Turkeys' lives spared: Obama pardons Thanksgiving birds

President Obama pardons Popcorn, the 2013 National Thanksgiving Turkey, with his daughters Sasha (3rd R) and Malia (R) during an event at the White House in Washington, D.C., Nov. 27, 2013. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama continued the annual tradition of pardoning the official White House Thanksgiving turkey at a windy and chilly ceremony in the Rose Garden Wednesday, thanking Popcorn – the National Thanksgiving Turkey winner, chosen by voters on Facebook and Twitter - and Caramel, the runner-up, for their service.

"Generally, Thanksgiving is a bad day to be a turkey, especially at a house with two dogs," Mr. Obama said, flanked by his daughters Malia and Sasha.

He announced Popcorn as the winner of a competition - "quite literally, the 'Hunger Games,'" as he described it - to be the lucky pardoned turkey.  Popcorn's victory proved "that a turkey with a funny name can have a future in politics," Mr. Obama added, poking fun at the "skinny kid with a funny name" line he regularly used to describe himself during his 2008 run for the White House.

"As for Caramel, he is sticking around and he's already busy raising money for his next campaign," he joked.

Mr. Obama’s quips continued another recent tradition: presidential turkey jokes

During the 1993 turkey pardon ceremony, President Bill Clinton said the pardon was easy for him "because I've been around turkeys all my life." Upon realizing the double meaning of his statement, Mr. Clinton was quick to add: "I didn't mean it like that." 

At the turkey pardon in 2001, President George W. Bush observed that "our guest of honor looks a little nervous. Nobody's told him yet that I'm going to give him a pardon." 

In 1990, then-President George H. W. Bush sought to allay the fears of his audience that a "terrible fate" awaited the turkey presented him. "We've decided to spare him. He will not be subjected to questions from the Washington press corps after this ceremony."

On a more serious note, Mr. Obama said he and his family on Wednesday will deliver two donated turkeys to a local "organization that works to help out our neighbors here in D.C. who need it most."

He also took the opportunity to thank U.S. servicemembers for their "service and sacrifice."

"You keep us safe, you make us proud, and you remind us of our own obligations to build on the work of our predecessors and leave something better for our own kids," Mr. Obama said.

According to the White House's history of turkey pardons, Americans have been giving the president holiday turkeys since 1873, during Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency. In 1947, the White House started celebrating these gifts in the Rose Garden. Not every president has been in the habit of sparing the turkey's life, however: Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson ate the turkeys presented to them.

Mr. Obama alluded to the history of presidents consuming the Thanksgiving honorees in 2009 saying that he came close to inviting that year’s pardoned turkey - Courage - to dinner. 

“Thanks to the intervention of Malia and Sasha, because I was ready to eat this sucker, Courage will also be spared this terrible and delicious fate," he said.

"I'm told Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson actually ate their turkeys," Obama said. "You can't fault them for that; that's a good-looking bird."

The first “pardon” was bestowed by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, according to the White House. In a Rose Garden ceremony, Mr. Bush said that year’s turkey had “been granted a presidential pardon as of right now” and it was sent to live out its life at a farm in the D.C. suburbs.

This year’s birds, Popcorn and Caramel, were raised by turkey farmer John Burkel in Badger, Minn. Burkel is the chairman of the National Turkey Federation, and in that role, he was asked to provide the birds for the ceremony. The second bird is sent along in case the first gets stage fright.

Both turkeys are 20 weeks old and approximately 38 pounds and their names were chosen from submissions from elementary schools in Roseau County, Minn., according to the White House.

Following Wednesday’s pardon, the turkeys will live at George Washington’s historic Mount Vernon estate until January before moving to Morven Park’s Turkey Hill farm in Leesburg, Va.  However, if recent history is any indication, their days are numbered.

Sadly, all but one of the turkeys pardoned by Mr. Obama during his presidency have lived to see a second Thanksgiving, National Journal reports

The turkeys tend to only live a few more months post-pardon – last year’s pardonee, Cobbler, was euthanized on Aug. 22, 2013, nine months after its time on the national stage. Gobbler, its backup, died in February. 

As these turkeys were bred for consumption, they’re usually beset with health problems related to obesity – most significantly, heart failure – which tends to do them in at a young age, according to a 2010 report for the Humane Society

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