Pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey is a White House tradition dating back to 1863 when Tad Lincoln successfully interceded with a call for clemency. In modern times, the lucky birds are selected by the poultry industry for their size and docility, and pose for a very quick photo with the president before being shuffled off camera and out of view. Lesser known is the longterm fate of these chosen birds, after they receive the nation’s highest avian honors.
In recent years most of the turkeys have ended up in an outdoor pen on Kidwell Farm, the government’s demonstration exhibit of agricultural technology from the Great Depression. And despite the President’s 2017 prediction of a “very, very bright future,” most of the Turkeys of the United States don’t make it through their first winter. “We usually just find ‘em and they’re dead,” Kidwell Farmer Marlo Acock told ABC News.
The slaughter isn’t a byproduct of shoddy veterinary care, but a reality of modern agribusiness. In order to attain their unnaturally plump gait, most Thanksgiving turkeys are fed a gluttonous diet of corn and soybeans. By the age of 18 months or so, the Presidential turkeys are simply too fat and unhealthy to survive for more than a few months outdoors.
In the past, Presidential Turkeys lived out their days on Mount Vernon’s educational farm, but the birds were banished for reasons of historical accuracy—there’s just no way an 18th-century farm could have raised 45-pound gobblers.
Update, November 2019: In recent years, pardoned turkeys have been sent to a place known as Gobbler’s Rest, an area of Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. There, they are cared for by veterinarians and students.