The Sad Truth Behind Every Presidentially Pardoned Turkey

Did the headline give it away? Are you peeking from between your fingers because you really didn’t want to know this? Spoiler alert: no bird in this story gets out alive.

Usually, a presidential pardon means something. Usually, it’s the gold standard that lets someone off the hook and sends him or her off to live a long, happy, carefree life. That’s also the mental image we’re encouraged to have each year when the president takes time from his busy schedule during Thanksgiving week to “pardon” a turkey.

It’s a little boost to the spirit, knowing that a single lucky turkey managed what 46 million could not. It feels like one small drop of cosmic justice in an otherwise soul-crushing universe. That lottery winning bird gets to live.

That’s true, for a while. Then it’s not true anymore.

As U.S. News and World Report revealed recently, all the turkeys President Obama has pardoned so far are dead now.

  • 2012 – Gobbler (died February 2013) and Cobbler (died August 2013)
  • 2011 – Liberty (euthanized 2013, but the longest living pardoned turkey at 2-years-old) and Peace (euthanized just before Thanksgiving 2012)
  • 2010 – Apple and Cider (both dead by 2011)
  • 2009 – Courage and Carolina died within months of their pardons, precise 2010 date unknown

This dire news isn’t a partisan knock against President Obama. This phenomenon happened during the Bush years, too. Rather, it represents the sad reality behind the health and fortitude of today’s domestically raised turkeys.

The History Behind Turkey Pardons

Turkeys have been presented to presidents since the 19th century. By 1947, during the Truman administration, the National Turkey Federation assumed the role of official supplier of presidential turkeys. Typically, the first family ate them, though not always.

Perhaps it will not surprise you to learn that the first presidents known to have spared turkeys’ lives in the early days were Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Lincoln acquiesced to the request of his little boy, Tad, that the turkey they’d received be permitted to live. In 1963, Kennedy sent the turkey he’d been given back to the farm it came from, saying “We’ll just let this one grow.”

By the Nixon administration, the live birds went off to petting farms but it wasn’t until 1989 that President George H.W. Bush started the current practice of formally “pardoning” a turkey.

Why Has No Pardoned Turkey in Recent Memory Lived to Meet its Successor?

Every year, two turkeys travel to Washington. One becomes the star attraction, the other is the understudy. Did you ever stop to wonder why it’s a necessary precaution to have two birds available for the pardoning ceremony, and why they all seem to die within a year of their pardon?

Some believe it’s because the modern day domestic turkey is so woefully unhealthy. The poultry industry has spent the last 40 years or so selectively hand-breeding turkeys to develop only the ones possessing very large breasts. Yes, big breasts rule, even here. These turkeys are, in fact, known as Broad Breasted Whites.

Our turkeys have become so unwieldy that they cannot walk properly. They’ve been bred to rocket to their full buxomness in a mere 16-19 weeks, giving their spindly little baby legs no time to catch up, developmentally. Domestic turkeys are now so big they can’t even mate without human assistance. Every female must be artificially inseminated to reproduce.

Worst of all, turkeys are not particularly hardy anymore. Their bodies weren’t meant to get so big so quickly, and it almost inevitably causes physical problems. Despite a fleeting lifespan before slaughter of only 6 months or so, they routinely suffer from heart attacks, organ failure, and heart, lung and liver problems. An estimated 10 percent of factory farmed turkeys don’t survive long enough to make it to the slaughterhouse.

Hence the need for a presidential turkey understudy. There’s legitimate concern that one of them might die. For the photo op, the White House needs a second turkey that’s ready to go on, if necessary.

Maybe it’s time to stop “pardoning” turkeys and start taking a closer look at what current poultry production standards are doing to them. It’s the same story with chickens. We’ve turned poultry farming into a mad rush to produce mass quantities of turkeys and chickens to meet public demand for more and more inexpensive meat.

The result is a race of genetically inferior birds who aren’t meant to live normal, healthy lives. They’re bred to live fast, grow big, die hard and be eaten.

Knowing all this, it’s easy to understand why the last several years’ worth of pardoned turkey pairs aren’t still frolicking happily somewhere. They didn’t really have a chance.

Photo credit: White House - Executive Office Of the President / Wikimedia Commons


Jim Ven
Jim V2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

sad news but thanks for sharing

Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe3 years ago

I am completely floored by this article - a turkeys lifespan before slaughter is only 6 months or so. They suffer from heart attacks, organ failure, and heart, lung and liver problems. And 10 percent of factory farmed turkeys don’t survive long enough to make it to the slaughterhouse.
Why do they make them suffer so much??? This info needs to be spread out there more!!

Debbie Wood
Debbie Wood4 years ago

I knew about this, found out while reading a catalog selling baby foul. I raise chickens and am thinking about raising my own turkeys. You can get regular turkeys, that haven't been messed with geneticly and can still live long lives and be turkeys. My area has alot of wild turkeys and there is a turkey hunting season. They look very little like the domestic ones. They are thinner birds, can fly and roost in trees. Yes, I am not a vegetarian, which I know many here are. I do like to know where my food comes from, how it is treated and fed. My hens are free range, happy and I seldom eat any of them. They provide me with eggs. If I raise turkeys, I will eat them. I grew up that way, on a farm, living off the land. We ate venison, as well as whatever animals we raised on the farm. I respect vegetarians, tried it myself once for about 6 months, didn't work for me. Guess I am not evolved enough yet!

Manuela C.
Manuela C4 years ago

Sad and wrong.

John S.
Elizabeth S4 years ago

This ritual is sick. Criminals get pardoned, not the victims. This is like freeing one slave a year in front of an audience, calling it a "pardon," and everyone having a good laugh. I'd love to see Americans start a new ritual of attending this ridiculous spectacle with signs and information about factory farming.

Bob Abell
Dr. Bob Abell4 years ago

"They’re bred to live fast, grow big, die hard and be eaten."

Are we talking about turkeys or is this a description of today's children, who are "eaten" in the metaphorical sense by the 1% who get rich by their consumption?

Kimberly Coryat
Kimberly C4 years ago

Cruelty in the name of profits. Wrong.

Patrish Dehler
Patricia Dehler4 years ago

Great, another depressing read. I should have skipped this one.

Nelson Petrie
Nelson Petrie4 years ago

This act is more of a grand presidential circus with birds et al. Instead of coming for a photo-op to impress the American public (what does he or any erstwhile president for that matter wish to prove - that they are or were very kind to animals?) he should seriously get the Secretary of Agriculture and review the nation's policies on factory farming. If he is genuinely concerned about animal welfare then he should make sure that factory farms should be banned, companies like Butter Ball should be investigated for cruelty, ban hunting of game and other wildlife, ban rodeos and such things. If he is incapable of pushing for active animal welfare laws he should not waste his time in such frivolities.