This year the President will again pardon two turkeys from certain death this Thanksgiving. But what will happen to the turkeys after they’re granted their pardons? Well, we have bad news for you… basically every single turkey pardoned by The White House is now dead. Caramel the Turkey, pardoned in 2013, was, for some reason, a weird outlier (last we heard, he was still kicking), and we're not sure what happened to Abe, the bird pardoned by Obama in 2015, but pretty much all of the others died within a few years. Let’s take a look at what actually happens to the pardoned turkeys after Thanksgiving…
First, we'll stop at the White House. The annual Turkey Pardoning party takes place in the Rose Garden each year.
The weird tradition started way back when with President Lincoln… The legend says a young Tad became quite attached to one of the turkeys dropped off at the White House for Thanksgiving dinner, so he asked his dad to save the poor bird’s life, which Honest Abe did. Whether it’s true or not, it’s a very Abe Lincoln-sounding story, so let’s just call it true.
The next time we know a turkey got a free pass from the president happened in 1963 when JFK sent his turkey back to the farm and said they should, “just let this one grow.” That was a really swell thing of JFK to do, but we assume it became a turkey sandwich for someone at a later date.
Fast-forward to 1989… President George H.W. Bush makes the pardoning of a turkey an official tradition on November 14th. The lucky bird was shipped off to Frying Pan Park in Herndon, Virginia to live out the very short remainder of his life, and we’ve been officially pardoning a turkey or two every year since.
For several years (except between 2005 and 2008, when the turkeys were sent to Disneyland), the pardoned turkeys have been sent to George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens to live out their retirement years... I mean, retirement months. They’re typically placed in a display pen for a while before being moved out of view. Apparently, they’re not “historically accurate,” to George Washington’s time period. Turkeys were around back then, but the turkeys G-Wash ate looked totally different. These days, they're all genetically bred and hopped up on growth hormones and corn to be huge and lean.
Of course, the National Turkey Federation was none-too-happy about their most famous fowls getting stuck in some hidden livestock pen. I swear to God, I'm not making this up, the National Turkey Federation is real, and they were mad. One solution was to ship the birds to Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia. Here they were treated like stars. The pictures make it look like a nice place to live out turkey retirement...
There is, however, a problem. The turkeys keep dying, like, almost immediately upon reaching their new homes. As we mentioned, every single turkey pardoned except for the die-hard Caramel died within months. Caramel’s sidekick, Popcorn, for instance, died just 8 months after receiving his presidential pardon. Remember 2012’s turkeys? Cobbler and Gobbler? They’re now six feet under at Mt. Vernon after living roughly 3 months and 9 months, respectively, after their pardons.
CNN’s Dan Merica reports, “In the two years prior, three of the four pardoned turkeys died less than five months after their pardon. The other turkey - Peace, who was pardoned in 2011 - lived 16 months after arriving at Mount Vernon.” Peace's 2011 counterpart, Liberty, wasn't quite as lucky...
So why do these birds, fresh off the happiest moment of their lives, seem to find the grave within months of their pardons? The answer is simple and really depressing… "The bird is bred for the table, not for longevity," said Dean Norton, the director at Mount Vernon in charge of livestock, to CNN.
Today’s turkeys are bred to be big and plump, but their little organs don’t handle the extra weight so well which means a modernly-raised turkey doesn’t stand much of a chance. According to the experts, the pardoned turkeys live way longer than their brothers and sisters who typically have a life expectancy of about 18 weeks. : /
But it's not all doom and gloom for the turkeys. The two turkeys are treated like kings in the days before their pardon. 2018's birds, Jeff and Ruben, hail from South Dakota. They were the two chosen from a specially-trained group of turkeys known as the "Presidential Flock". It consists of about 50 birds who have been trained since hatching to handle loud noises, big crowds, and bright lights. The lucky two were driven from their home farm in South Dakota to D.C. in an SUV. Turkeys are usually given a room at the Willard InterContinental and a Secret Service detail in advance of their pardoning.
Currently, the pardoned turkeys are sent to a pen inside the Virginia Tech Animal and Poultry Sciences Department's Livestock Judging Pavilion, where students care for them as they live out the rest of their short lives.
Oh, by the way… The first official pardoning of a turkey in 1989 wasn’t the first big White House press event around Thanksgiving turkeys, just the first time it officially didn’t involve killing the turkey in the photo… The “presentation of the National Thanksgiving Turkey” dates all the way back to Ulysses S. Grant.