Photo from the White House

History of the annual White House turkey pardon

According to the National Turkey Federation, every Thanksgiving, nearly 88% of Americans eat turkey. Most don’t bat an eye towards feasting on the holiday bird, but have you ever stopped to ask yourself, “ What did the turkey ever do wrong?” In a long-standing annual tradition, one lucky turkey is granted an official pardon from the president of the United States, absolving them (and one other lucky turkey) from the dinner table.

For years, historians have disagreed as to who officially started the yearly event. Some argue it was President Truman, while the White House Historical Association (WHHA) says it was Lincoln. Based on a report from a White House reporter, written in 1863, the first unofficial turkey “pardon” was granted at Christmas time by Honest Abe himself. The reporter had noted, “a live turkey had been brought home for dinner.” Nearby, was Lincoln’s youngest son Tad who felt bad for the bird. So, he took it upon himself to act as the turkey’s lawyer and pleaded with his father. The president, after hearing the case, “granted clemency” to the animal.

A few years later, turkeys started to be given to presidents as gifts. In 1873, Horace Vose, a Rhode Island poultry supplier, started sending large, well-fed birds to the White House. Vose spent the next 40 years personally supplying turkeys for the first family every Thanksgiving and Christmas, until his death in 1913. Vose’s chosen gifts would never “weigh less than 30 pounds” and were sometimes an enormous 50 pounds, according to the WHHA.

In November 1947, the first official turkey “presentation” took place on the White House lawn. Prior to the holidays that year, tension was tight between the Truman administration and the poultry industry; the government was dead set against the traditional meal, pushing an effort to instill “poultry-less Thursdays.” This, suffice to say, did not sit well with the public, especially when it was later pointed out that the “three big turkey holidays” (Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day) all happened to fall on Thursday that year. The White House soon ended the “no-poultry Thursday” policy. And, that December, the turkey gifted to President Truman established the yearly news event still covered today.

During that annual event, the official pardon only happened on occasion. During 1963’s ceremony, President Kennedy declared “keep him going,” referring to cooking that year’s turkey. First ladies Patricia Nixon and Rosalynn Carter once accepted turkeys on their respective husbands’ behalf, personally choosing to send the turkeys to farms instead of eating them. This pardoning practice then became the norm following Reagan in 1981. It was not until his successor George H.W. Bush, however, that the presented bird was granted an “official presidential pardon.” Bush later joked, “This fine tom turkey will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy.”

Today, the birds chosen to participate in the event are not just exceptional turkeys. Every year, a different state is selected to raise that year’s flock. For the most recent ceremony in 2018, 50 turkeys were hatched into this “presidential flock.” Those newly hatched chicks are under the direct supervision of the chairman of the National Turkey Federation and their owner, according to the White House.  Raised in the same manner as commercially packaged turkeys, they’re “protected from weather extremes and predators, roam free-range and have constant access to food and water.” While still young, these birds are then trained to handle the stress of the pardoning event. They become “acclimated to the sound of a crowd, bright camera lights, and learn to stand comfortably still on a table.” The turkeys also become local icons, making stops in the surrounding area with their handlers to interact with people.

Eventually, two finalist turkeys are chosen and given a first-class trip to D.C. where they’re pampered. Little do these turkeys know, though, that by the time they get to Washington, the public is voting on their fate. While the President has the ultimate power to pardon anyone they like, this is the one instance where the power of the pardon lies with the people. And even though only one turkey is ultimately given a pardon, both go on to live very comfortably.

It’s not exactly set in stone where the turkeys go following their three minutes of fame. In the past, some have gone on to live on farms and even in a Disneyland petting zoo. Last year’s turkeys, Peas and Carrots, were sent to live out the rest of their lives at Virginia Tech’s “Gobblers Rest” display. There, they’re cared for by the university’s Animal and Poultry Sciences Department. Students and veterinarians there monitor them carefully to ensure long and healthy lives for the “National Thanksgiving Turkey” and the runner up.

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