How Pardoning Turkeys Became a Major Event

Thanksgiving: an aggressively American event. A day to sit and watch TV, eat copious amounts of food, and end with Black Friday shopping! It’s kind of a weird holiday because of its origins, but people love to gorge themselves, so it is what it is. What food do they gorge themselves on, you may ask? Turkey. Turkeys are a large type of bird, mostly known for Thanksgiving and crossing roads in small towns. Every year, 46 million turkeys die for the purpose of a good all-American feast, except for one to two every year. Why are these turkeys saved, you may ask? The United States President. 

Every year, people look forward to the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. This consists of the President displaying a turkey from the National Turkey Federation, also known as NTF, to be “pardoned” from the yearly turkey slaughter. The turkeys presented are most commonly males who are a part of the Broad Breasted White variety. After this ceremony, every turkey has a different fate. Prior to the 1970s, the turkeys were still killed and eaten. But since then, the turkeys have been sent to live out their lives in many different situations. Some turkeys end up in Disney World, others in Mount Vernon. It depends on the president.

The origin of this feather-filled affair dates back to Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, Lincoln’s son Tad, known to be rambunctious and charismatic, became attached to the turkey delivered to the White House. He affectionately named it Jack and would play with it. The turkey, funnily enough, was delivered for Christmas and not Thanksgiving. Regardless, when Tad found out his pet’s fate, he was distraught. He argued for the turkey’s life and Abraham wrote a reprieve for the turkey on a card and gave it to his son to please him. Jack continued to live with the family until Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Jack’s fate after this is unknown. 

In 1947, Harry Truman started the tradition of the White House receiving turkeys, due to a controversy to save money in times of war, but he did not spare them. The first president to spare a turkey was John F. Kennedy in 1963, days before his assassination. The decision to spare the turkey was made spontaneously. The turkey, after being saved, was sent back to its farm, with JFK saying “Let’s let this one grow.” There were scattered rescues after this, most notably from Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, but these rescues held no applause or public fanfare. Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford were photographed with turkeys, but their fates were unknown. 

By 1981, sending turkeys to farms became the norm for presidents. The first president to use the word “pardon” for a turkey was Ronald Reagan in 1987. Charlie, the first officially pardoned turkey, was sent to live out his days in a petting zoo. In 1989, the tradition became formalized by George H.W. Bush, when he stated “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’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now — and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”

After this, presidential turkey pardoning became a yearly event. Where are the turkeys sent after their sparing? It depends. For 15 prior years, the turkeys were sent to Frying Pan Farm Park, located in Fairfax County, Virginia. But in 2005, Bush said his two turkeys, Marshmallow and Yam, were “a little skeptical about going to a place called Frying Pan Park.” He didn’t blame them for this anxiety and instead sent them to Disneyland to be the Grand Marshals at the Thanksgiving parade. This continued until 2009 when Disney’s turkey caring abilities were called into question, so the turkeys were instead sent to Mount Vernon. This continued for the next three years, until the historical authenticity of turkeys at this residence was mentioned, Washington did not have turkeys and the turkeys were sent to Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia. So on and so forth, the places of turkey residency have changed due to outside forces. Most recently, the turkeys pardoned this year are being sent to farms around America.

But pardoning the turkey doesn’t mean it will have a long and fruitful life. The turkeys presented are bred to be eaten, so their lifespans rarely exceed two years, as compared to wild turkeys, who can live up to five years. The specific breed of turkey most commonly picked (Broad Breasted White) has notable health issues. They are sedentary animals and prone to overheating, so their common health problems are heart disease, respiratory failure and joint damage. Most turkeys documented rarely lived a year after their pardoning, but this has changed. Recently, the turkeys stopped being treated as tourist attractions and instead have been placed in care of turkey specialists, and their lifespan has increased. This is good for the turkeys but not so good for the people who are forced to spend their lives with turkeys, unless they like it. To each their own. 

How are these turkeys and their names chosen? The turkeys are picked from a crowd of 50-80 and they are tested with loud crowds and flashing lights. Whatever turkeys pass this media test get to live. As for naming, there have been many different methods, some presidents opting for their children to choose and some opting for a public survey to display this great country’s democracy. The current system is school children in the president’s home state voting on a name. In the time of turkey pardoning, there is usually one backup in case the turkey acts out and both main turkey and understudy live. Some presidents name both turkeys, like Mac and Cheese (Obama), Peas and Carrots (Trump) and Biscuits and Gravy (George H.W. Bush). 

These turkeys, instead of being basted, are being boosted. Despite their short life spans, the turkeys live with heating, plenty of food and a comfortable bed, which is more than some American citizens get. The turkeys and their pardoning for the crime of … being a turkey, is an American tradition that will not end anytime soon. Gobble gobble!