Let's Talk Turkey... and Why the White House Pardons One Each Year

Mary Simpson
by Mary Simpson
Photo Credit: Svet foto / Shutterstock.com

It’s now a Thanksgiving tradition… and we’re not talking about the Macy’s parade, the Black Friday sales or that cranberry chutney Aunt Sally whips up each year. We’re talking about the turkey pardon that according to the White House Historical Association, is rumored to have begun back in 1863 with then-President Lincoln. Whether this tale is fact or fiction is debated.


What we know is that more recent history confirms the big bird officially began as a gift made to the White House by The National Turkey Federation back in 1947. Alas, no details on his outcome.


This year, President Biden pardoned two 42-pounders, preventing them from being on the wrong side of the Thanksgiving feast when he gave Liberty and Bell, a pass and a certain cushy future.


As mentioned, this fun seasonal practice began in 1947 and over the years tended to be rather on-again/off-again depending on the whims of whichever administration was in place. It wasn’t until the Kennedy era in the early ‘60s that Tom Turkey was formally spared and lived to see another day. Since then, the support to spare this fine feathered fowl has ramped up considerably and his well-being post-pardon was carefully tracked by both the media and animal rights groups throughout the country.


Was it just for show? Did he really make his exit from the White House intact versus being basted, carved and covered in gravy?


Before I answer, let’s just say that the fun spin on this tradition is how it has evolved. Not only did Liberty and Bell enjoy a stay in a suite at the luxe Willard Intercontinental Hotel the night before their widely shared pardon, but following their moment in the spotlight, they returned home to Minnesota where the state’s College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Sciences will oversee their care.


So, yes. Beginning with the Bush administration in 1989, the turkey pardon became a tradition that sees one lucky bird truly pardoned and destined for a life of ease and indulgence.

In fact, past White House pardons have typically resulted in said turkey being relocated to a local children’s farm where they can live out their remaining years being adored by the junior crowd and noshing down on kibble from a cone. BTW, did you know that a turkey can live to 10 years of age?


Of course, now we’re all feeling warm and sentimental about turkeys, the inevitable question arises: Can a turkey be kept as a pet? The short answer is yes, these highly social critters enjoy the company of humans and can be curious, vocal, and entertaining.  So much so that they’re a top pick for hobby farmers and those who have already ventured into keeping chickens.

Just a little food for thought!

Mary Simpson
Mary Simpson

Sharing space with three seriously judgy Schnoodles and two felines who prefer to be left alone. #LivingMyBestLife

More by Mary Simpson

Next