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Why Does the President Pardon Turkeys?

by Countable | 11.23.16

President Obama pardoned two turkeys on Wednesday, declaring "yes we cran!" in his final turn presiding over the White House Thanksgiving tradition. Obama said, however, that he’ll continue pardoning turkeys long after he leaves the White House. “No way I’m cutting this habit cold-turkey,” he said to groans at the Rose Garden Wednesday afternoon.

The turkeys, Tater and Tot, were chosen from a flock of 20 turkeys raised in Iowa for the presidential ceremony and travelled to the White House for their pardons on Wednesday. They even practiced standing on podiums before they arrived in D.C.,

The White House has provided brief biographies of Tater and Tot, noting that the former loves the song "Me Too" by Megan Trainor and “walks with a swagger,” while the latter is more of a Justin Timberlake fan (he loves “Can’t Stop the Feeling”) and he “walks with a relaxed saunter.”

Why do presidents pardon turkeys?

According to the White House Historical Association, Abraham Lincoln was actually the first president to pardon a turkey, although the tradition didn’t start until much later in U.S. history. Apparently, someone brought a live turkey to the Lincoln White House for Christmas in 1863, but Lincoln’s son Tad was so horrified by the idea of killing and eating the bird, that the president decided to spare the bird’s life.

Beginning in the 1873, "Poultry King" Horace Vose sent turkeys to the White House every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas for the First Family to enjoy until his death in 1913. But the Vose turkeys, which the WHHA notes “never weighed fewer than 30 pounds and sometimes topped the scales at 50 pounds,” were already “slaughtered and dressed.”

It wasn’t until Harry S. Truman took office that uneaten turkeys became a tradition at the White House. In the wake of World War II, Truman had instituted an unofficial set of food-saving policies to help the U.S. and Europe recover from the war, including "Meatless Tuesdays," “Eggless Mondays” and, yes, “Poultryless Thursdays.” The latter infuriated the poultry lobby in the U.S. and farmers started sending birds to the White House in protest. Many pin the origins of the turkey pardon to a gobbler sent to Truman for Christmas, 1947, just after he ended the policy.

But the Truman library argues that he never actually pardoned the turkey, he just took a photo with one. Truman apparently even joked at the time that he could send it home to his family in Missouri where it would feed 25 of his relatives, according to CBS News.

From President John F. Kennedy forward, presidents have held similar photo-ops with donated live turkeys every year. But it wasn’t until George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, that the term "pardon" was used and the tradition was truly born.

Now, two turkeys are sent to the White House annually, with one chosen as the official turkey to be pardoned. President Obama was the first president to pardon both turkeys when he took office in 2009, after some pleading by his daughters Sasha and Malia.

Dear Virginia, there is no beautiful farm full of pardoned White House turkeys

After their pardons, past turkeys have either gone to a farm near Mount Vernon, Disneyland or Disneyworld.

But if you’re hoping to make a trip to go see the pardoned White House turkeys, you might want to save your money. CNN reported in 2013 that all of the previous years’ turkeys at the farm near Mount Vernon were dead. They’re bred to be roasted and they aren’t build to carry all that extra weight for very long. And NPR’s Domenico Montanaro reported yesterday that Courage, the first turkey pardoned by Obama in 2009, who was sent to Disneyland in California, has also died.

What about Tater and Tot?

Rather than going off to a farm or Big Thunder Mountain, Tater and Tot will be the first White House turkeys to go off to college after their pardons. They are heading to "Gobbler’s Rest" at Virginia Tech, “where they will be cared for by veterinarians and students of Virginia Tech’s Animal and Poultry Sciences Department,” according to the White House.

Happy Thanksgiving!

— Sarah Mimms
Photo via the National Archives


Written by Countable

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