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How Animal Activists Have Subverted the Presidential Turkey Pardon

This Thanksgiving, there are two ways to pardon a turkey.


Tomorrow, President Obama will spare a pair of turkeys from the national Thanksgiving spread. Obama has described America's long-running presidential turkey pardon ritual as "a turkey version of Dancing With the Stars," wherein a selection of camera-ready birds "strut their stuff" before a panel of judges. If they are plucked from the lineup, pardoned turkeys are treated to perks like stays in a D.C. luxury hotel and first-class flights to Disney theme parks, where they are honored as grand marshals of parades. If they are not chosen, they might get a ticket to elsewhere in the park, where a food truck sells deep-fried turkey drumsticks for $8.99 a piece.

"Pardoning is a strange ritual that belies the reality of turkey consumption in the United States," says Gene Baur, president and co-founder of farm animal rescue organization Farm Sanctuary. "The national turkey pardoning event is more of a turkey consumption promotion event."


The annual tradition is spearheaded by the National Turkey Federation, the central advocate for an industry that breeds and slaughters tens of millions of turkeys in the United States each year. Turkey advocates like the NTF arrange for a sample of the product to be spared, then promote the images of the absurd rescue in the hopes of fueling the consumption of millions more. Even the relevant term—"pardon"—implies that most factory-farm turkeys have chosen their own fate, and only a few deserve to live.

Predictably, animal rights activists are not terribly impressed by this show of mercy. But they have yet to alight upon a superior strategy for saving the birds.

In fact, the animal rights approach to the massive Thanksgiving slaughter looks a lot like a pardon. The language has been massaged—these turkeys are "adopted"—and the message has been reframed, but the logistics are the same. In a country where turkeys are bred en masse, a relative handful escape the factory-farm process each year thanks to the efforts of animal rescuers. Baur says that Farm Sanctuary farms host about 50 to 100 turkeys annually, which donors can sponsor through a monthly fee; a much smaller number are placed in individual homes as pets.

That's an imperceptible dent in an industry that has managed to rebrand Thanksgiving "Turkey Day." But think like a turkey: "For the individuals saved, it means a lot," Baur says. And the adopted turkeys are not deployed to more consumerist parades; instead, they are enlisted as "ambassadors" for the vegan lifestyle. "They represent the others that have not been rescued, and encourage people to think about their food choices during the holiday," he says.

And unlike the turkey lobby, animal rights activists are not shy about exploring the cognitive dissonance of the pardoning process. "You certainly don't see the the president really petting the turkeys, interacting with the turkeys," says Los Angeles animal rescuer Karen Dawn, who conducts her own private pardoning practice during the holiday season. Pardon viewers also don't see the fate of the less fortunate birds. "I'll point-blank show you what happens to the rest of the turkeys," Dawn says.

The strategy also comes with a built-in news peg. Promoting dietary modifications like Meatless Mondays may encourage longer-term change. But staging a parallel effort to the presidential pardon sure comes in handy when media organizations—like this one—are looking to inject a little conflict in their obligatory holiday-pegged stories. "I wouldn’t do it if we weren't filming it," Dawn says. Every year, she hosts pairs of turkeys in her home, names them after animal-friendly celebrity couples (like Ellen and Portia or Katy and Russell), invites cute neighborhood kids to tuck the turkeys into bed at night, intersperses the petting footage with video of factory farms, then promotes the final film in widely circulated press releases. "I knew that they would probably get some good media coverage," says Dawn. "They say you have to see a message seven times before it really sinks in."

Animal rights activists have had success piggybacking on the pardon ritual—Dawn once delighted in hearing her voice on the radio on Thanksgiving Day, right when she imagined most American families were preparing to carve up their birds. But efforts to more closely align the dual pardoning processes have not been successful. When Disney stopped hosting pardoned turkeys last year, saying they "don’t fit with the parks’ new promotional theme," Farm Sanctuary made a play to raise them on its own farms. "We have offered to bring them here," says Baur. The turkey industry has yet to take them up on the offer. "I think they know that we'd turn them into ambassadors."

Image courtesy Karen Dawn.

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