Why in the World Do U.S. Presidents Pardon Turkeys?

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 
Biden pardoning turkey
U.S. President Joe Biden pardons Peanut Butter during the 74th anniversary of the National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation in the Rose Garden, promising Peanut Butter and his turkey pal Jelly, that instead of getting basted, they were getting boosted. Biden is seen with (left) chairman of the National Turkey Federation Phil Seger and Indiana turkey grower Andrea Welp (center). Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images

U.S. presidents have a lot to say, but once a year, they really "talk turkey." That's at least what President Joe Biden said he was going to do on a fine November day in 2021 when he had his first opportunity to stand in the White House Rose Garden and pardon the annual Thanksgiving turkey.

As has become the norm, Biden pardoned two turkeys in 2021 — Peanut Butter and Jelly — who received reprieves before heading off to Indiana University.


The official pardoning of White House turkey is now a familiar event that the press, well, eats up. President Barack Obama was known for pulling out his very best dad jokes each year (see video below), and the turkey names just seem to get better every November — think Mac and Cheese, Tater and Tot, Cobbler and Gobbler, and Corn and Cob.

"This is my absolute favorite White House tradition," says Lina Mann, historian at The White House Historical Association. "It's just very fun, which I think is why it endures. It's a way for the presidents to show off their sillier sides."

It certainly is silly, and that leads us to the questions, when and how did this compassionate, yet odd, tradition hatch? It's definitely a departure from the usual duties of a U.S. president.


The Early Days of Presidents and Poultry

Reagan pardoning turkey
The 1987 national turkey, Charlie, was in a "fowl" mood when President Ronald Reagan pardoned him. It was the first time a president used the term "pardon" during the ceremony. National Archives and Records Administration

Today, the pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey is a lighthearted event, and it has a long history. One theory about its origins is that it began when President Abraham Lincoln's son asked that the family's Christmas turkey be spared. But the tradition developed in fits and starts, according to Mann.

In the latter half of the 19th century, citizens began sending turkeys to the president at the White House for the holidays. Thanksgiving had become a national holiday in 1863 and by the 1870s, Rhode Island poultry man Horace Vose had begun gifting fully dressed turkeys to the White House.


Vose continued sending the turkeys each year, and newspapers started to report on his efforts, making him a well-known purveyor of poultry. By the time Theodore Roosevelt was president, Vose was still sending fully dressed turkeys to the White House. Then a newspaper published an article claiming Roosevelt's children had terrorized the turkey they received. Mann says the story was clearly false because Vose did not send live turkeys at that time; he sent "fully dressed" turkeys, as in ones already prepared to be cooked.

That does not mean that presidents never received live turkeys — or other animals — in those early days. In 1926, someone from Mississippi sent the Coolidges a live racoon for the president's Thanksgiving table. Luckily for the raccoon, Grace Coolidge, the 30th president's wife, took a shine to it and kept it as a family pet, naming it Rebecca. Young Rebecca proceeded to live a charmed life, earning press coverage and attending the 1927 White House Easter Egg Roll. She retired to a zoo when Herbert Hoover took over in 1929.


The Poultry Crisis of 1947

Harry Truman pardoning turkey
President Harry Truman (left) was the first president to receive a Thanksgiving turkey from National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board in 1947. Truman Library Institute

In the years following World War II, a food emergency led to the Citizens Food Committee with support from the White House, to request Americans commit to meatless Tuesdays and poultry-less and egg-less Thursdays. The program was designed to "help feed starving Europe and cut our meat bills at home," according to an Oct. 6, 1947, article in The New York Times.

Many Americans were outraged by this idea, especially as the holidays approached, Mann says. In 1947, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day (1948) all fell on Thursdays. Poultry farmers began sending chickens to the White House in protest, launching the campaign "Hens for Harry," named for President Harry Truman.


The poultry-less program quickly lost steam, and the Poultry and Egg National Board and the Turkey Federation presented Truman with a turkey weighing a whopping 47 pounds (21 kilograms) that December, creating a new annual tradition. The Truman White House Thanksgiving table did forego pumpkin pie that year in honor of going egg-free.

The First "Official" Turkey Pardon

John F. Kennedy pardons turkey
President John F. Kennedy pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey Nov. 19, 1963, just three days before he was assassinated in Dallas. Abbie Rowe/White House Photographs/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented a bird to the president each year, but letting the birds live past Thanksgiving Thursday occurred sporadically for the next few decades.

In 1963, President John Kennedy pardoned a turkey three days before his assassination. Kennedy had received a bird wearing a sign "Good Eating, Mr. President!" but chose instead not to find out, stating, "Let's keep him going."


First lady Rosalynn Carter opted to send a turkey to a live out its life in a mini zoo in 1978. By the time Ronald Reagan took office, sending the pardoned turkeys to farms had become the norm, according to Mann. Although it wasn't yet an official pardoning ceremony, it had become a fun event.

The first "official" turkey pardoning ceremony took place during the presidency of George H. W. Bush. On Nov. 17, 1989, Bush and others headed to the Rose Garden to save the life of one lucky bird.

"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 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," President Bush said.


Where Do the Pardoned Turkeys Go?

Obama pardons turkey
President Barack Obama and his daughters Sasha (second from right) and Malia (far right) participate in the 2015 National Thanksgiving Turkey pardon ceremony in the Rose Garden with National Turkey Federation Chairman Jihad Douglas (center). Pete Souza/The Obama White House

All presidents after the first Bush have maintained the tradition and a lucky turkey — or turkeys — is pardoned each November. Today, they are sent from a different U.S. farm or farmer each year through the National Turkey Federation, Mann says.

More recently, the norm has been for two turkeys to arrive — the main turkey and an alternate. One turkey is placed on the table with the president while the other waits in the wings (think turkey understudy) because you never know how a turkey might act onstage. Both turkeys receive the pardon and live out their days away from the dinner table.


Just where the turkeys go after the ceremonies has changed throughout the years, too, Mann says. Kennedy sent the 1963 turkey back to the farm, while Nixon sent his turkey to a petting zoo.

Bush chose to send his turkeys to Frying Pan Park Farm in Herndon, Virginia. During the Obama administration, turkeys named Courage and Carolina headed to Disneyland (yes, really). After Courage (the main turkey) starred in the Disneyland Thanksgiving Day Parade, he and Carolina (the understudy) retired to Big Thunder Ranch petting zoo.