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Why does the president pardon turkeys at the White House every Thanksgiving?

The presidential turkey pardon has been a White House tradition for decades.
/ Source: TODAY

With Thanksgiving just a few days away, the White House is marking one of its quirkiest holiday traditions: the presidential turkey pardon.

Each year, the president pardons one or two lucky gobblers for unspecified offenses, sparing them from the Thanksgiving dinner table.

This year, President Biden will pardon Liberty and Bell, two 42-pound turkeys hailing from Willmar, Minnesota, on the South Lawn of the White House on Nov. 20.

In keeping with tradition, Liberty and Bell spent the evening before their pardon in a luxury suite at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington, D.C.

There’s no doubt the turkey pardon has become a beloved White House tradition, but why do U.S. presidents pardon turkeys to begin with?

The history of the presidential turkey pardon

The National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board began sending U.S. presidents turkeys in 1947, according to the White House Historical Association.

In the early days, these birds were still definitely on the menu. For example, when President Truman received two turkeys in December 1948, he noted that the birds would “come in handy” for Christmas dinner, according to the WHHA.

That said, over the following decades, some presidents informally spared the lives of their gifted turkeys from time to time. 

In 1963, President Kennedy saved a turkey that had been sent to him by the poultry industry, saying he would just “let this one grow,” according to the National Archives.

John Kennedy, pardoning of the turkey at the White House.
Despite the ominous sign hanging from the turkey's neck, President Kennedy let this bird live in 1963, according to the WHHA.Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In 1973, first lady Patricia Nixon also spared the life of a turkey sent to the White House, sending it to live on a children’s farm.

In 1978, first lady Rosalynn Carter followed suit, sending that year’s turkey to live out its days at a mini zoo, according to the WHHA. 

President Nixon Giving Annual Pardon to Thanksgiving Turkey
President Nixon with a turkey in 1969Wally McNamee / Corbis via Getty Images

During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the turkey pardon became more of a regular practice.

However, it wasn’t until 1989, under President George H. W. Bush, that the turkey pardon became an annual tradition.

Bush had been sent a turkey that year, and as animal rights activists picketed nearby, he promised that the bird would not meet an untimely end.

“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 presented a presidential pardon as of right now — and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here,” Bush said, according to the WHHA.

Since then, the turkey pardon became a regular White House tradition.

The WHHA also notes that while a tale has circulated about President Lincoln sparing the first Thanksgiving turkey back in 1863, this is likely a myth.

What happens to the pardoned turkeys?

These days, pardoned Thanksgiving turkeys live out their days in comfort.

After their whirlwind visit to Washington, D.C., this year’s turkeys, Liberty and Bell, will return to their home state of Minnesota and will be cared for by the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences.

“You can imagine the wonderful care they’re going to get from students and veterinarians and professors," Steve Lykken, chairman of the National Turkey Federation, told the Associated Press.