The $15,000 turkey

Behind the scenes of raising the National Thanksgiving Turkey
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The two-hour trip to Washington, D.C., had been a bit unsettling for the pair of male turkeys, otherwise known as toms, or gobblers.

Their anxiety was exacerbated when they arrived at the press conference at the W Hotel, where they would be staying before their big day.

Pardoned turkeys
Former Virginia Gov. Westmoreland Davis with his turkeys at Morven Park, the newest home for pardoned turkeys (Courtesy of the National Turkey Federation)

“I could tell one bird was on the edge and wanted to be somewhere familiar. He wouldn’t eat. The other one was eating OK,” said Dr. Bob Evans, senior veterinarian for Cargill Turkey Production.

Around 3 the next morning, still concerned for the bird, Dr. Evans went to the turkeys’ hotel room—a suite with sawdust and wood chips on the floor and a special avian “munchie box” with corn and cranberries—to check on it.

“I walk over, and he lays his head on me. I had him eating out of my hand,” he said. That turkey, Cobbler, ended up being the bird who was officially pardoned by President Barack Obama the next day during the 2012 National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation in the Rose Garden.

“He did great. He strutted the whole time and put on a show that was incredible,” Dr. Evans said.

Picking the right one

Had you asked the poultry veterinarian a few years ago whether he had ever imagined himself bathing a turkey, brushing its feathers, and having it eating out of his hand, Dr. Evans’ response would have been “Are you kidding me?”

But that’s exactly what he did to prepare the birds for the big day.

Every year, the National Turkey Federation helps organize the presentation of a live turkey to the president of the United States just before Thanksgiving Day. The president invariably grants a “pardon” to the bird.

John Burkel’s daughters with a poult
One of John Burkel’s daughters with a poult from this year’s flock of potential National Thanksgiving Turkeys (Courtesy of the National Turkey Federation)

Keith M. Williams, vice president for communications and marketing at the NTF, said the delivery of the National Thanksgiving Turkey by the federation began during the Harry S. Truman administration. Governors also got turkeys during that time. However, it wasn’t until the time of President George H.W. Bush that the full pardoning ceremony began (see sidebar).

The way it works, the federation formally asks to visit the White House and to give a gift to the president. Then, the NTF chairman receives a formal invitation typically for the day before Thanksgiving.

The chairman brings two turkeys. “There’s always a stand-in, like a vice president,” Williams said.

Though only one receives the official pardon, both are spared the butcher’s knife.

Dr. Evans was asked to help last year by then NTF Chairman Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill Turkey Production.

The two turkeys were chosen from a small flock raised for this purpose. Dr. Evans had to adhere to the NTF’s Animal Care Best Management Prac­tices, which include recommendations ranging from biosecurity to a daily health evaluation. Turkey flocks are inspected at least twice a day, and more frequently when they are first placed in the barns.

Aside from providing health care, Dr. Evans, in the final weeks, was the hands-on handler.

Last year’s 40 turkeys were raised on a farm near Harrisonburg, Va.

They received a lot of human contact and were played music around the clock to get used to loud noises and voices.

Dr. Evans with Cobbler and Gobbler
Dr. Bob Evans with Cobbler and Gobbler the day before the 2012 National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation (Courtesy of Dr. Bob Evans)

A few weeks before the event, the flock had to be narrowed down by about half.

“The thing with the tom turkey is you don’t know how they’re going to color up at that critical age. We had to wait until we knew which birds we wouldn’t take, so we didn’t condition all of them,” Dr. Evans said.

He added, “You want a bird to be pretty—lots of blue and red and white—but you also need personality. We had one picked out that had all the personality—he was my favorite by far; he did everything right from the beginning—but he never colored, so we had to eliminate him.”

One of the final two, Cobbler, enjoyed cranberries and Carly Simon. The other, Gobbler, loved corn and enjoyed any music with a fiddle.

How was that known? “They gobble when you play music,” Dr. Evans said.

Besides playing music for the birds, Dr. Evans also never thought he’d spend hours grooming them.

“I was literally giving them baths and brushing them and trying to keep their feathers clean,” he said.

The estimated cost of raising the birds: $375 a pound. These birds weighed around 40 pounds, so overall, about $15,000 a turkey.

Preparing for the big 2013 day

This year’s turkeys were raised by John Burkel, current chairman of the National Turkey Federation. He’s a fourth-generation turkey grower who raises 13,000 hens every three to four weeks, from January to November, for the city of Thief River Falls’ cooperative processing plant, Northern Pride. Of course, this experience is new to him.

“You do, to some extent, individually bond with a flock, realizing that to take care of a whole flock is to take care of each bird. It’s just not every day you’re presenting them in front of the president,” he said.

Back in July, he received a box of day-old poults. About three weeks later, he and his wife, Joni, and their five kids picked out 20 from the 80 that “looked like they had some personality” and moved them to a shed that he had built behind his house.

Burkel had the radio playing all day (“lots of John Mayer”) and sometimes all night (“Vivaldi is my favorite”) along with broadcasts of one of his daughters’ volleyball games. Burkel’s dogs would also mingle among the flock. Burkel said one of the past chairmen advised him to make sure they were used to dogs, because President George W. Bush’s dog Barney went after the turkey one year.

The turkeys also had “tabletop exercises” in which they were trained to be calm standing on a higher surface. The group was whittled down from 20 to six as of mid-October.

“It’s getting to the point where you can tell who’s got that camera presence. You can tell the ones that seem to want to cooperate,” he said.

Before the turkeys leave for D.C., they are having visitors of their own. Children from the local elementary school came to see the turkeys, and so did a chemistry class from the high school that helped Burkel draw blood on his flock as a lesson on how to conduct avian influenza surveillance.

Burkel said the NTF realizes that turkeys at Thanksgiving have become a part of the image of being thankful, and the organization is happy to be associated with that.

“And doing the event is a great time to reiterate that to the public­—that what we bring to the table, so to speak, is safe, nutritious food, and the fact that the president is doing that with us is great,” Burkel said.

Pardon me

In 1947, the National Turkey Federation took on the role of official turkey supplier to the president of the United States, delivering a bird in time for the Christmas holiday, which later changed to Thanksgiving. That year, the White House also began holding a turkey receiving ceremony, usually in the Rose Garden, providing a photo op that many confuse with the beginning of the pardoning tradition. Back then, birds were more likely to be destined for the White House dining table, according to the White House Historical Association.

Turkeys had been spared before, such as when Abraham Lincoln’s son, Tad, successfully begged his father to write out a presidential pardon for the bird meant for the family’s Christmas table. And on Nov. 19, 1963, President John F. Kennedy decided to send that year’s gift from the National Turkey Federation back to the farm where it came from. “We’ll just let this one grow,” he said. Three days later, JFK was assassinated.

“President George H.W. Bush was the first to actually offer a turkey pardon. On Nov. 14, 1989, he announced that year’s bird had ‘been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.’ He sent the turkey on its way to Frying Pan Park in Herndon, Va., and with that, a tradition was born,” according to a Nov. 23, 2011, White House Blog entry.

The park received the White House turkeys until 2004.

In 2005, the two pardoned birds—Marshmallow and Yam—were “a little skeptical about going to a place called Frying Pan Park,” said then President George W. Bush. “I don’t blame them.”

From 2005-2010, Disneyland or Walt Disney World accepted the birds, where they were honorary grand marshals at the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Then a few years ago, Mount Vernon, George Washington’s northern Virginia home, began accepting the birds. They go on public view as part of the “Christmas at Mount Vernon” exhibition, with a camel named Aladdin.

But now, instead of residing there permanently, for the first time this year, the turkeys will move after the holidays to Morven Park, once the home of former Virginia Gov. Westmoreland Davis, who raised turkeys. They will be fed corn, soybeans, and minerals and will be kept in comfort-controlled long turkey houses. The park already has two Bronze turkeys, the same breed that was raised there in the early 1900s.

The average lifespan of pardoned turkeys isn’t well documented. A Huffington Post article last year quoted Disneyland Resort spokesman John McClintock saying they had been able to keep a few turkeys alive beyond their expected one to two years, thanks to a special diet devised by Disney animal keepers. The NTF says Liberty from 2011 and Cobbler from 2012 are still alive and doing great. Disney confirmed that Courage from 2009 is also going strong.

In the commercial industry, most turkeys are sent for processing at 20 weeks of age. The turkey breeder industry uses breeding males just over a year, according to Dr. Helen Wojcinski, science and sustainability manager at Hendrix Genetics.

For more information about this year’s National Thanksgiving Turkey, go here.

or, to learn more about the National Turkey Federation, visit this site

And to learn more about this history of the event, check this out.