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Ask Dr. Jenn: What Happens to a Pardoned Thanksgiving Turkey?

I know it’s tradition for the President to pardon a turkey on Thanksgiving. What happens to the turkey and how long will it live?

November 10, 2023 2 min read
Ask Dr. Jenn: What Happens to a Pardoned Thanksgiving Turkey?

The first turkey pardoned by a President occurred in 1863 when President Lincoln’s son begged him to spare the turkey from their Thanksgiving meal so he could keep it as a pet.

Another turkey pardon didn’t occur again until 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was presented with a turkey wearing the sign “Good Eating, Mr. President”. President Kennedy said, “Let’s keep him going” and sent the turkey to a children’s farm. The press stated that the turkey had been pardoned.

Turkeys were pardoned sporadically by presidents and first ladies for another 25 years. However, it became an annual tradition in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush granted the first official Presidential Pardon when he stated "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.”

The turkeys pardoned by presidents go to a variety of places, including petting zoos, farms, and Universities where they are allowed to live out their lives until they die of natural causes.

The average lifespan of a wild turkey is three to five years. Domesticated turkeys living in captivity tend to live much longer. Female turkeys can live up to twelve to eighteen years.

The turkeys pardoned by presidents are usually Tom turkeys, specifically bred to be eaten. They have been bred to grow quickly and have larger breasts and muscles so they have more meat. The large amount of breast muscle makes it so they can’t fly. It is also very hard on their legs to support all of the extra weight and the ligaments and tendons will break down, leading to arthritis and fractures. In addition, Tom turkeys are more prone to high blood pressure and aneurysms causing aortic ruptures.

A male Tom turkey is considered geriatric at about eight years of age. But considering most Toms become Thanksgiving dinner before they are one year old, I am sure they enjoy their extra years peacefully on a farm near Washington D.C.


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