The Post-Pardon Life of the Presidential Turkey

The birds don’t typically live long after their trip to the White House, but they do live luxuriously.

Kerry Klein

The moment Tom 1 stood up, the crowd knew he was the one. While his competitors gobbled in fits last Thursday morning, he stood tall, meaty chest puffed and tail feathers fanned, to a gaggle of elementary schoolers and reporters looking on. Clad in biosecurity suits and booties to protect the birds from stowaway viruses, they had gathered at the ranch in Modesto, California, to observe the selection of the turkey that President Obama would soon pardon. “That’s the winner right there,” one student shouted. “He’s perfect,” murmured one reporter to another. “He’s so Hollywood.”

For his part, Tom 1, as the bird was then called, seemed pretty blasé about the whole thing. And rightly so: Keeping cool during chaos is one of the virtues demanded of the presidential turkey. He and a second turkey dubbed Tom 2, now officially named Honest and Abe, earned a ticket to the White House Rose Garden for the annual turkey pardon, this year taking place the day before Thanksgiving.

Most of us come to know the presidential turkey only at the moment the commander-in-chief spares him from the buttery, cranberry-sauced fate that befalls millions of his brethren. But at just four months old, these birds have already experienced more than many adult humans: photo shoots, a trip to the White House, and a stay in one of Washington, D.C.’s toniest hotels. After the pardon, both Honest and Abe will live the remainder of their lives in luxury—but they may not live long enough to enjoy much of it.

The tradition of presenting the president with a turkey began in 1947 during Harry Truman’s first term. But Truman didn’t pardon that turkey; he ate it, and so did most of his successors for the next 40 years. Only in 1989 did George H. W. Bush issue the first turkey pardon, and the ceremony stuck. Now, even though only one top turkey meets the president, his alternate, sitting in a back room in case the winner becomes unruly, is also spared.

Visitors in biosecurity gear look on as National Turkey Federation chairman Jihad Douglas (center) and Foster Farms employees present the candidates for presidential turkey. (Kerry Klein)

The turkeys hail from a ranch chosen each year by the chairman of the National Turkey Federation. This year’s chairman, the turkey geneticist Jihad Douglas, chose the Modesto ranch, owned by the California poultry giant Foster Farms. The ranch’s original 50 candidates, whittled down to 12 before the final selection last Thursday, were all born in July, leaving them enough time to reach roughly 40 pounds by Thanksgiving. “They have a nice environment,” says Douglas. “We do everything possible to provide them with a setup in a way they can explore their genetic potential.”

That genetic potential is not particularly robust: This year’s turkeys (and many others in recent history) are of a domesticated variety known as Nicholas White, bred for shock-white feathers and huge breasts. While wild and heritage turkeys may live to around five years, Ira Brill, Foster Farms’ communications director, explains that the life expectancy of Nicholas Whites is generally two to three. “They won’t live as long as a wild turkey,” he says. “These are turkeys that are bred for food, and that’s the primary use that we put them to.”

The Foster Farms turkey handler Joe Hedden says presidential turkeys need to be calm and social, able to handle the White House crowd without going berserk. Such sociability training requires daily one-on-one time with handlers. To acclimate the birds to noise, Hedden and his team brought in a radio—and discovered that they had an affinity for country. “As soon as we changed the channel,” he says, “they started responding, gobbling back and forth with the music.” (But they don’t like just any country music, Brill points out. “They’re into the Bakersfield Buck Owens sound.”)

Brill, Hedden, and their colleagues seem to have embraced the serious silliness of grooming a turkey to meet the president. At the selection ceremony the Thursday before Thanksgiving, actors dressed as mock Secret Service agents, complete with crisp suits and earpieces, flanked the turkeys’ enclosure. On Monday, the birds boarded a Washington-bound plane nicknamed “Turkey One,” in which passengers received napkins emblazoned with the presidential turkey logo. After touching down, the birds were escorted to a private, sawdust-lined room at the historic Willard InterContinental Hotel near the White House.

Now, their glory days may already be behind them: Despite the average supposed life expectancy of their breed, few recent presidential turkeys have lived longer than a year. Cheese, pardoned last year, is still alive, and Caramel, the 2013 pardon, died around a month ago, but the other four turkeys pardoned since 2012 all either died or were euthanized before they saw their second Thanksgiving.

After this year’s pardon, Honest and Abe will join Cheese and a non-presidential bronze turkey named Franklin at Morven Park, a Virginia historical site and lush estate belonging to the state’s former governor Westmoreland Davis. There, they’ll roam Turkey Hill, a half-acre parcel where Davis himself bred turkeys in the 1930s. Teresa Davenport, a park spokesperson, says the birds get heaters during the winter and fans during the summer, and park staff take turns on “turkey duty” all year round. “The more that people visit them, the more happy they seem,” she says. “They get very talkative and always come out to greet people.”

When the turkeys die, Davenport says, the cause isn’t always clear. Some suffer joint issues, their legs unable to support their top-heavy bodies. Others die with no warning. “Both Mac and Popcorn died on really hot days during the summer,” she says, “so we think they just have trouble with the heat.” For a short while, though, these few turkeys have some of the best lives that any member of their species could hope for, even if their bodies were built to let them enjoy it only briefly.