Pardoned Turkeys

Where the Chosen Fowl Go

Every year 50 million turkeys are killed for Thanksgiving dinners across the nation. However, one lucky bird is named the National Thanksgiving Turkey and receives an official pardon by the president. Actually two are pardoned, there’s always a runner-up picked as well. But what happens to the pardoned turkeys after they are pardoned?

Most recently, pardoned turkeys have gone to the happiest place on earth-Disney World! Last year’s birds are currently living in Disney World in Florida where almost immediately they were put on a diet. Turkeys raised for food are fattened up and are at least twice the size of their wild relatives. These fat birds are not raised to live longer than it takes to make it to your dinner table, so once a turkey is pardoned, it must lose weight in order to live a more healthy lifestyle. Prior to being pardoned to Disney World, the turkeys used to go to a petting zoo called, ahem, Frying Pan Park in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Throughout the years, the turkeys presented to the presidents were “dressed” and I don’t mean they were wearing clothes. But President Kennedy in 1961 spared the life of a 55-pound turkey in the Rose Garden. Even though the gold ribbon around the turkey’s neck said “Good Eating, Mr. President,” Kennedy saw the turkey and said, “We’ll just keep him.” The turkey was returned to its farm home. The tradition can be traced all the way back to President Lincoln, when he pardoned a turkey to make it a pet for his son Tad.

If you’ve wondered how the pardoned turkey always seems to remain so calm during the ceremony, apparently the pardoned turkey (and its runner-up) are given very special treatment leading up to the big event. They are in constant human contact, once they are chosen, to help them prepare. The turkeys usually arrive about an hour before the event and are allowed to roam freely in the Rose Garden until the event takes place. There are also two turkey handlers on hand to help make sure the turkeys remain calm. However, in 1981, when President Reagan was giving a pardon, the Thanksgiving Turkey got a little nervous and went haywire!

Another Reason to Pardon a Turkey

Even though 98 percent of the land animals Americans eat are turkeys and chickens, the Federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act specifically excludes birds from protection. More than 9 billion turkeys and chickens are killed in the U.S. each year. If you decided to make a tofurkey instead of a turkey this year, congratulations! Even better, you can sponsor a turkey who lives at the Farm Sanctuary. For a one-time $25 adoption fee, you will receive: a special Adopt-a-Turkey certificate with color photo of and fun details about your new friend, plus a Farm Sanctuary membership for one year and a one-year subscription to the Farm Sanctuary’s quarterly newsletter. For more information, visit

Turkeys are known to be smart animals with personality and character. They are social, playful birds who enjoy the company of others. The ones I’ve had contact with have liked to have their feathers stroked and chirp, cluck, and gobble along to music. The president pardons a turkey every year, maybe this year you can too.

Lisa Acho Remorenko is Executive Director of Animal Adoption Solutions.

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