One of the weirdest traditions in US presidential history is undoubtedly the “Presidential Turkey Pardoning” ceremony that happens every year before Thanksgiving. Where did it come from? Who started it? And most importantly - what actually happens to the turkeys who are being pardoned?
Apparently the National Turkey Federation (a real thing, for real) started giving turkeys to the White House back in 1947, but those were definitely for eating and were meant to sustain the tradition of turkeys as the centerpiece for the Thanksgiving dinner. It seems like the awkward pardoning ceremony started (and is still going on) for the same reason.
In 1963 President John F. Kennedy received a turkey with a sign around its neck that read, "GOOD EATING, MR. PRESIDENT!", to which he responded: "We'll just let this one grow," thus granting the first ever unofficial presidential Thanksgiving turkey pardoning. The official tradition was started by George H.W. Bush only in 1989.
A free trip to the capitol - luxury hotel included
Since then the bizarre tradition has been going on pretty much the same every year: two huge turkeys are chosen to go to Washington, usually they are given silly names like “Mac” and “Cheese” (2014), “Peas” and “Carrot” (2018), or “Peanut Butter” and “Jelly” (2021). This year it’s “Chocolate” and “Chip”.
The birds stay at a luxury hotel (again, we are not making this up) before being “pardoned” by the president at the White House. Officially, only one of them gets pardoned by the president, but they both actually get spared.
Over 200 million turkeys are produced each year for human consumption in the United States alone, and roughly 1 in 5 are killed for Thanksgiving meals. Which means the pardoned turkeys have to be very lucky to get picked.
What happens after the pardoning ceremony?
So what actually happens to them after they get pardoned (for not really doing anything wrong, might we add)? Well, for starters, turkeys who are grown to be eaten are fattened up and can’t fly due to their unnaturally huge size.
Their fate after the pardon is sometimes unknown since they get sent to places not equipped to deal with their special needs, and unfortunately from the little we do know - their lifespans are very short, even after being lucky enough to avoid the dinner table.
Last year, a dozen celebrities including Joaquin Phoenix, Billie Eilish, and Ricky Gervais signed a petition requesting President Joe Biden to allow the selected birds to go live at a farm sanctuary, where their special needs could be met and they would "live out their lives in peace and safety." The petition was ignored.
This year’s pardoned birds will go to North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where hopefully they will live the rest of their short lives in comfort.