It just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without football, comfort food, and a presidential pardon for a turkey. Watching the President save one lucky turkey each year is one of America’s favorite traditions, but most of us don’t give much thought to it. Sure, we may tune in to see which turkey will be spared from ending up on a Thanksgiving dinner table, but when did this tradition start—and what happens when the ceremony is over and the journalists go home? What does turkey retirement look like? We’ve got the answers to those pressing questions and more.
How did this tradition start?
The act of pardoning a turkey goes back nearly two centuries. According to the White House Historical Association, President Lincoln was the first president to grant clemency to a turkey in 1863. The turkey was intended for Christmas dinner until Lincoln’s son Tad asked his father to spare the bird’s life. Nineteenth-century White House reporter Noah Brooks wrote, “A live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Tad] interceded in behalf of its life…[Tad’s] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared.” While Lincoln was the first to pardon a turkey, the tradition didn’t officially begin with him. Check out these other presidential trivia “facts” that are totally false.
A decade later, Rhode Island poultry dealer Horace Vose began sending turkeys as Thanksgiving and Christmas gifts to the White House. Starting in 1914, Americans of all backgrounds began sending turkeys to the president as gifts and acts of good cheer for the holidays. President Harry Truman was the first U.S. president to receive a turkey from the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation, the group that still provides the yearly turkey for pardoning. However, Truman didn’t pardon his turkeys; he ate them.
So when did things change? Presidents Kennedy and Nixon both chose to send their turkeys to farms, but the first official pardon didn’t come until 1989 from President George Bush. When animal-rights activists showed up to protest the turkey presentation, Bush assured them that the turkey would not be harmed. “‘Reprieve,’ ‘keep him going,’ or ‘pardon’: It’s all the same for the turkey, as long as he doesn’t end up on the president’s holiday table,” he told reporters.
How is the lucky turkey chosen?
Each year, the National Turkey Federation chooses one or two turkeys for the annual presentation. In 2015, President Obama pardoned Honest and Abe, then Tater and Tot in 2016. President Trump pardoned Drumstick and Wishbone in 2017, and when he pardoned Peas in 2018, he joked that Carrots (the backup bird) had “demanded a recount.” For your own quips on the big day, try these funny Thanksgiving quotes to share around the table.
The turkeys are chosen based on their appearance and temperament: They need to be able to tolerate large crowds and loud noises for the pardoning ceremony. Once the birds are chosen, they’re taken to a hotel in the D.C. area for press events during the week before Thanksgiving. Yep, those turkeys have a busier holiday schedule than you!
Where does the turkey go?
The turkeys have been sent to different zoos and farms over the years. This tradition of sending the pardoned turkey to live on a farm began with Mrs. Nixon. According to the White House Historical Association, Patricia Nixon sent the pardoned turkeys to Oxon Hill Children’s Farm. Rosalynn Carter then upheld the tradition and sent them to Evans Farm Inn. First Lady Nancy Reagan accepted the turkey on her husband’s behalf each year and chose a nearby farm or zoo.
President Bush continued the tradition of sending his turkeys to a farm. “But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy,” he told reporters in 1989. “He’s granted a Presidential pardon as of right now—and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.” George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, was another post-pardon haven for turkeys in the Obama era, but that stopped when they were deemed not “historically accurate” to Washington’s time.
Since 2016, the pardoned turkeys have been sent to Gobbler’s Rest, an area of Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, where they’re cared for by veterinarians and vet students. Each year, the college hosts an open house for the public to meet the special turkeys, so stop by and ask the experts about the things your veterinarian won’t tell you.
Despite the expert care and plush accommodations at Gobbler’s Rest, most turkeys don’t stay long. This is because the turkeys rarely live past a few months after receiving their pardons.
Why such a short life?
Turkeys who are bred for Thanksgiving dinner have a much shorter life expectancy than wild turkeys. This is because Americans prefer a large bird with plenty of meat for carving and enjoying. That means that farmers must feed their turkeys a high-protein diet to increase their weight. A turkey’s organs, however, are not equipped to support the extra weight, so turkeys who are bred to be eaten usually live for months rather than years. While their life expectancies have improved in recent years—and Tater “exceeded all expectations” and lived for two years—the pardoned turkeys usually do not see another Thanksgiving. The veterinarians at Virginia Tech explain that this is to be expected in domestic turkeys.
Now that you’re a turkey-tradition expert, you can get back to your planning. Need some inspiration? Follow this menu to host the best Thanksgiving ever.