President Harry S. Truman receiving a non-pardoned Thanksgiving turkey (this one a Bronze) from members of the Poultry and Egg National Board and other representatives of the turkey industry, outside the White House on November 16, 1949.
The presentation of a turkey to the President each year began in 1947 under President Harry Truman, and many sources erroneously attribute the origin of the turkey pardon to Truman. However, the Truman Library says that no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs or other contemporary records are known to exist that specify that he ever "pardoned" a turkey; there are records that he publicly admitted to eating at least some of them. The Eisenhower Presidential Library says documents in their collection reveal that President Dwight Eisenhower ate the birds presented to him during his two terms. President John F. Kennedy spontaneously spared a turkey on Nov. 18, 1963, just four days before his assassination, but the act was done out of discomfort toward its size, not out of empathy. The bird was wearing a sign reading, "Good Eatin' Mr. President." Kennedy returned the massive 55-pound turkey to the farm, saying "we'll let this one grow." At least one headline in the Los Angeles Times referred to it as a pardon, but Kennedy did not formally refer to it as such. Likewise, Richard Nixon also spared some of the turkeys given to him during his time as President.
The first President on record issuing a "pardon" to his turkey was Ronald Reagan, who pardoned a turkey named Charlie and sent him to a petting zoo in 1987. The reference to it being a pardon was in response to criticism over the Iran-Contra affair, in which Reagan had been questioned on whether or not he would consider pardoning Oliver North (who had yet to be tried for his involvement in the affair); Reagan conjured the turkey pardon as a joke to deflect those questions. Reagan did not pardon a turkey in his final year as President in 1988, but his successor, George H. W. Bush, instituted the turkey pardon as a permanent part of the presentation beginning his first year in office, 1989. Since then, at least one of the turkeys presented to the President has been taken to a farm where it will live out the rest of its natural life. For many years the turkeys were sent to Frying Pan Park in Fairfax County, Virginia. From 2005 to 2009, the pardoned turkeys were sent to either the Disneyland Resort in California or the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, where they served as the honorary grand marshals of Disney's Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, the turkeys were sent to live at Mount Vernon, the estate and home of George Washington; Mount Vernon stopped displaying and accepting the turkeys due to the fact that they violated the estate's policy of maintaining its own historical accuracy (Washington never farmed turkeys). The 2013 and 2014 turkeys were sent to Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia, the estate of former Virginia governor (and prolific turkey farmer) Westmoreland Davis.
The turkeys are raised in the same fashion as turkeys designated for slaughter and are fed a grain-heavy diet of fortified corn and soybeans to increase the birds' size. A flock of approximately 80 birds, typically from the farm of the current National Turkey Federation chairperson, are randomly selected "at birth" from thousands for pardoning and are trained to handle loud noises, flash photography and large crowds; from the flock of 80, the 20 largest and best-behaved are chosen and eventually narrowed down to two finalists, whose names are chosen by the White House staff. Because most Thanksgiving turkeys are bred and raised for size at the expense of longer life, they are prone to health problems associated with obesity such as heart disease, respiratory failure and joint damage. As a result of these factors, most of the pardoned turkeys have very short lives after their pardoning, frequently dying within a year of being pardoned; for comparison, a wild or heritage turkey has a lifespan of at least five years.
President Barack Obama grants the traditional turkey pardon to Liberty during the ceremony at the North Portico of the White House on November 23, 2011. Liberty was one of the few to survive more than a year after being pardoned.
2000: Bill Clinton pardoned "Jerry the Turkey", a 45-pounder hatched 2000-06-05 near Barron in Wisconsin. The pardoned turkey (the eighth in Clinton's presidency) and its unnamed alternate were both sent to Kidwell Farm's petting zoo in Herndon, Virginia.
2001: George W. Bush pardoned Liberty and his back-up Freedom, so named in the wake of 9/11 attacks. They weighed 48 and 52 pounds, respectively.
2002: George W. Bush pardoned the first-ever female turkey in the ceremony, Katie, a 30-pound bird bred by Ron Prestage, Chairman of the National Turkey Federation, as well as alternate bird Zack. The turkeys were named after Prestage's children.
2005: Bush pardoned Marshmallow and alternate bird Yam, raised in Henning, Minnesota. Beginning in 2005 pardoned birds were sent to Disneyland to live, and serve as the "honorary grand marshal" of that year's thanksgiving day parade, following concerns raised by animal rights groups that the birds had not survived for long. For the previous 15 years they had been sent to Frying Pan Park near Herndon, Virginia. Names were generally chosen in online votes taken at the White House website.
2006: Bush pardoned Flyer and alternate bird Fryer, raised in Missouri.
2007: Bush pardoned 45-pound May and backup Flower, raised in Indiana.
2008: Bush pardoned 45-pound backup "vice" turkey named Pumpkin, after the number one turkey Pecan fell ill the night before the ceremony. Both turkeys were allowed to live.
2010: Obama pardoned Apple, and alternate bird Cider. Both had died of natural causes by Thanksgiving 2011.
2011: Obama pardoned a 45-pound turkey named Liberty and an alternate bird named Peace, both of which were raised in Willmar, Minnesota. Peace survived until shortly before Thanksgiving 2012, when he was euthanized. Liberty survived until being euthanized April 26, 2013 at the age of 2.
2013: Obama pardoned Popcorn, a 38 pounds (17 kg) turkey from Badger, Minnesota. Popcorn won an online contest over its identically sized stablemate Caramel, which was also spared. Popcorn died of heatstroke in summer 2014; Caramel remains alive as of November 2014 and currently resides with its companion, a heritage brown turkey named Franklin, at Morven Park.