Stossel: Are Turkey Pardons a Hoax?

Nov. 28, 2003 -- This is a tough time of year to be a turkey, but every year one lucky bird is spared from the axe by a presidential pardon. This week, at White House ceremony, President Bush pardoned a bird named Stars.

The turkey pardoning is a tradition that started with President Truman, and every president since has followed his lead. What happens to the turkeys?

"By virtue of the presidential pardon," Bush told the cameras and children who assembled on the White House lawn, "Stars will live out his days there at Kidwell Farm in Virginia."

And Stars seemed pretty happy with Bush's decision in front of the cameras this week.

The thought that Stars will be cared for at a farm and petting zoo makes everybody feel good. But what exactly does a pardon mean for the turkey?

Too Fat to Fly

The day I visited Kidwell Farm, the children didn't get to see the presidential birds. I couldn't find them either. I couldn't find the Bush birds or the Clinton turkeys or Reagan's or any of the pardoned birds.

Farmer Marlo Acock took me to the turkey pen, but it was empty.


Because the turkeys don't last long.

"We usually just find 'em and they're, they're dead," Acock told me.

Most of the turkeys last only months. One died in one day.

It seems these presidential birds, bred to be eaten, are just too fat to live much longer.

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

Wild turkeys are much thinner. They can fly. But the presidential birds can't. Two birds pardoned by President Clinton could barely walk. One presidential turkey died in one day. The whole idea that the president is "saving" a turkey for retirement to the petting zoo is, well, a turkey.

But president after president goes through the ritual.

"He's on his way to a farm in Virginia to bask in the sun, collect his hard-earned pension, enjoy his golden years," Clinton said when he pardoned a turkey in 1997.

Golden years? Golden minutes maybe.

"This will not be their last Thanksgiving," Bush said of the pardoned turkeys in 2001.

I wouldn't count on that. If the kids at the pardoning ceremonies knew the truth, I bet they'd say, "Give me a break."