Where pardoned turkeys go to die
Pardon that turkey
- Each year, an American president “pardons” a turkey or two just before Thanksgiving
- President Barack Obama has sent his turkeys to Mt. Vernon for their “twilight years”
- But a pardon just means the birds aren’t stuffed and eaten; they’re not expected to live long
- American turkeys are bred to be consumed, many of them at Thanksgiving
The well-appointed pen includes a small coop to protect them from weather and foxes, and an area for them to strut their stuff for camera-toting tourists.
But there is one thing that is missing: other turkeys. That’s because all the turkeys ever pardoned at the White House are dead, including the six already given a pass from the roasting pan by President Barack Obama in previous years.
“The bird is bred for the table, not for longevity,” said Dean Norton, the director at Mount Vernon in charge of livestock. “Some of [the pardoned turkeys] have been pretty short lived.”
Compared to domesticated animals, turkeys bred for consumption are usually plump and slaughtered after a period of months, and wouldn’t be expected to live much longer on their own. So, a pardon really can extend their lives a lot, relatively speaking.
The two turkeys pardoned in 2012 – Cobbler and Gobbler – died within a year of their White House appearance, despite what a spokeswoman at Mount Vernon said was diligent veterinary care.
Gobbler died on February 5, 2013, of natural causes. Cobbler lived a bit longer, dying on August 22, 2013, after he fell ill and had to be euthanized. Both are buried at Mount Vernon.
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.
So why do those birds — and others bred to be eaten — die faster than their wild brethren?
“The birds are fed in such a way to increase their weight,” Norton, who has worked at Mount Vernon since 1969, said. “[Americans] want a nice big breasted turkey and so they are fed high protein diet and they get quite large. The organs, though, that are in this bird are meant for a smaller bird. They just can’t handle the extra weight, so they end up living not as long [as wild turkeys].”
The differences extend beyond life expectancy, too.
“Your native bird can fly beautifully and roost in trees,” Norton said, while the type that receive pardons “does not fly, has very short stubbly legs and typically last right up to Thanksgiving.”
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