The Fate of Obama's Turkey Pardons


Photo by Mark Wilson/Newsmakers

President Obama is currently dealing with health care reform, two wars in the Middle East, skyrocketing unemployment, and the real possibility that Iran is harboring nukes. One could thus forgive the man for not yet responding to a petition sent to him by Farm Sanctuary, the farm animal rescue and welfare organization, asking him to deliver this years' "pardoned" White House Thanksgiving turkeys to its agrarian haven in Watkins Glen. NY. Still, I'm waiting to see what he does. In a symbolic way, it's meaningful.

A little background. Beginning with George H.W. Bush in 1989, Presidents have been sparing the lives of two White House turkeys at Thanksgiving time and sending them to various farms across Virginia. George Bush the Younger, however, bucked tradition in 2005 and sent the birds to either Disneyland or Disneyworld. There, they were crassly paraded about as holiday attractions, fed a conventional diet of cheap feed, and medically ignored. Half the birds died within a year. Writes Farm Sanctuary: "Disney's track record shows that it simply is not able to provide the level of care necessary to keep these birds healthy, happy and comfortable for years. "

Modern turkeys are not bred for longevity. To the contrary, they're genetically manipulated to fatten as quickly as possible and die.

The reason is interesting, if disturbing, and it lends a bit of insight into the bizarre nature of turkey farming. Modern turkeys are not bred for longevity. To the contrary, they're genetically manipulated to fatten as quickly as possible and die. Breeding for commercially desirable traits--mainly large breasts--has created turkeys that are so top-heavy they can hardly walk. Sex is equally out of the question, as distortions make it physically impossible for the birds to mate (all commercial turkeys are artificially inseminated). And what's been done to them externally has an internal counterpart. Heart attacks, for example, are common in young turkeys, something that never happens in the wild. Bottom line: past a certain age, it takes a lot of work to keep these biological oddities alive and well.

If any organization is prepared to take on such a challenge, it's Farm Sanctuary. The organization has been rescuing and rehabilitating turkeys for the last twenty years. Their birds live an impressive four or five years after adoption (the average life span of a wild turkey is around 4 years). The genetics of these commercially-designed turkeys might be etched in stone, but a low-fat, high fiber diet--in addition to adequate health care and constant nurturing--provides them a fighting chance not only for survival, but a high quality of life. Farm Sanctuary is prepared to offer all of this--and more. On Thanksgiving Day, the birds are taken off their diet and indulged in a feast of traditional fare--the stuff their wild cousins would have eaten in nature. "They're the guest of honor instead of the main course," explains Gene Baur, Farm Sanctuary president.

Around forty-five million turkeys will be killed this Thanksgiving. It might seem silly to get all worked up over two. But messages carry weight. They draw attention to a cause, which in turn generates media attention and, one hopes, public awareness. Turkeys bound for Farm Sanctuary would be the animal equivalent to Michelle Obama's organic vegetables--an important reminder that food comes to our plate at a cost, one that--with the football and wine and what not--we often fail to recognize.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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