Today President Obama will "pardon" a turkey (and a "back up" turkey) in what has now become for some an amusing U.S. Thanksgiving tradition. The current version of the tradition, where turkeys -- usually given humorous names like this year's Cobbler and Gobbler -- are spared from becoming the centerpiece of the presidential Thanksgiving dinner, has somewhat unclear beginnings. It has been ascribed to everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Harry Truman (whom President Clinton incorrectly named as having started the 20th century version of the tradition). In 1963, President Kennedy reportedly unceremoniously spared with life of a frightened turkey given to him with a sign around its neck that said "Good eating, Mr. President." Whatever the history, since George H.W. Bush pardoned a turkey in 1989, it has been an annual event in its current form at the White House. This year after the ceremony, the birds will spend two nights in a posh W hotel before being sent to live their short genetically altered lives in a private livestock facility in Virginia. The Obamas, like millions of other Americans, will then dine on an unnamed turkey on Thursday afternoon.
Though played for laughs, the presidential turkey pardon makes a mockery of extreme animal suffering. Poultry (turkeys, chickens and ducks) are perhaps the most abused of all farm animals. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, over nine billion birds (247 million turkeys alone) are slaughtered each year after being intensively confined in dark, windowless indoor facilities. This is true even for "free-range" turkeys who legally are only required to not be caged and to have access to a small outdoor space, even if due to confinement they cannot actually spend any time outside. Turkeys, including some "organic" birds, are bred to have such large breasts that they often cannot stand upon reaching maturity.
Poultry, which constitutes 98 percent of all land animals slaughtered for food, is exempt from the protections offered to other animals by the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act in part because it would slow processing down. As a result, turkeys need not be rendered unconscious prior to slaughter and may be shackled and then electrocuted or boiled alive. Poultry also may be transported for days to slaughterhouses in unventilated and non-temperature controlled trucks without food or water.
While it is up to every individual to determine whether they will eat meat, and, if so, what kind, a presidential pardon, with the implication that the animal has escaped a deserved fate, amounts to making a joke out of the suffering involved in the raising and killing of animals for food, suffering that we as a nation should be ashamed of. So this year, before you chuckle at the pardon of Gobbler and Cobbler, consider that they have done nothing they need to be pardoned from. Consider that they are escaping a fate that no living being deserves. And then revisit whether the turkey pardon is a tradition that is worth keeping, especially at a holiday intended to celebrate joy, kindness and gratitude. When viewed in this way, it becomes a flimsy "tradition" that not only is entirely manufactured, but is impossible to defend. I hope that the White House realizes this in the very near future.