My Turkey Pardon

Biden got one thing right at the turkey pardon, but I’m not sure he knows what it meant.

“Alright, folks! Should I save some turkeys today?” That’s how Joe Biden started the annual pardon ceremony, one of America’s wackiest and most storied traditions. Depending on who you believe, the event dates back to George Bush Senior, Reagan, Truman, or even Abraham Lincoln, who supposedly pardoned a turkey named Jack at his son Tad’s request in 1863. Today, the event is engineered by the National Turkey Federation, and it doesn’t just feature a lot of pomp and circumstance; it’s basically just that. Every November, the industry group showcases a rotating selection of one of the companies it lobbies for by sending two birds to the White House. This year, the spotlight was on Jennie-O, a multi-million dollar behemoth and the second largest producer of turkeys in the country. 

On the afternoon of November 2nd, Wayne Hsiung, a California-based activist and former law professor, was convicted and jailed (pending sentencing) for rescuing sick chickens from a factory farm. On the night of the second, I walked into a Jennie-O turkey farm and did a little pardoning of my own.

Of course, “pardon” is the wrong word—the thousands of turkeys I found in the cavernous barn I stopped by hadn’t done anything wrong. This is a fine point that underlines the weirdness and conspicuous silliness of the whole concept (one which apparently warrants a morning of the most powerful man in the world’s time). Occasionally, various presidents feel obliged to point it out—or can’t resist, in spite of themselves. At the same event in 2016, Barack Obama said that “I want to take a moment to recognize the brave turkeys who weren’t so lucky, who didn’t get to ride the gravy train to freedom, who met their fate with courage and sacrifice and proved that they weren’t chicken.” Trump went even further, saying at the 2020 pardon, “Thanksgiving is a special day for turkeys—I guess, probably for the most part, not a very good one when you think about it.” The fact that the “pardon” isn’t really a pardon at all is the punchline to the joke, the core, naked absurdity without which the tradition wouldn’t have legs. 

People seem to have fun with the turkey pardon—even if the laughter sounds a little forced, and one might speculate that the morbidity-cloaked-in-pageantry leaves some needing to shake off a feeling of slight unease. But while this year’s turkeys, Liberty and Bell, surely appreciate that they’ll get to continue living their lives, those lives may be short. Domestic turkeys have been genetically re-shaped to grow at a catastrophic rate to reach slaughter at just a few months old, and they’re massively overweight and deformed compared to their wild relatives. Past presidential birds, like 2016’s “Tater” and “Tot,” only lived for a few months after their pardon. Still, Liberty and Bell are at least more likely to dine on honeycrisp apples, which Biden says he’s been told they enjoy, than their millions of near-identical siblings who’ll be slaughtered before the next Thanksgiving pardon comes around.

Biden thanked Steve Lykken, the President of the Turkey Federation who was in attendance, and told the audience the two birds had been raised on Lykken’s “family farm” in Minnesota. The term “family farm” implies something small and cozy, and this is an image the industry pushes hard, leaning on the narrative of the hardworking, weathered-handed farmer trying to feed America and his family. It’s a narrative Biden clearly embraces, like most politicians do. In reality, though, 99 percent of the animals raised for food in the U.S. come from factory farms, and turkeys are no exception.

There were probably a thousand birds in the Jennie-O barn I visited that night, which was only one of several that composed just that one farm. Said barn was featureless except for some feeders, litter on the ground, and a couple of fans that did their best with air that was so foul-smelling it started to make my throat burn after a while. And, of course, the turkeys. It was like walking into the New Orleans Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, but with fewer amenities—an accidental-feeling arrangement, where living beings were dumped in a place that was never made to be lived in, but which they’d had to make the best of. The turkeys regarded me like an uncontacted Amazonian tribe would a nervous missionary, with a dignity and keen scrutiny I was unprepared for.

I wanted to see what I’d find in this so-called “family farm”, and the result was gruesome in such a way that the specifics feel hardly worth relating. Most people check out, understandably, when given a list of the harrowing things one is apt to find in a factory farm—but here goes. Cannibalism. A great number of birds dead and dying, or crippled and starving. And birds getting by as best they could, cuddling and preening each other in clusters that exuded familiarity. They were like small, white islands in a storm. Or, well, white-ish; in spite of the best efforts of their compatriots, they were quite dirty, often with blood from the fighting their lifestyle induces in the characteristically gentle species.

Jennie-O cares about turkeys, and you should too. I saw the sign on the wall on my way out, as I carried the first of the two turkeys I thought I might be able to save if I got them emergency veterinary care, who I called Gabriel. As I walked briskly—it was very cold—along the windowless barn that stretched as long as two football fields, and toward the relative comfort and safety waiting at the edge of the property, I realized that Gabriel had never seen the sky. Or much of anything, but the sky seemed particularly important. It was before dawn, and, partly to distract myself from my jangled nerves, partly out of sleep-deprived childlike talkativeness, I said to him, “Hey, this is called the outside! It’s not always dark like this. There’s this thing called the ‘sun’ that’ll blow your mind.” Gabe was half the size of the rest of the turkeys, probably due to malnutrition. He had a ghastly wound on one wing, the bone protruding, but he seemed interested in what I had to say. 

The other turkey, I’d learn from a vet in the morning, had approximately a snowflake’s chance in hell of surviving even with the best care. Even easily treatable conditions, in factory farms, are usually a death sentence—an animal whose whole body gets a $25 price tag by the time it’s passed all the way through the supply chain, from the hatchery to the supermarket, is not worth the money to save. I called him Gilbert. I’d found Gilbert lying under a feeder, barely able to move but trying his best to reach whatever grain he could. He had a large infected scab covering most of his head, and a one-inch-diameter hole in his genital area where he’d been pecked by other turkeys, among other ailments. The hole has mostly healed up now, but the scab is still there. He’s still very handsome. 

gilbert / photo courtesy of kecia doolitttle

They’ll spend the rest of their lives at a sanctuary, if they make it. Gabriel is doing well, thanks to his four medications and careful tending. Gilbert’s fate is less certain. I can’t lie, Gilbert is my favorite. Both boys are curious explorers, with distinct personalities and what feel like old souls, and spirits that seem, strangely, completely unbroken. But Gilbert, when he first got to his refuge, stood up. The vets said he should be euthanized, that he’d never be able to walk normally even if he got significantly better. I guess he was waiting until he felt like it. He stood there, looking around, for a while, very much awake. I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt awkward with the both of them, their presence so self-possessed. The situation was odd for all three of us. I started up some music, a classical playlist, on Spotify. I’d read somewhere that turkeys like music. I didn’t expect them to like it SO much, so visibly. Gilbert softened and closed his eyes, and Gabriel listened too, frozen with interest.

A music-box lullaby version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” started to play. This song was the clear winner: Gilbert began listing from side to side, occasionally righting himself with a jolt like someone nodding off on a long, late-night car drive. I realized he felt uncertain about lowering himself back to the ground, his barrel-chest a lot for his little legs to carry on the descent, even at just ten weeks old. I laid down next to him and tentatively put my hands around his ribcage, under the wings, where he still has his baby feathers, letting him know I could support him then, if he wanted. After a moment, he sank down into my arms. We sat there together, for a while, in the darkness. 

Biden got one thing right at the pardon. He said, referring to the pardonees, “freedom has a new meaning for Liberty and Bell… today is their day.” And it was true. It’s no less true of the two I’ll presumptuously call “my” boys, even if our time together was brief. And it’s no less true of the thousands I looked back at as I stepped out of the barn, wondering what to say, what to feel, considering their situation. They looked strong. Like they knew the odds, but they’d hold out some hope for a miracle, because what else could they do? It was impressive. I mean, what can any of us do, right? But they seemed to be tougher and wiser about the facts of life and death than most humans. Life, death, and what every day is worth, whether you’re one of “the lucky ones” or not. It was like they knew who they were, even if nobody else did, and that was enough. 

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