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Every November, the United States witnesses a very strange event—the White House pardon for a turkey, an All-American Thanksgiving tradition rooted in the late 19th century. The bizarre ritual, surrounded by pop culture references and TV appearances, raises questions about our complex relationship with meat and animals. Exploring the strange history of the turkey pardon tradition sheds light on the evolution of our eating habits and the paradoxical nature of our interactions with animals.
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The turkey pardon traces its roots to Tad Lincoln, the son of President Abraham Lincoln, who developed a deep attachment to a turkey named Jack. Tad’s refusal to have Jack slaughtered for Christmas dinner marked the first instance of sparing a White House turkey. However, it wasn’t until President Reagan casually used the term “pardon” in 1987 that the tradition became official.
Presidents Kennedy, Carter, and Nixon had previously expressed discomfort with the ritual, with Kennedy’s decision to spare a turkey in 1963 often considered the first informal “pardon.” President George H. W. Bush later formalized the tradition in 1989, making it an annual ceremony.
The contemporary turkey pardon has become a White House press event more than anything, complete with punny nicknames and even social media accounts for the pardoned turkeys. However, behind the ceremony’s lighthearted facade lies the harsh reality for these animals.
The selected turkeys, raised in the home state of the National Turkey Federation Chairman, are trained to behave in loud and crowded spaces. During the ceremony, they likely experience anxiety and fear. Despite living longer in recent years, these turkeys often suffer from diseases due to decades of selective breeding by the turkey industry. Most only survive a few months past their pardon.
While the turkey pardon ceremony aims to portray compassion, the majority of turkeys face a different fate. The industrial animal farming sector strategically uses specific animals, like the pardoned turkeys, as propaganda pieces. The stark contrast between the fortunate few and the harsh reality of factory farming remains hidden from public view.
Additionally, the formalization of the turkey pardon in 1987 seems paradoxically linked to a rise in turkey consumption in the United States. Instead of inspiring compassion for turkeys, the tradition appears to serve as a commercial for the act of consuming Thanksgiving turkeys.
The history of the turkey pardon reflects America’s weird relationship with animals. The tradition, rooted in a child’s empathy for an animal, contrasts with the widespread consumption of turkey. Research suggests that children, not fully socialized into eating animals, are more likely to express sympathy for them.
In a modern context, the turkey pardon tradition exposes a contradiction in America’s food system. While individual animals are recognized and respected, millions are conceptualized as a collective mass. The cognitive dissonance required to simultaneously celebrate a turkey’s pardon and consume another for dinner highlights the complexities of our relationship with animals.
Sign this petition to save the turkeys!
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