The Tradition of the President Pardoning a Turkey

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While we go about our Thanksgivings happy and full from our holiday feasts, we tend not to consider the poor turkeys who gave their lives so we could have a tasty meal. Turkey advocates, however, can relax knowing that at least one bird each year gets away without facing the chopping block – the turkey pardoned by the president. The tradition of the head of state pardoning a turkey may seem pretty wacky, but there’s actually quite a lot to this light-hearted affair.

How Pardoning the Turkey Became a Tradition

The turkey pardon is a long-running presidential tradition, but it’s not without some debate over who was the first to do it.  It’s commonly said that President Harry Truman was the first to pick up the practice, though there isn’t any real evidence to support that claim. Others say that Abraham Lincoln inspired the tradition, when he spared the life of a turkey his son had taken a liking to. However, it was John F. Kennedy who performed the first public pardoning of a turkey in 1963, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s, when George H.W. Bush was in office, that the tradition was actually made official.

The Behind-the-Scenes Details

Each November, all we really see is the president say a few words beside a live turkey, but there’s a bit more to the process than that. After all, the turkey has to come from somewhere, and if it’s not going to be eaten, it’ll need a home, too. It turns out that the practice is a collaboration between the White House and the National Turkey Foundation, which helps select the turkeys and get them to the event. Each year, the turkeys tend to come from different farms – 2015’s turkey came from a farm in Modesto, California, for instance. Usually, the NTF chooses two birds, only one of which is shown on TV, and then holds a naming contest. Previous turkey names have included “Mac” and “Cheese,” “Biscuits” and “Gravy,” and “Caramel” and “Popcorn.”

What Happens to Turkeys After They’re Pardoned

After the turkeys have been picked and pardoned by the president, they’re sent off to another farm. While you might imagine that, with their lives spared, the turkeys go on to live long and healthy lives, that’s sadly not the entire case. Because these birds were raised to be eaten, subsisting on diets intended to fatten them up, they are unable to fly and their bones grow too weak to support their body weight. As a result, the turkeys tend to live only a few more years after their pardoning. Nevertheless, you could argue that that’s still a better fate than the other option.

Of all the jobs the president has to do, pardoning the turkey is probably one of the least consequential. Indeed, President Obama acknowledged that he found the whole tradition a little confusing, but admitted that the event does bring some light fun to the often serious matters of the White House. So, the next time you see the president pardoning the turkey on the news, you’ll have a little more understanding about how the whole thing came about – and what really happens behind the scenes.

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