For 'Pardoned' Turkeys, an Uncertain Fate

It has become a tradition for the president to pardon a turkey or two at Thanksgiving and announce that they will live out their days on a petting farm. Why would anyone say "Give me a break!" to that?

Because it's kind of a hoax. I went to the farm where birds pardoned by presidents go, and I learned that this is not a story with a happy ending.

Harry Truman started the tradition in 1947. President Eisenhower pardoned turkeys at the White House, as did Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan. George Bush Sr. pardoned four turkeys in the course of his presidency. Bill Clinton pardoned eight.

Turkey Jokes

The younger President Bush continued the tradition this week. At a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, he pardoned a 55-pound turkey named Liberty, as well as Liberty's backup, a turkey named Freedom. In a reference to Vice President Dick Cheney's low public profile since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush assured reporters that Freedom was "in a secure and undisclosed location."

Bush made this promise to the two turkeys: "They will live out their days in the comfort and care of Kidwell Farm in Herndon, Virginia."

Living out their days in comfort and care — it's a nice idea. It feels good. People like the idea that some birds are being saved.

But are they really being saved?

A Turkey Pen With No Turkeys

I visited Kidwell Farm to see how the turkeys pardoned in previous years were doing. I looked for some of the birds pardoned by Clinton, but couldn't find them. I couldn't find the Bush Sr. birds, or the Reagan turkeys, or Carter's, or any of the pardoned birds.

There is a sign saying Turkey Pen, and farmer Marlo Acock took me to it. But the pen was empty. Why? Well, the birds do come here, explained Acock, but they don't last.

"We usually just find 'em and they're dead," he said.

Most of the pardoned turkeys only last a few months, Acock said. One died within days.

It seems that the presidential birds, bred to be eaten, are so fat that by the time of their pardon, their days are numbered.

"Their flesh has grown so fast, and their heart and their bones and their other organs can't catch up," said Acock.

Still, presidents keep going through the ritual.

"This will not be their last Thanksgiving," Bush assured the children watching him pardon the two turkeys this week.

Does this mean even the president doesn't know their real fate?

Pardoning turkeys is good fun, but shouldn't institutions as powerful as governments be telling the people the truth? Give me a break!

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