It’s Thanksgiving, let’s talk about turkeys

President George H.W. Bush was the first to formally pardon a turkey, on November 14, 1989.  He sent the turkey to Frying Pan Park , a heritage farm in Herndon, Virginia. A new tradition had been formalized, growing on from a long history of turkeys being offered as presents to the White House.

Beginning in 1873 during Grant’s presidency, a Rhode Island man named Horace Vose was responsible for “selecting with the utmost care” the “noblest gobbler in all that little state” for the President’s Thanksgiving dinner. In 1947, the National Turkey Federation started delivering a 47-pound bird in time for the Christmas holiday. While Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower ate their birds, tales of spared turkeys date back to the Lincoln days.  Lincoln’s son Tad, the story goes, begged his father to write out a presidential pardon for the bird meant for the family’s Christmas table. In 1963, President Kennedy, on what was to be his last Thanksgiving, sent the turkey back to the farm where it came from.

This year, President Obama pardoned “Popcorn” and his buddy “Caramel,” two turkeys raised in Badger, Minnesota by John and Joni Burkel and their five kids. The Burkels trained the two turkeys to remain calm when picked up or facing noise and people.

President Obama pardons "Popcorn" the turkey, 2013. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

President Obama pardons “Popcorn” the turkey, 2013. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Pardoning turkeys seems like a feel-good story.  What could go wrong? Sarah Palin, who was Governor of Alaska, pardoned a turkey at Triple D Farm & Hatchery outside Wasilla. She had been a vice-presidential candidate in the 2008 election and the news crews were hot on her trail.

Alaska turkey farmer Anthony Schmidt presents a turkey for pardon, 2008

Alaska turkey farmer Anthony Schmidt holds the pardoned turkey, 2008.

“This was neat,” she said of the outing. “I was happy to get to be invited to participate in this. For one, you need a little bit of levity in this job, especially with so much that has gone in the last couple of months that has been so political obviously that it’s nice to get out and do something to promote a local business and to just participate in something that isn’t so heavy-handed politics that it invites criticism. Certainly we’ll probably invite criticism for even doing this, too, but at least this was fun.”

As she was speaking , the photographers noticed what was happening in the background and asked Palin if that was ok. No worries, she said. (Other reports allege camera men singled out the most controversial background they could find on an otherwise clean and wholesome farm.)   Clearly visible behind the Governor, a farm worker lifts turkeys by their feet and places them head down in a slaughtering cone.  The videos hit the national news. Some reports warned against watching, unless you really want to watch turkeys becoming dinner, others blurred the slaughter cone.

Sarah Palin, then Governor, pardons a turkey in 2008

Sarah Palin, then Governor, pardoned a turkey in Alaska, 2008.

And what about the turkey farmer, Anthony Schmidt?

The widely replayed episode didn’t hurt Schmidt’s business with the locals, he says. In fact, it probably helped him a bit, since “people got interested that didn’t know about us,” he explains. But outside the area, reaction was far less sanguine. “I got a lot of flak from people outside, the bunny huggers and the vegans,” he says.

According to Triple D archived webpages, they were the only local farm to sell fresh turkeys, 352 in 2007.  Their poultry were raised without hormones and antibiotics and the large enclosures would have qualified for a “free range” designation. One might guess that the smallish Alaska farm treated their turkeys as well as they possibly could afford, but today, they are no longer in business.

So why the outrage at the slaughter?  The farm owner had given all workers a long break during Palin’s visit, but a farm worker kept on working, which led to this accidental media peek in the real life on farms. Perhaps the media could have dived into discussing what’s the best way to slaughter poultry and contrast the cones with modern processing used by large growers.

Willie Bird Turkey Farm,  Sonoma, CA, Nov.22, 2010

Willie Bird Turkey Farm, Sonoma, CA, Nov.22, 2010 (source)

Where do turkeys go after the Presidential Pardon?

Popcorn and Caramel, the 2013 turkeys, will go to Morven Park in Leesburg, VA, home to Former Virginia Gov. Westmoreland Davis, who raised turkeys in the 1920s.  Turkeys previously pardoned by President Obama went to George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

But you cannot visit these turkeys. They all died, including the six pardoned by President Obama in previous years. Three out of four pardoned turkeys die less than five months after their pardon.

The two turkeys pardoned in 2012 – Cobbler and Gobbler – died within a year of their White House appearance, despite what a spokeswoman at Mount Vernon said was diligent veterinary care. Peace, who was pardoned in 2011 – lived lived a record 16 months after arriving at Mount Vernon. “The bird is bred for the table, not for longevity,” said Dean Norton, the director at Mount Vernon in charge of livestock.

Birds bred to be stuffed

Each year, Americans eat around 45 million turkeys.  The average weight of a turkey destined for the table in 1960 was just 16.83 pounds.  Today, it’s 30.47 pounds.  Liberty and Peace, pardoned in 2011, were 19 weeks old and weighed 45 pounds each.  Wild turkeys weigh about 5- 20 pounds, live 3-5 years and can sprint 25 miles per hour.

Domestic turkeys might live 2 years if they’re spared slaughter at a little over 3 months.  They cannot run,  their legs can barely support the weight of supersized breast meat. They cannot reproduce naturally but artificial insemination has become standard in the business.

Wild turkey in flight. Photo: Stephen Fischer

Wild turkey in flight. Photo: Stephen Fischer (Source)

The turkey hails from Southern Mexico and they were domesticated around 800 B.C. After the Spanish Conquest, turkeys were brought to Europe where they became domestic turkey breeds. As a result, studies show domestic turkeys are very close genetic relatives, with less genetic variation than pigs or cows. “Ancient turkeys weren’t your Butterball,” said Rob Fleischer, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics.