Every Thanksgiving, the U.S. president gathers a crowd outside of the White House to “pardon” a turkey or two, sparing them from sharing the same fate as the 46 million turkeys killed for U.S. Thanksgiving celebrations each fall. But are their lives actually spared, or will President Biden be sitting down to eat them on Thursday evening? Dun dun dun...
Read on to find out exactly what happens to the turkeys the president pardons for Thanksgiving.
What happens to the turkey the president pardons?
Though imperfect, the turkeys pardoned by the president have a far better fate than most turkeys raised in the U.S. — and a pretty suite life (pun definitely intended) in the days leading up to the ceremony, too.
Before the presidential ceremony, the two turkeys (usually one is an alternate, but sometimes both get pardoned) get to spend a few days sharing a luxurious room at the Willard Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. Yes, jumping on the plush beds is allowed.
The birds are typically introduced to the public during a press conference ahead of the official turkey pardoning ceremony. Then, after the president pardons the turkeys, they are off to a new forever home.
Since 2016, the pardoned turkeys typically head from the ceremony to their permanent retirement home at Gobblers Rest. The enclosure is located at Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, where the pardoned turkeys are bedding, heat, food, water, and outdoor access for the rest of their lives, according to WAMU. In the past, pardoned turkeys have been sent to retire everywhere from Disney World to a farm in New Jersey, as per Inside Edition.
But in 2022, the two pardoned turkeys — more on them in a moment — are heading elsewhere. For the first time, they are heading to North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
At the university, they will live in a 100-square-foot, climate-controlled pen "under the expert care of university poultry specialists and students." The school is also working on a "biosecure mobile coop" that will be used to transport the turkeys to the North Carolina State Fair and other events "for public viewing and educational outreach."
“The most important part of this whole partnership is the education component,” said Grimes. “These turkeys will help us educate students and inform the public about modern farming practices, North Carolina agriculture, and the importance of the poultry industry.”
So even the department's interim head Peter Ferket described the facility as a "retirement home" for the two turkeys, unfortunately, they will not truly be treated to a retirement. They may have been spared from being slaughtered, but they will be used to teach people about "the importance of the poultry industry" — which profits upon breeding and killing turkeys and chickens, and has an immense environmental impact.
How long do the pardoned turkeys live?
Fortunately, the pardoned turkeys get to live out the rest of their lives without fear of winding up in a slaughterhouse. Unfortunately, the remainder of their lives is not very long.
As Rami Dalloul, a poultry immunologist and Virginia Tech professor, explained on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, Thanksgiving turkeys have been bred to grow very big very fast to make them ideal for human consumption, and they are generally slaughtered at around 14 weeks of age, when they weigh between 12 and 15 pounds.
The turkeys used for the presidential pardon are already a bit older and heavier than that, and typically only live for a few years before they pass away, Dalloul added, even though a turkey’s lifespan in the wild can be up to 15 years.
What turkeys are Biden pardoning in 2022?
On Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, three days ahead of Thanksgiving, Biden pardoned two turkeys: Chocolate and Chip.
"Today, based on their temperament and commitment to be productive members of society, I hereby pardon this year’s National Thanksgiving Turkey – Chocolate," Biden stated on Instagram. "And should he be unable to uphold his duties I also hereby pardon his alternate, Chip."
And during the ceremony, held on Monday, Biden's turkey pardoning speech was — of course — filled with wordplay and dad jokes. He also made a crack about the recent midterm election results.
"The votes are in. They’ve been counted and verified. There’s no ballot stuffing. There’s no fowl play," he told the crowd. "The only red wave this season is going to be [if] a German Shepherd, Commander knocks over the cranberry sauce on our table," he joked, referring to his dog.
If the pardoning ceremony has inspired you to skip the turkey this Thanksgiving, you may consider joining a few celebrities and symbolically adopting a turkey instead. And check out our recommendations of plant-based turkey roasts, meatless Thanksgiving dishes, and vegan Thanksgiving side dishes.
This article, originally published on Nov. 24, 2020, has been updated to reflect the 2022 turkey pardoning.