selective focus photo of red turkey head

Thanksgiving: The Presidential Turkey Pardon


by Mary M. Alward

Every year at Thanksgiving, thousands of turkeys are executed and end up as the main course on the holiday table of people all over the world. But did you know that every year since the Presidency of Harry Truman that one turkey in the United States receives a pardon from the President?

President George Bush pardoned a turkey named Stars and Stripes in 2003 and in 2004 the lucky bird was named Biscuit. When Biscuit received his reprieve, he was sent to live at Kidwell Farm, which is a petting zoo in Frying Pan Park in Herndon, Virginia. No, this is not a joke. It’s the solemn truth and pictures of the pardon ceremony can be seen on the White House website.  How in the world did such a tradition ever get started, you ask? Let’s take a look at the history of the ceremony.

American folklore states that when Abraham Lincoln was President that a live turkey was sent for his family to enjoy on Thanksgiving. Young Tad, Lincoln’s son, became very attached to the bird, took him as a pet and gave him the name, Jack. When it came time for the turkey to be killed for Thanksgiving dinner, Tad burst into a cabinet meeting and begged his father to spare the turkey’s life. President Lincoln scribbled a note of pardon to the bird’s executioner and the turkey’s life was spared.

Though no one knows for sure if this story is true, President Truman took up the tradition in 1947 and pardoned a turkey at Thanksgiving. Every year since, the current President has joined in the fun and performed the turkey pardon ceremony on the White House lawn.

In April of each year the home state of the chairman of the National Turkey Federation hatches 2500 toms. These turkeys are raised solely for the purpose of becoming the main course on someone’s Thanksgiving table. These turkeys are raised in an air conditioned barn where they eat, sleep, gobble and perform their daily toilets. They enjoy the good life until August when they’ve reached a weight of about twenty-five pounds.

At this time six to ten turkeys that have exquisite plumage and an aristocratic carriage are taken from the group and moved to a different barn where they get the best turkey feed that money can buy. Here, they learn to interact with humans so they will be well-behaved during the pardon ceremony.  Animal workers dressed in dark blue spend every day with the turkeys so they will become familiar with the dark blue suits worn by White House staff and guests during the ceremony.  The workers talk and clap to mimic the happenings that take place on the White House lawn when the finalist is pardoned.  They are fed by hand, petted, patted and pampered by their caregivers.

When November arrives, the pampered toms weigh in at about fifty pounds. The winner and his first runner up are chosen and sent off to Washington. The losers are executed, plucked and sent off to a Thanksgiving platter.

When the winner and his companion arrive in Washington the day before the ceremony, they are given accommodation on the uppermost floor of the Hotel Washington, which overlooks the presidential mansion. The next day, they are transported to the White House, where the pardon ceremony will take place on the lawn.

The ceremony consists of a turkey “roast” of sorts. Jokes are told, words are read and spoken and then the President declares the bird pardoned.

When Harry Truman started the ceremony for many years the President picked up the turkey after it was pardoned. However, when Ronald Regan picked up the pardoned turkey when he was in office, the result was comical and disastrous. White turkey feathers were everywhere after the bird became frightened. Since that time the pardoned tom only receives a presidential pat.

At one time the winning turkey and his lucky companion were sent to a historic farm after the ceremony. Today, and for the last decade or so, the turkeys find a home at Kidwell Farms and live out the remainder of their lives. When they die, they are buried in the pasture of a local farm.

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