Where Do Turkeys Go After Being Pardoned by the President?

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
November 20, 2001
View a Gallery of Images of Presidential Turkeys: Go>>

The schedule of a presidential turkey does not differ too much from that of the Presidents. Once the First Bird and his Vice-Bird have been chosen, through a process that is anything but democratic, their lives become a frantic whir of fancy hotels and White House ceremonies—eventually culminating in a cozy retirement in the country.

Presidential turkeys spend their entire life bettering themselves in anticipation of that glorious presidential pardon; that ethereal moment when they are forever reprieved from the roasting rack.

It all begins in April when about 2,500 breeder toms—basically male stud turkeys—hatch from their shell. These turkeys, already a notch above the common variety destined for the dinner plate, are raised in an air-conditioned barn with fluffy piles of sawdust up to their knees, said National Turkey Federation Chairman Nick Weaver.

In August, when the toms have reached about 25 pounds (11 kilograms) six are chosen as presidential candidates.

Weaver, as chairman of the NTF, will raise and choose the final pair of birds destined for the appointment at the White House.

Birds Chosen for Fine Looks

These six elite specimens, chosen for their fine plumage, poise and portly figure, are moved to a separate building where they are groomed for their future executive tasks.

From August through November and up until the day before the pardon, the goal is to familiarize the birds with people so that they don't lose their composure during the ceremony with the President.

Weaver came up with a particularly unique way to do this. The six birds are exposed to people dressed in long-sleeved, dark-blue overalls to simulate the dark blue suits of the officials and security personnel present at the White House.

During the four months leading up to Thanksgiving the care providers, dressed in their White House simulation gear, clap and chatter noisily around the turkeys. From this point on the turkeys are also hand-fed and petted frequently, all the while preparing the birds for the flocks of excited children and swarms of press that will descend on them at the pardoning ceremony.

This year Weaver chose the presidential and vice presidential turkeys from the half dozen eager toms in Goldsboro, North Carolina, two days before the ceremony in the nation's capital.

Weaver chose the tom he thought was the "most regal"—the bird with the most beautiful white plumage, the best behavior and poise. The First Bird, Liberty, and his back-up, Freedom, were placed in crates and driven to Washington.

Freedom on Hand to Step in for Liberty

Should any ill fate have befallen presidential turkey Liberty, Freedom would have been close at hand to strut into executive duties.

You wouldn't have even known the birds were there, said one of the drivers. That is until they turned the radio to NASCAR. "They started gobbling like crazy when Dale Earnhardt, Jr., was in the lead."

For the presidential pair, their road trip to the White House is where the good life begins.

The birds spend the night before the White House ceremony at The Hotel Washington, a plush establishment with a terrace restaurant that overlooks the President's mansion. The unlikely guests spend the night on the terrace level in a service corridor.

Weaver and his wife and two excited teenage sons drove to the hotel separately and stayed in a suite.

"We looked in on them at about 11 p.m. and they were just fine," said Weaver. The morning of the pardon was another matter.

"As the birds were stretching their wings in the service corridor, Freedom jumped on a ledge and tried to make a run for it," said Joel Brandenberger, of the National Turkey Federation, in Washington, D.C.

Freedom Was Unruly

That unruly misstep guaranteed Liberty's position as presidential turkey, even though Freedom is larger and has more colorful head coloring.

Both Liberty and Freedom are magnificent birds. At 48 and 52 pounds (22 and 24 kilograms) the birds are fat, spherical balls of velvety white feathers.

After leaving the Hotel Washington the birds were whisked to the White House rose garden.

While Liberty, Weaver, and Brandenberger and three other men in dark blue suits stood solemnly in a circle each one could be seen shifting weight from side to side waiting for the President.

When the President appeared Liberty was hoisted onto a pedestal.

"I'm not going to speak too long, because our guest of honor looks a little nervous," said Bush. "Nobody's told him yet that I'm going to give him a pardon."

However the inside word has it that it was President Bush who was quite nervous as he saw Liberty pecking at Chairman Weaver's belt. "What's he doing? What's he doing," a member of the National Turkey Federation heard President Bush ask nervously.

What the President Said

Regaining his composure, the President began the ceremony. "This one right here, his name is Liberty. And the other turkey, the alternate, his name is Freedom. Now Freedom is not here because he's in a secure and undisclosed location," said the President.

Then the pardon: "For this turkey and his traveling companion, this will not be their last Thanksgiving," said the President. "By virtue of an unconditional presidential pardon, they are safe from harm."

He then invited the children to pet Liberty.

With all the children crowding around, Liberty, true to his training, remained calm and composed with his head stretched regally upward as dozens of little hands descended upon his slick feathers.

Although the NTF first presented a turkey to President Harry Truman in 1947, President Bush, Sr., is credited with really using the event to kick off the holiday season. This year the pardon was more solemn as the President asked everyone to remember those less fortunate who were missing loved ones this Thanksgiving.

Within a couple of minutes of pardoning the turkey, a few turkey embraces, and a few autographs, the President hurried back inside the White House.

For Liberty it was the pinnacle of a career. Liberty and Freedom were whisked off to Frying Pan Park's Kidwell Farm in Herndon, Virginia—about 30 minutes west of Washington—where the pardoned turkeys live. Or die?

Off to Frying Pan Park

Those who visit Frying Pan Park will be disappointed to learn that there is not a flock of presidential "pardonees" to welcome the newcomers as they arrive in a large white van.

With the enormous weight these birds carry, they usually die before the arrival of the next Thanksgiving. Farmer Todd Brown buries the turkeys on the 98-acre property.

Liberty and Freedom's new home is a rust-and-white colored barn surrounded by a generous enclosure of grass. Next door are a couple of Jersey bulls named Curly and Sycamore who welcomed the Turkeys by chasing the van down the length of the fence.

Here the turkeys will live for maybe another year—unlike the 50 million less fortunate birds that are gobbled up this season.

• National Geographic Today, 7 pm. ET/PT in the United States, is a daily news magazine available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to request it.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.