Can the Presidential Turkey Pardon Just Go Away Already?

President Barack Obama, with daughters Sasha, second from left, and Malia, right, carries on the Thanksgiving tradition of sa
President Barack Obama, with daughters Sasha, second from left, and Malia, right, carries on the Thanksgiving tradition of saving the national turkey, Popcorn, from the dinner table with a "presidential pardon," at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013, as John Burkel, current chairman of the National Turkey Federation in Badger, Minn, stands left. After the pardoning, Popcorn travels to George Washington?s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens where they will be on display for visitors during "Christmas at Mount Vernon." (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Ah, the annual Presidential Turkey Pardon has come and gone. Once again, the National Turkey Federation has given the president two turkeys, which the White House proceeded to give cheerful names to and then publicly "pardon" before retiring them to live out the rest of their short lives. This beloved tradition going all the way back to... Abraham Lincoln? Nope. John F. Kennedy? Not really. George H. W. Bush? That's more like it.

That's right, one of America's silliest rituals is younger than many Millennials, and therefore is a tradition that should be easy to stop.

But what's wrong with pardoning a turkey?

Well, aside from the valid concern that the event trivializes the much-needed pardoning of human convicts (which is in sharp decline), it also implies that perfectly innocent turkeys have committed a crime worthy of a death sentence, serves as a public relations stunt for the benefit of big agriculture, and washes away our collective unease at the fact that each year -- as we give thanks and wish for peace - we are taking lives.

A Public Relations Stunt for Big Turkey

While it shouldn't be surprising that the turkey industry loves this event, what may shock even the most jaded citizen is how much orchestration goes into it -- starting all the way back in July! Since birds in previous years have been known to run away from the flash photography and loud noises, the National Turkey Federation now takes no chances.

According the Wall Street Journal, this year a whopping 80 birds were taken at random as infants, from which the most photogenic twenty were chosen undergo "training". The birds were exposed to loud music and photograph flashes, and from there, two birds were selected to be pardoned: the first choice and, yes, an understudy. All of this effort ensures that, as President Obama thanks the turkey farmers of America for their "noble" work, the National Turkey Federation will look great in the public eye.

Happy Turkeys Are Not the Reality

While the stunt makes every effort to indicate that turkey farming is a humane industry, the reality is not what we'd like to believe.

  • Nearly 99 percent of the nearly 300 million turkeys raised and killed for food each year in the U.S are factory farmed. They spend their entire lives crammed in large sheds filled with toxic ammonia fumes, with little room to move. Artificially inseminated and bred to gain enormous amounts of weight, they suffer heart attacks, broken limbs, lameness, and early death.
  • Turkeys, like all animals raised for food, are completely excluded from protection by the Animal Welfare Act, and the "Free-range", "Organic", and "Certified Humane" labels do not help much either. These producers can each raise nearly one million birds a year, making it virtually impossible to ensure individual care or anything more than occasional access to the outdoors.
  • Regardless of how they were raised, no birds raised for food are covered by the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, and all meet a terrifying death. After 16 weeks of misery, most of these animals are hung on a conveyer belt, have their throats cut, and are then dumped -- sometimes still fully conscious -- into scalding water to strip their feathers. Small-scale poultry slaughter can be even more gruesome.

Assuaging Our Collective Guilt

As awareness increases about the myriad of problems with our food system, more people are considering leaving animals off the table, even during the holidays. But allowing one or two turkeys to evade death serves only to obscure the brutal reality that the remaining 45 million turkeys raised for holiday season consumption will face. (Ironically, even the pardoned turkeys, manufactured to weigh nearly 40 pounds each, will likely face crippling illnesses and die at only a fraction of a natural turkey's lifespan).

Admittedly, the turkey pardon is neither the worst element of Thanksgiving nor the most-pressing issue facing the Obama presidency, but ending it would certainly be an easy first step toward leaving a more compassionate legacy. With former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore both eating near-vegan diets, it's easy to wonder when we'll have a sitting president set a better example on food issues.

All of us, at least, can make simple changes to our diets to better align what we eat with the peace and love we profess throughout the holiday season. I'll be eating vegetable pot pie, roasted squash, mashed potatoes, and a huge plate of dessert -- but I'll once again be saying no to turkey and other animal products.

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