I only realized how strange this social custom is when I started thinking about animal rights. At the risk of looking like a spoil-sport, I cannot help but point out how bizarre it is that the president should pardon a turkey each Thanksgiving, in a feel-good spirit of mercy and generosity, yet continue to eat turkey. On one hand, the pardon acknowledges the idea that saving the life of a turkey is in some way desirable. It’s a light-hearted ceremony, designed so that we can give ourselves a pat on the back for rescuing these creatures. Each year the press covers it in an “aw-shucks, ain’t-that-cute?” tone and no one ever points out that without a corresponding drop in demand for turkey, this pardon is an empty gesture. I could understand if the president pardoned a turkey and then abstained from eating another. As it stands, the White House staff buys another turkey for the president to eat, thereby continuing the cycle of demand for the slaughter of turkeys. While one turkey is pardoned, another heads to the back of the line to pick up the slack.
To compound the strangeness of the whole affair, President Trump, in his wisdom, has named the two turkeys Drumstick and Wishbone. The line between “cute” and “morbid” has never been so thin. You can even note their musical tastes in the following images tweeted out by the White House.
To clarify, although only one turkey, Drumstick, is officially pardoned, both will go off to live out the rest of their days at a sanctuary in Virginia. These turkeys are about a year old, which is ancient compared to the majority of factory farmed turkeys who are slaughtered from 14-20 weeks old. This happy ending is somewhat spoiled by the fact that these birds cannot live for very long either. It’s doubtful that they will reach 2 years of age. The genetics of poultry have been so manipulated that the birds are freakishly huge, unable to reproduce naturally, and prone to congenital defects.
The custom actually started to appease animal rights groups picketing outside of George H.W. Bush’s White House in 1989. When the National Turkey Federation (NTF) brought a turkey to the White House, as the organization has done each year since 1947, Bush said “But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy—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.” I like to think that the animal rights activists weren’t appeased.
Of course, those activists would then risk appearing fastidious and without humor, as I may appear right now. That’s the problem with seriously criticizing an event seen by the vast majority of Americans as a whimsical media spectacle. By simple appeal to the majority, it’s easy to write off these concerns as crazy—playing into the view that the animal rights movement is hysterical and overly dramatic.
Perhaps there are also things to like about the gesture. It implicitly acknowledges that our typical Thanksgiving meal depends on marching turkeys to an unpleasant end. Many would rather not acknowledge this. Typically we are numb to the relationship between “meat” and “animals.” We know intellectually that meat depends on slaughtering animals, but the unpleasantness of this rarely sinks in emotionally. And if naming the pardoned turkey after food made from his body parts doesn’t make the connection sink in, then nothing will.