The yearly pardoning of a turkey is a longstanding White House holiday tradition, and also a great marketing scheme by the National Turkey Federation. It began around 1963, when President Kennedy decided to send that year’s gift from the National Turkey Federation back to the farm where it came from, and the tradition was formalized by President George H. W. Bush in 1989, reports the White House Blog.

Since we all know that the White House Family will be sitting down to a Thanksgiving meal with a dead turkey on the table, what’s the point of the pardon? Most likely to show a (theoretically) merciful moment between the leader of our country and a helpless bird who would have ended up dead and eaten, aiming to make some people feel good.


In reality, the birds who are pardoned are no more or less special than any other factory farmed turkey. Though they are raised slightly differently to prepare them for a few days of media attention.

A group of 40 turkeys selected by National Turkey Federation chairman Steve Willardsen are raised in their own barn, handled often by human caretakers, and listen to music constantly to prepare them for being in large groups of people, explains the Washingtonian.

However, there’s a side of truth that needs to go with this turkey pardoning story:

  • The pardoned turkeys are still the same strain of factory farmed turkeys bred to be incredibly large – Huffington Post revealed that last year’s pardoned turkeys had reached a ludicrous 45 pounds at just 19 weeks. This is not uncommon in the industry.
  • Rapid growth and weight gain leads to chronic problems as the turkeys age — their bodies simply cannot support their weight. They become crippled and cannot fly or roost, even though they will still try to fulfill their natural instincts to do so.
  • Factory farmed turkeys are bred to be so large that they absolutely cannot reproduce naturally and must be artificially inseminated.
  • A factory farmed turkey will live only about a year, while their wild relatives can live up to 15. 

The turkeys pardoned last year by President Obama have both died, living less than a year after the pardon, according to US News. It’s unlikely that this year’s turkeys will have better chances of survival, since they have been bred to be slaughtered and have all of the problems listed above. If the President truly wanted to pardon a turkey, getting to know the issues involved in factory farming and passing legislation to ban these practices would be a better celebration.


Image Source: Ingrid Taylor/Flickr