Lucky Turkey! President Obama Spares a Thanksgiving Bird from Dinner Table

Obama gives presidential pardon to a turkey named Courage.

November 24, 2009, 2:15 PM

WASHINGTON, Nov. 25, 2009— -- At the White House today, President Obama gave one lucky turkey a second chance at life, saving it from ending up as Thanksgiving dinner.

Obama issued a presidential pardon to Courage, a 20-week-old, 45-pound turkey from Princeton, N.C .

The president, joined by daughters Sasha and Malia at his side, told a crowd of invited guests at the White House this morning that some presidents actually ate their turkeys.

"You can't fault them for that. It's a good lookin' bird," Obama said.

"Today I'm pleased to announce thanks to the intervention of Malia and Sasha – because I was ready to eat this sucker – Courage will also be spared this terrible and delicious fate."

Each year more than 45 million turkeys end up on Thanksgiving dinner tables across the United States, according to the National Turkey Federation. And every year since 1947, according to historians, one lucky bird has been spared that fate due to a presidential pardon.

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith told ABC News that while the Constitution does not enumerate the presidential power of a turkey pardon, the annual event is one of the ceremonial functions that have developed over the years and is now part of this country's Thanksgiving tradition.

"I suspect it's not one of the reasons why people spend two years of their lives in Holiday Inns running for the presidency," Smith said. "But along with war and peace and recession and Supreme Court nominations you get to pardon a turkey every year."

"I hereby pardon Courage so that he can live out the rest of his days in peace and tranquility in Disneyland," Mr. Obama said, looking over at the white-feathered bird.

If for some reason Courage the Turkey was not able to live up to his "official duties" (which essentially consisted of sitting there and not biting the president), an alternate, Carolina, was nearby and ready to step in.

Later today, the two turkeys will enjoy a luxurious first-class flight to freedom -- in their case, Southern California where they will take part in the Thanksgiving Day parade at Disneyland on Thursday.

Courage will serve as the parade's honorary grand marshal, and the two turkeys then will live out their days at the park's Frontierland.

Turkeys Trained to Behave Around Humans at North Carolina Farm

Courage and Carolina were raised on the Bryant Worley Family Farm in Princeton.

Debbie Worley told ABC News that she believes her family was selected to raise the prestigious pardoned turkey because her large family was able to prepare the turkey to be around crowds.

Worley said they started out with 20 turkeys this summer to see which would be best able to work with people (meaning, not have an incident with the president.)

From that large group, the Worleys narrowed it down to two: Courage and Carolina.

"We started out simply by our grandchildren coming into the pen and playing with them with an adult, a supervisor," Worley said. "We would pick the turkeys up and put them on our lap and rub the back and that's how we did it for probably the first two weeks. From there a little more interaction with them to the point that we could pick them up and put them on a table like they will be doing in the Rose Garden."

Worley said her grandchildren would stand beside the table and sing "a lot" to the turkey.

Courage's favorite song?

"'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,'" Worley said, laughing.

Courage and Carolina were given a good-luck sendoff in North Carolina on Monday and since then have been holed up at the swank Willard Hotel in Washington, the same hotel where Indian Prime Minister Singh is staying while in town for a state visit.

"Back home I was in a meeting and I said something about staying at the Willard and someone said, 'Oh, that's fabulous,' and I said, 'Well, the turkeys are, too,' and they did not believe that," Worley said.

The Worleys will be at the White House today for the ceremony and will accompany the turkeys to California.

Tradition of Presidential Thanksgiving Turkey Dates Back to Lincoln

There is some question over when the first presidential turkey pardon actually occurred, according to presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, who said the tradition may have its origins in the White House of Abraham Lincoln.

Smith said Lincoln's son Tad befriended a turkey and lobbied his father to save it from ending up as dinner. Lincoln, being "kindhearted as he was," agreed and "that's one of the first presidential turkey pardons," Smith said.

President Harry Truman is credited with granting the first presidential pardon to a turkey in the modern era, back in 1947. He was the first president to be presented with a Thanksgiving bird by the National Turkey Federation.

But in fact, Smith said, Truman may have actually just received the turkey and not given the official reprieve.

"We know, because there are photographs, wonderful photographs, of presidents going back to Harry Truman, being presented a turkey," Smith said. He said the Trumans were "presented a couple of turkeys, ostensibly for their dinner."

Smith said the first known "official" turkey pardon was in 1989, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, when he used the word "pardon" at his annual Thanksgiving turkey event.

"Let me assure you and this fine Tom Turkey that he will not end up on anyone's dinner table -- not this guy," Bush said on Nov. 17, 1989. "He's granted a presidential pardon as of right now and ... allow him to live out his days on a children's farm not far from here."

His son, former President George W. Bush, enjoyed the annual tradition and hammed it up each year with the pardoned turkey.

In 2001, Bush nearly got pecked by one feisty bird who was sitting unrestrained on a table in the Rose Garden.

Lesson learned. In subsequent years the pardoned turkey has been held by a handler to avoid any incidents.

Bush even used the turkey pardon to play up the dark side of his vice president, Dick Cheney. Presenting the pardoned turkeys in 2007, Bush noted that they were named "May and Flower," a tribute to the Pilgrims.

"They're certainly better than the names the vice president suggested, which was Lunch and Dinner," Bush said.

Even though Courage and Carolina will be spared from becoming dinner, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has asked Obama to ensure that the pardoned turkeys "receive the care necessary to give them the lengthy, happy lives they deserve" and send them to an animal sanctuary instead of Disneyland.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events