XLV: The World’s Luckiest Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! And to those of you who come from parts of the world where Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated, happy regular old day of the week!

We here in the U. S. of A. (and also Canada and some Caribbean islands) have a very magical holiday called Thanksgiving which involves getting together with our whole families to eat ridiculous amounts of food in celebration of a really poorly documented feast that the Pilgrims may or may not have had back in 1621 when they arrived on this continent. Naturally, we celebrate with decorations depicting pilgrims and Native Americans in clothes they never would have worn, eating food they never would have eaten, because historical accuracy is super important.

There’s also this thing where the POTUS gives a special pardon to two lucky turkeys.

It all started back in 1947 when the Poultry and Egg National Board started a tradition of presenting the President of the United States (then Harry Truman) with a prize turkey to grace his table at Thanksgiving dinner. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan jokingly pardoned his Thanksgiving turkey to deflect questions about whether he would give a presidential pardon to Oliver North, who had illegally sold weapons to Iran during the Iran-Contra Affair. A year later, Reagan’s successor George H. W. Bush pardoned the traditional Thanksgiving turkey given to him by the Poultry and Egg National Board and National Turkey Federation and made the pardoning of the turkey an official Thanksgiving tradition.

The selection of the turkey which will be pardoned by the president is a rigorous process. At birth, 80 turkeys are selected from the farm of the National Turkey Federation chairperson. These 80 elite turkeys (usually of the Broad Breasted White variety) are trained to be accustomed to loud noises, large crowds, and bright lights, and as Thanksgiving nears, they are narrowed down to 20 finalists, and eventually the two largest and best-behaved turkeys are chosen, and both receive a presidential pardon. Traditionally, the White House staff is tasked with naming them, and they have a pretty interesting record with turkey names: Katie and Zach, Stars and Stripes, Biscuit and Gravy, Marshmallow and Yam, Flyer and Fryer, May and Flower, Pumpkin and Pecan, Courage and Carolina, Apple and Cider, Liberty and Peace, Cobbler and Gobbler, Popcorn and Caramel, and this year’s birds, Cheese and Mac.

The pardoned birds are allowed to live out the rest of their lives in peace without fear of ever being eaten. As of 2005, all pardoned birds are sent to Disneyland to act as the Honorary Grand Marshal of  the Thanksgiving Day Parade (from 1989-2005 they were sent to Frying Pan Park, a showcase farm in Virginia). But sadly, these birds don’t have very long lives. They are raised to be eaten rather than for longevity, so they often have a lot of health issues, especially those related to obesity, such as heart disease, joint damage, and respiratory distress. Liberty is the only turkey to live more than a year after being pardoned.

However, dying of natural causes or euthanasia is probably a little more pleasant (or at least less painful) than being butchered to be eaten, so in the end, it seems the president really has done a service for these few lucky birds.

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