never farmed turkeys, so the estate stopped taking them after a few years to maintain historical accuracy for their attraction.
The turkeys from 2013-2015 were sent to Morven Park in Virginia, the estate for a former turkey farmer. From 2016-2019, the turkeys were sent to Virginia Tech due to their poultry science program. The turkey from 2020 was sent to Iowa State University.
Treated like royalty
According to a Huffington Post article from 2012, the turkeys “will spend a couple of days in a suite at the luxurious W Hotel near the White House. After their pardon, the turkeys are normally transported by horse-drawn carriage to George Washington’s estate where they ”“ along with a camel named Aladdin ”“ become part of the Mount Vernon Christmas display.”
It would be nice to think that the turkeys, once pardoned and treated like royalty, go on to live long, happy lives in their new retirement home. Sadly, that’s rarely the case.
Not bred to live
According to the Huffington Post, a turkey in the wild will grow to about 18 pounds and may live for up to 12 years. However, turkeys bred for Thanksgiving dinner tables are fattened up to such an extent that their lifespans are reduced to just two years.
When John Stossel of ABC News went to see the turkeys housed at Kidwell Farm, he was disappointed to find the turkey pens empty. Farmer Marlo Acock told ABC News that, in general, “their flesh has grown so fast and their heart and their bones and their other organs can’t catch up.” Acock went on to say that most of the presidential turkeys only last a few months, and one unlucky bird died within one day of arriving.
Judy Pederson, a spokeswoman for Frying Pan Park, noted that the birds arrive at the farm “relatively mature,” so their retirement is a short one, given their reduced life spans.
Just one Thanksgiving
When pardoning the two turkeys in 2001, George W. Bush said: “This will not be their last Thanksgiving.” However, the health of these commercially farmed turkeys means that they frequently die in less than a year.
In 2012, the Huffington Post ran an article on Peace, who was pardoned in November 2011 then had to be put to sleep just before Thanksgiving 2012 because he was “extremely ill.” The article goes on to point out that neither Apple nor Cider, pardoned in 2010, made it to Thanksgiving 2011. They developed respiratory infections and a foot disorder that meant they struggled to walk.
And while getting a free trip to Disneyland or Walt Disney World might be every child’s dream, it certainly wasn’t great for the turkeys. In 2009, animal rights group Farm Sanctuary objected to the birds being sent there: “Because modern commercially bred turkeys have been genetically manipulated for decades, they are prone to serious health issues that require specialized care. Disney’s track record shows that it simply is not able to provide the level of care necessary to keep these birds healthy, happy and comfortable for years.”
Certainly, the turkeys sent to Disneyland or Walt Disney World died within the year.
The turkey who lived
However, Courage the turkey, who was pardoned in 2009, lived to be over six years old at Disneyland, passing away in 2016. Speaking to NPR, a spokeswoman for Disneyland said: “Because he was under our care and fed a balanced diet, he slimmed down quite a bit and lived quite a healthy life here at the resort.”
So while, for many, the presidential pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey is a heartwarming tradition, the reality of commercial farming means that it’s rarely a happy ending for the turkey.