Wednesday marks the 70th annual pardoning of the turkeys (see here for how to watch it online). Well, officially only one is pardoned but its understudy is also spared being on someone’s dinner table.

According to the National Turkey Federation the birds are chosen “not just for (their) good looks, but poise and manners”.

The chosen birds receive five star treatment; put up in a room at a luxurious hotel before meeting the president, and seeing out the rest of their days at a chosen farm in Virginia. Pretty plush.

However the ceremony has always encountered friction from animal rights groups, who say even the pardoned turkeys are raised in such an unhealthy manner that their lives are unnaturally short.

There are also those who simply point to the event as excessive, while others see it as an integral part of American culture.

Verdict looks at the tradition, and what happened to pardoned turkeys of years gone by.

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By GlobalData

This year’s turkeys

 The 2017 candidates for the pardoned turkey are Wishbone and Drumstick, named after two much loved elements of the Thanksgiving meal they will not be taking part in. They were raised in West Minnesota under the National Turkey Federation chairman Carl Wittenburg and his wife Sharlene.

A video posted on the White House’s official Twitter showed the birds arriving at the Willard Hotel to spend a night, welcomed by the concierge and transported to their room on a luggage cart.

It then shows them enjoying some television before settling into their respective beds.

Previous destinations for the turkeys include the aptly named Frying Pan Park in Virginia, Disneyland in Florida, George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, and Turkey Hill Farm in Morven Park, Virginia.

However this year Wishbone and Drumstick will travel to Virginia Tech’s so-called Gobblers Rest exhibit where they will be cared for by students and vets.

The exhibit will be open to the public, and visitors will learn about the university’s teaching, research and outreach programs in animal & poultry sciences and veterinary medicine.

The fate of this year’s birds is somewhat unusual, as they will be joining last year’s pardonees Tater and Tot.

Previous turkeys have not lasted long enough to see their successors join them, a fact that has been a source of contention.

Animals rights campaign group Peta has highlighted the poor health of the birds in the past, saying that the reason for there being two to choose from is in fact because of the high chance one will die or fall ill before the ceremony takes place.

They also note that up to ten percent of turkeys on factory farms die before they even reach the slaughterhouse. 

Previous Turkeys

Turkeys bred for slaughter are generally extremely overweight, and many point to this as the reason why most presidents’ pardoned turkeys live less than a year.

A brief look at previous year’s turkeys shows the short lifespan of these animals (as well as the questionable choices of names):

  • 2010: Apple and Cider both die less than a year after the ceremony;
  • 2011: Peace is euthanized less than a year after the ceremony, Liberty dies in 2013 aged 2 as a result of heart failure;
  • 2012: Gobbler dies less than a year after the ceremony, Cobbler is euthanized less than a year after the ceremony;
  • 2013: Popcorn dies less than a year after the ceremony, Caramel dies in 2015;
  • 2014: Mac dies less than a year after the ceremony, Cheese is still alive today – though he could not walk when he arrived at Morven Park in Northern Virginia;
  • 2015: Abe and Honest are still alive at Morven Park, and
  • 2016: Tater and Tot are still alive at Gobblers Rest

As can be seen, nine of the 14 birds died shortly after their pardon.

However, turkeys in more recent years are living longer than previously, though whether this is due to improved living or care standards is unclear.

Dean Norton, the director at Mount Vernon in charge of livestock, told CNN that generally turkeys bred for slaughter can be expected to die much sooner than wild varieties.

The birds are fed in such a way to increase their weight. They are fed a high protein diet and they get quite large. The organs, though…are meant for a smaller bird. They just can’t handle the extra weight.

As such many of the previous turkeys have seen damage on either their internal organs or legs due to their weight.

However, Keith Williams, a spokesperson for the National Turkey Federation, said that the brevity of their lives is due to Americans love of turkey rather than any mistreatment.

Turkey Facts

  • Almost 630m turkeys are produced globally for meat each year. Of these, over 240 million are produced in the US and over 240 million in the EU;
  • Around 46m turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving, 22m at Christmas and 19m at Easter;
  • Modern commercial turkeys have been selectively bred for fast growth and disproportionately large breast muscles. They are taken to slaughter when they are between nine and 24 weeks of age, and may weigh upwards of 20kg;
  • The National Turkey Federation estimates that turkey consumption in the US has gone up by 104 percent since 1970 (when breeding practices changed).