National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation
National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation is a ceremony that takes place at the White House every year shortly before Thanksgiving. The President of the United States is presented with a live domestic turkey, usually of the Broad Breasted White variety. Generally the National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board are involved. The ceremony dates back to the 1940s, with presidents occasionally sparing the bird presented to them; since 1989, during George H. W. Bush's first Thanksgiving as president, it has been an annual tradition for the president to "pardon" the turkey.
On various occasions, turkeys had been donated to the President as gifts from private citizens. Henry Vose, a Rhode Island turkey farmer, presented a turkey to the President each year from 1873 until his death in 1913.
The official presentation of a turkey to the President each year began in 1947 under President Harry Truman, and many sources erroneously attribute the origin of the turkey pardon to Truman. However, the Truman Library says that no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs or other contemporary records are known to exist that specify that he ever "pardoned" a turkey; there are records that he publicly admitted to eating at least some of them. The Eisenhower Presidential Library says documents in their collection reveal that President Dwight Eisenhower ate the birds presented to him during his two terms. President John F. Kennedy spontaneously spared a turkey on November 18, 1963, just four days before his assassination. The bird was wearing a sign reading, "Good Eating Mr. President." Kennedy returned the massive 55-pound turkey to the farm, saying "we'll let this one grow." At least one headline in the Los Angeles Times referred to it as a pardon, but Kennedy did not refer to it as such. Likewise, Richard Nixon also spared some of the turkeys given to him during his time as President.
The first President on record issuing a "pardon" to his turkey was Ronald Reagan, who pardoned a turkey named Charlie and sent him to a petting zoo in 1987. The reference to it being a pardon was in response to criticism over the Iran-Contra affair, in which Reagan had been questioned on whether or not he would consider pardoning Oliver North (who had yet to be tried for his involvement in the affair); Reagan conjured the turkey pardon as a joke to deflect those questions. Reagan did not pardon a turkey in his final year as President in 1988, but his successor, George H. W. Bush, instituted the turkey pardon as a permanent part of the presentation beginning his first year in office, 1989, in response to the protests of animal rights activists. Since then, at least one of the turkeys presented to the President has been taken to a farm where it will live out the rest of its natural life. For many years the turkeys were sent to Frying Pan Farm Park in Fairfax County, Virginia. From 2005 to 2009, the pardoned turkeys were sent to either the Disneyland Resort in California or the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, where they served as the honorary grand marshals of Disney's Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, the turkeys were sent to live at Mount Vernon, the estate and home of George Washington; Mount Vernon stopped displaying and accepting the turkeys due to the fact that they violated the estate's policy of maintaining its own historical accuracy (Washington never farmed turkeys). The 2013, 2014 and 2015 turkeys were sent to Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia, the estate of former Virginia governor (and prolific turkey farmer) Westmoreland Davis. Virginia Polytechnic Institute will house the 2016 pardoned turkey.
The turkeys are raised in the same fashion as turkeys designated for slaughter and are fed a grain-heavy diet of fortified corn and soybeans to increase the birds' size. A flock of approximately 80 birds, typically from the farm of the current National Turkey Federation chairperson, are randomly selected "at birth" from thousands for pardoning and are trained to handle loud noises, flash photography and large crowds; from the flock of 80, the 20 largest and best-behaved are chosen and eventually narrowed down to two finalists, whose names are chosen by the White House staff. Because most Thanksgiving turkeys are bred and raised for size at the expense of longer life, they are prone to health problems associated with obesity such as heart disease, respiratory failure and joint damage. As a result of these factors, most of the pardoned turkeys have very short lives after their pardoning, frequently dying within a year of being pardoned; for comparison, a wild or heritage turkey has a lifespan of at least five years.
List of turkeys pardoned
- 2000: "Jerry the Turkey", a 45-pounder hatched 2000-06-05 near Barron in Wisconsin. The pardoned turkey (the eighth in Clinton's presidency) and its unnamed alternate were both sent to Kidwell Farm's petting zoo in Herndon, Virginia.
George W. Bush Presidency
- 2001: Liberty and his back-up Freedom, so named in the wake of 9/11 attacks. They weighed 48 and 52 pounds, respectively.
- 2002: Katie, the first-ever female turkey pardoned. The 30-pound bird bred by Ron Prestage, Chairman of the National Turkey Federation, as well as alternate bird Zack. The turkeys were named after Prestage's children.
- 2003: Stars and backup Stripes. 
- 2004: Biscuits and backup Gravy.
- 2005: Marshmallow and alternate bird Yam, raised in Henning, Minnesota. Beginning in 2005 pardoned birds were sent to Disneyland to live, and serve as the "honorary grand marshal" of that year's thanksgiving day parade, following concerns raised by animal rights groups that the birds had not survived for long. For the previous 15 years they had been sent to Frying Pan Farm Park near Herndon, Virginia. Names were generally chosen in online votes taken at the White House website.
- 2006: Flyer and alternate bird Fryer, raised in Missouri.
- 2007: 45-pound May and backup Flower, raised in Indiana.
- 2008: 45-pound backup "vice" turkey named Pumpkin, after the number one turkey Pecan fell ill the night before the ceremony. Both turkeys were allowed to live.
- 2009: Courage, a 45-pound turkey provided by the National Turkey Federation, and alternate bird Carolina, raised in North Carolina.
- 2010: Apple, a 45-pound turkey from Foster Farms in Modesto, California; and alternate bird Cider. Both had died of natural causes by Thanksgiving 2011.
- 2011: A 45-pound turkey named Liberty and an alternate bird named Peace, both of which were raised in Willmar, Minnesota. Peace survived until shortly before Thanksgiving 2012, when he was euthanized. Liberty survived until being euthanized April 26, 2013 at the age of 2.
- 2012: Cobbler and Gobbler, both 40-pound turkeys from Rockingham County, Virginia. Gobbler died suddenly in February 2013; Cobbler was euthanized on August 22 of that year.
- 2013: Popcorn, a 38 pounds (17 kg) turkey from Badger, Minnesota. Popcorn won an online contest over its identically sized stablemate Caramel, which was also spared. Popcorn died of heatstroke in summer 2014. Caramel survived much longer; it outlived one of the next year's turkeys and did not die until October 2015, spending most of its two years of life at Morven Park as the companion of a brown heritage turkey named Franklin.
- 2014: Cheese and alternate bird Mac, both of which were 48 pounds (22 kg) turkeys from Fort Recovery, Ohio. Mac died of suspected heatstroke in July 2015; Cheese remains alive as of November 2015, with the surviving Franklin as its companion.
- 2015: Abe, a 43 pounds (20 kg) turkey again presented by Foster Farms. The alternate was 42 pounds (19 kg) Honest. Morven Park reported that both were still alive as of November 2016.
- 2016: Tater and Tot, 40-pound and 39½-pound (18 kg respectively) turkeys from Storm Lake, Iowa.
A number of U.S. states have similar turkey-pardoning events, including Minnesota. The pardoning ceremonies have also been extended to other holidays; for instance, Erie County, New York's county executive facetiously pardons a butter lamb during Holy Week.
In The West Wing episode "Shibboleth," when C.J. learns the alternate turkey is to be slaughtered, she appeals to President Bartlet to save it. He points out that he cannot pardon a turkey as it had committed no crime and he has no "judicial jurisdiction over birds". So, he drafts the turkey into military service to spare its life. In real life, both the turkey and the alternate are spared.
The film Free Birds centers around a turkey who was pardoned, then is recruited to go back in time in an attempt to change history and remove turkey from the menu of the first Thanksgiving dinner at Plymouth Colony.
President Lyndon Johnson accepting a non-pardoned turkey, 1967.
President Richard Nixon spares the turkey presented to him, 1971.
President Gerald Ford accepting a non-pardoned turkey, 1975.
President Ronald Reagan issues the first one-off "pardon" to Charlie, 1987.
President George H.W. Bush at the 3rd annual pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey, 1991.
President Bill Clinton at the 11th annual pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey, 1999.
President George W. Bush at the 20th annual pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey, 2008.
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