News & Politics

Turkeys Are Mass Hysteria: A Turkey Pardon Dispatch

At America's most beloved lobbying event, two turkeys were condemned to unpleasant (if delayed) fates.

Photograph by Sylvie McNamara.

When I arrive on the South Lawn of the White House, the pardoning turkeys are loose: two substantial birds—nearly waist-high to their human handlers—with no leashes or cages, ambling across the grounds. One of them casually pecks at the grass while the other beats his wings, and I’m surprised they’re not making a break for it: Do these creatures truly believe that the President of the United States will personally spare their lives? I wouldn’t, but to each his own.

Chocolate and Chip are two hefty boys from North Carolina. They have pristine white bodies with iridescent blue heads from which dangle waggly tubes of nose skin that—I Googled it—are called “snoods.” Surprisingly charismatic, these birds have the exuberant plumage of a wealthy flapper, and their gait is oddly dignified as they strut across the lawn. I’m straining to see them from within the cramped press pen, where everyone around me is Slacking turkey pictures to their bosses and writing articles on their phones. 

Chocolate and Chip roam the South Lawn. Photo by Sylvie McNamara.

The turkey pardon is a bizarre and wondrous ritual, a ceremonial act of Presidential mercy—sponsored by the poultry industry—that each year condemns two of God’s creatures to horrible deaths of organ failure while the American public chuckles and sharpens their knives. You see, the lifespan of a wild turkey tends to be five-ish years, but the pardoned turkeys are grown for meat, and meat turkeys gain fat so quickly that their bodies literally shut down. Put another way: If they aren’t slaughtered posthaste, their organs give out, often within a year.

This grim fate is not what I imagined as a child, back when I figured there was a farm someplace where all the pardoned turkeys would pal around—the Bush turkeys squabbling with the Obama turkeys, the Clinton turkeys getting handsy with the farm interns. But at some point, I learned the reality, which—perversely—did not dampen my enthusiasm for the pardon. Nor did learning about the Guantanamo-style media training that these turkeys undergo—a barrage of bright lights and loud noises that weeds out all but the most desensitized birds, the two least likely to go postal in front of a clapping, flashbulbing crowd. 

Overseeing this madness is the National Turkey Federation, a turkey industry lobbying group whose website, no joke, is “eat turkey dot org.” The NTF—which we shall henceforth call “Big Fowl”—is the sponsor of the annual turkey pardon, an event designed to make turkeys seem lovable and patriotic and delicious to eat. 

Chocolate and Chip Pardoned Turkeys
Chocolate and Chip at the National Turkey Federation press conference Sunday. Photograph by Evy Mages

That should be a tougher sell, since turkey meat is not very good. Eating turkey is mass hysteria, a marketing coup by the kinds of people who could sell thumbscrews to a hemophiliac, or who could make a brazen lobbying event into a beloved holiday tradition. A couple years ago, my husband and I tried to give turkey one last chance and we splurged on an artisanal heritage breed bird that had spent its life feasting on grubs and nettles in some kind of enchanted forest upstate. But do you know how that bird tasted? I bet you do: It tasted bad. 

Nonetheless, Big Fowl has done its job today. I’m almost won over watching Chocolate and Chip fawn around the White House in the sunshine, warbling their hearts out beneath the magnolias and preening for the crowd. There’s wood smoke on the air and the military band is playing a jazzy version of “Free Bird,” all splashy cymbals and brass. Hunter Biden pops out for a moment toting a small child, then the first dog, Commander, appears on the Truman balcony. As Commander stares down at the turkeys, I swear to God he licks his lips.

Turkey Pardon Commander
Photograph by Sylvie McNamara.

Suddenly, the military band cues “Hail to the Chief,” and the President emerges: He’s wearing his aviators and doesn’t look a day over 79. At first, he seems headed for the turkeys—but he snubs poor Chocolate and Chip, greeting the governor of North Carolina before approaching the lectern to speak. “Nobody likes it when their turkey gets cold,” he says—perhaps a nod to his chilly treatment of his guests. Then, “The votes are in, they’ve been counted and verified. There’s no ballot stuffing, there’s no fowl play”: Chocolate will receive the official pardon, although Chip, too, will be allowed to live. 

As Biden begins the pardoning, Chocolate and Chip are not visible. Beside the podium is a turkey table—covered in burlap, strung with garlands of autumnal flowers, pumpkins piled along the sides—and Chocolate is supposed to be on it. But he and Chip are hiding, refusing to cooperate with the good folks from Big Fowl. The President ambles over to figure out what’s going on, and finally, the birds’ minder gets Chocolate on the table, lifting his glorious heft. The President holds the mic to Chocolate’s snood and asks, “Can you talk?” Meanwhile, Chip roams past the podium toward the band.

Chocolate prepares for his pardon while Chip roams free. Photograph by Sylvie McNamara.

This whole situation is demented: The leader of the free world is taking a half hour on a weekday to grant clemency to two doomed, media-savvy birds. But maybe weirder is what came before it. On Sunday, the National Turkey Federation held a press event at the Willard, a five-star hotel by the White House, where Chocolate and Chip awaited their audience with Uncle Joe in style. I couldn’t be there, but one of my coworkers went; she said one of the birds pooped on the hotel carpet, and that they’ll gobble on command when their handlers whistle. Apparently, they get their own luxury suite where they roam free—though they don’t like to sleep in the beds. 

As the President says some words about being grateful for what we have, a commotion arises: Chocolate starts gobbling, Commander barks from the balcony, and a small child is humming nearby, hushed frantically by his White House staffer dad. The reporter next to me takes his notes app out—a file labeled “biden Qs”—and when the president finishes speaking, he shouts “What’s your plan to avoid a national railway strike?” Biden passes in silence while the Big Fowl man rubs Chocolate’s face the way you would massage a jowly dog. 

For the entire event, the President has not seemed remotely interested in the turkeys. Aside from the actual moment of pardoning, he never greets them or even really looks their way. It’s perplexing to me, because they’re more appealing than the throng of people—voters, presumably—whom Biden is now courting as they push against the barricades, clamoring for a handshake. I suppose that’s why he’s President and I’m standing in the cold hoping to glimpse some fowl.

But it’s all over as quick as it began. The birds have been granted clemency. Their fates are sealed. Military escorts gently herd Chocolate and Chip toward the exit, and as they waddle away, I watch their legs—thick as knife handles—and remember that years ago, at a country house, someone gifted me a shellacked turkey leg attached to a wooden dowel. It was a backscratcher—the turkey’s talons would do the scratching—which shows that all turkeys, wild or farmed, can meet dark and twisted fates.

As the military band plays “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” Chocolate and Chip are bound for an animal sanctuary where they will die young—though they will neither be eaten nor shellacked, and will perhaps enjoy the opportunity to peck at a grub or nettle or two. I never learned the patriotic lyrics to “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” so the words in my head are from the schoolyard version: “be kind to your fine feathered friends.”

Sylvie McNamara
Staff Writer