Pardoned turkey.

Pardoned turkey.

What happens to the two turkeys that get pardoned by the president each Thanksgiving? And how did this tradition get started in the first place?

We take a look at the history of presidential turkey pardoning and into the lives of the commercially-bred turkeys that don’t end up getting slaughtered.

Produced by Julie Depenbrock


  • Rami Dalloul Professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Virginia Tech; Poultry Immunologist


  • 12:00:02

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned into The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast: classic Thanksgiving recipes with a local twist. But first, what happens to the turkeys that get pardoned by the president each Thanksgiving? And why did this tradition get started in the first place? We take a look at the history of presidential turkey pardoning and get a glimpse into the lives of the commercially bred turkeys that don't become your Thanksgiving centerpiece. Joining me from studios in Blacksburg is Rami Dalloul, who is a Professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in Virginia Tech and a world-renowned poultry immunologist. Rami Dalloul, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:42

    RAMI DALLOULThank you for having me.

  • 12:00:44

    NNAMDIYou are a poultry scientist by training. Can you tell us how the birds are selected for the presidential pardoning?

  • 12:00:50

    DALLOULSure. So, they start with what we call the presidential flock. So, they get day-of-hatch turkey poults, about 50 to 60 of them. And they start raising them the way they would raise commercial birds in terms of feed and heat and all of that, the care, but they interact with those birds, on a daily basis, several times. And then they select about 15 to 20 of those who actually are more responsive and more interactive and they look good and such. And so they thin them down to about 15 or 20. And, from that group, they select the top two that would make the trip to D.C. and eventually get pardoned and spared from the dinner table.

  • 12:01:42

    NNAMDIHow did I not know they started with a flock? We assumed that they just found one turkey and they brought the turkey here. But there's a process involved. What do we know about this year's two turkeys, Bread and Butter?

  • 12:01:54

    DALLOULSo, these are your typical commercial turkeys. But they're Toms. That means they're males, and they're pretty large relative to what you'd get at the store, which typically are actually hens. You're looking at a 12-15 pound turkey for Thanksgiving. These guys are much larger than that. And so they're raised just the way they're raised for commercial purposes. And these guys were hatched July 11th. So, that means they're about 19 weeks old, and they weigh about 45 pounds or so. So, they're pretty large. And so, again, they're commercial birds. And they're raised similar and next door to any commercial flock that the farm would have.

  • 12:02:44

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Rami Dalloul. He's a Professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech and a world-renowned poultry immunologist about exactly how the turkeys that get pardoned by the President of the United States are raised and how they get here. Rami, how and why did this become an annual Thanksgiving tradition?

  • 12:03:02

    DALLOULThat's a really good question. And it started way back actually with President Truman, back in the '40s and late '40s, where one of the extension agents here in Virginia who happens to be credited with being the godfather of the current commercial turkey production, Charles Wampler. And he's the one who presented a turkey to President Truman. And the president spared this life. However, that continued over the years, with several presidents, but didn't become official till 1989, when President George HW Bush, his first Thanksgiving in the White House, called it actually a pardon, and spared that turkey that year. And ever since, it became the tradition, kicking off the holiday season, and get the lucky turkeys off the table, so to speak.

  • 12:04:10

    NNAMDIRami Dalloul, what exactly is gobbler's rest?

  • 12:04:14

    DALLOULA gobbler's rest is an enclosure. One side one of our buildings here in the College of Ag and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech main campus in Blacksburg. And it's a special enclosure for these turkeys that started here three years ago with Tater and Tot. And it's a large enclosure that has fresh bedding and heater and they have food and water, and they actually trot out. We open the gate and the birds can come out and wander about the pavilion inside, indoors. They even wander outside in the spring when it's nice and warm. And it allows people to come through and interact with the turkeys and take the pictures and educated on what the turkey industry is about.

  • 12:05:11

    NNAMDISo, that they're actually being, in a way, prepared for the pardoning. Is that when they get to hear music? And do they actually get to hear live music?

  • 12:05:20

    DALLOULYes. Actually, they do. And what I learned over the last couple of days that Bread and Butter, they like soft rock. And that seems to be their favorite music. They gobble back at that kind of music. And, yeah, when the farmers and their families, they interact with them several times a day, and they handle them. And they pet them. And they pick them up. Put them on the table to prepare them for crowds, for light, for cameras. And, of course, when you put them on the table in the Rose Garden, you don't want them, you know, flapping their wings and getting away from the president. So, they used to being handled and being surrounded by crowds.

  • 12:06:07

    NNAMDIIn a way, they're trained actors who have actually been entertained for this position. Can you paint us a picture of turkey retirement? What happens to commercially breed turkeys that are not slaughtered for Thanksgiving?

  • 12:06:19

    DALLOULSo, for these guys, obviously, they're the lucky ones. And we joke around campus that they get free room and board, as well as free education. So, they come, and as I mentioned earlier, they're coming tonight. And they'll be placed in their new environment, to get used to it. And, tomorrow, they'll interact with the local media and people will start coming in and looking at them. And we're going to have open house for them -- official open house this weekend where the local community can come and visit. But it's an open building all day long. And we always have somebody on hand to answer questions and such, and they get visitors all year round. So, that's, you know, the life of a retired turkey, so to speak. They enjoy the life and --

  • 12:07:16

    NNAMDIWhat's the average life span of a turkey? Once it's spared from Thanksgiving dinner, how long will that turkey live?

  • 12:07:23

    DALLOULYeah. Good question again. These are not these typical wild turkeys or heritage turkeys that have not been breed or selected for dinner tables, so to speak, being larger and they grow faster. So, they tend to have a shorter life span than wild turkeys. And these guys, if they get to a year old or so, they're lucky. But we've had them stay alive for over two years, two and a half. The turkeys from last year, Peas and Carrots, are very well now, and they're about a year and a half old. So, it depends if they stay healthy and we take good care of them, they live longer, but not much longer than your typically turkey.

  • 12:08:18

    NNAMDISo, what happens to them when they die of natural causes? Do they eventually get eaten, or are they buried in a pardoned poultry grave?

  • 12:08:26

    DALLOULOh, it's a really good question. I wish we'd thought of that. We didn't. Typically, the vets will take care of that. They go to the college of vet medicine here on campus, and the veterinarians take care of them if they happen to die, or when they die.

  • 12:08:45

    NNAMDIWe actually have a few callers with questions. Here's Shulamite in Annandale, Virginia. Shulamite, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:08:50

    SHULAMITEThank you, Kojo. So, they pardon the poultry. They pardon the turkeys. Does that mean then sit down and eat a different animal, or do they eat vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner?

  • 12:09:02

    NNAMDIRami Dalloul?

  • 12:09:04

    DALLOULAre you asking what the president's family does?

  • 12:09:05

    NNAMDIWhat the president -- yes, yes.

  • 12:09:07

    DALLOULNo. I suspect they eat turkeys for Thanksgiving.

  • 12:09:14

    NNAMDIThat were not pardoned. Yes.

  • 12:09:15

    DALLOULYes. But not the pardoned ones, obviously.

  • 12:09:18

    NNAMDIShulamite, thank you for your call. How come the study of poultry? How did you get into this study of poultry, in particular?

  • 12:09:23

    DALLOULYeah. So, I grew up, actually, in Lebanon, and we always had birds and especially chickens. And the family, we had backyard chickens. So, I kind of got into that, and I wanted to address the health issues that they have. So, yeah, ended up getting my Ph.D. at the University of Maryland down the road from you guys in Poultry Immunology. And here I am. I still continue that research line, and been here about 13 years doing that.

  • 12:09:59

    NNAMDIA few years ago, you were part of a team that sequenced the turkey genome. What was the purpose for that kind of work?

  • 12:10:06

    DALLOULYeah. So, I led the team. We got federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sequence the turkey genome to unveil anything -- things that we didn't know before. And we ended up getting about 70 people across six countries six countries and 18 different labs across the globe working on that project. And we sequenced that entire genome, except for a small portion of it. And we have been using it, we and many others across the country and the globe using that resource to look genes pertinent to when they research or when they study. And, again, we use them also for genomic selection instead of selective breeding for one particular parameter, and things like that.

  • 12:10:56

    NNAMDIFinally, here's Abby in Bluemont, Virginia. Abby, you're turn.

  • 12:10:59

    ABBYHi, Kojo. Thank you for having me on. I live with two turkeys who have been rescued from the commercial industry. They are broad-breasted white turkeys, and they're just absolutely lovely. Just social, smart, and they've enriched my life incredibly. And I just wanted to point out that turkeys have done absolutely nothing wrong. So, I find the pardoning a mockery of a beautiful animal. And, you know, I wish that we could find better ways to celebrate this wonderful holiday. Turkeys suffer quite horrifically in the industry. They're debeaked when they're just hatched. They're detoed.

  • 12:11:54

    NNAMDIOh, please. Please don't go into the details of it. We don't have time for it at this point. But we do understand your sentiments, and, obviously, they're shared by a lot of people. So, Rami, I have to ask you, since turkeys and poultry in particular are basically your life's work, do you actually eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

  • 12:12:10

    DALLOULI actually do. Yeah. And especially when you know how the industry functions and with the highest standards that they can, possibly. And you have to remember that growers and farmers, they want the best for the animals, because that's their livelihood. So, they try their best to do that. And, yeah, I actually do. I love turkey.

  • 12:12:32

    NNAMDIRami Dalloul is a Professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech. He's a world-renowned poultry immunologist. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:12:40

    DALLOULThank you for having me.

  • 12:12:41

    NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, classic Thanksgiving recipes with a local twist. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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