Every year millions of turkeys are the centerpieces of Thanksgiving feasts on tables across America. A few lucky birds, however, escape unscathed, garnering the highest honor potential poultry can receive—a presidential pardon. Deftly evading slaughter by the sheer luck of a publicity stunt is a damn lucky fate. But where exactly do these turkeys end up? And why are people presenting turkeys to presidents anyway?
The National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation, as the ceremony is formally known, dates back to the 1940s. The event was partially born out of a lobbying campaign urging Americans to conserve grain for foreign aid. (“Meatless Tuesdays” and “Poultryless Thursdays” were also encouraged).
As the initial campaign died down, the presentation still remained. However, the tradition of sparing a bird was spotty in the years that followed. In fact, Dwight Eisenhower ate the turkeys presented to him during his two terms. JFK received a turkey from farmers with the intent he’d eat it. The poor guy even came with a sign around his neck stating “Good Eating Mr. President” (presumably to be read out loud in your best Marilyn Monroe impression). Kennedy sent it back, with the note saying, “we’ll let this one grow.” Turns out the turkey had a luckier fate than the president, who was assassinated just four days later.
Reagan was the first president to explicitly refer to the event as a pardon, supposedly to deflect questions about actual pardons pertaining to the Iran-Contra Affair. (Oh the quaintness of the ’80s!) But it was George H.W. Bush who implemented the reprieve as an annual event in 1989. It’s been a source of national levity or awkwardness (we’re looking at you, Trump) ever since.
But where do the birds go? A lot of them, including the original birds pardoned by Bush, ended up at Frying Pan Farm Park in Fairfax County, Virginia. While the place has an ominous name (aren’t these turkeys supposed to avoid frying?), it’s actually a fun, historic landmark. Speaking of historic landmarks, Obama sent some birds to Mount Vernon in 2012, to live at George Washington’s estate. However, they were swiftly evicted for violating historical accuracy. Turns out there were no turkeys in that geographic area hundreds of years ago, oops! This year’s bird is also ending up in Virginia, albeit it at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, a school know for its agriculture program. He’ll be hanging out with the class of 2016 as well.
The birds pardoned between 2005 and 2009 had the greatest fate of all. They got to live it up in Disney World, where they landed the glamorous gig of honorary grand marshall in the park’s Thanksgiving Day parade! Hobnobbing with Mickey and Minnie is a damn good life, one we wish we could live out everyday ourselves.
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