Though the history of the "turkey pardon" can be traced back as far as Lincoln (in whose case it was a Christmas turkey that his kid eventually adopted as a pet), the first president to actually use the word "pardon" to describe the bird's stay of execution was George H. W. Bush in 1989, and the term has been used ever since. Throughout this tradition, the impression has been that the pardoned birds go off to some pastoral Nirvana somewhere where they're lovingly pampered and cared for for the rest of their long and happy lives. One has to wonder, however, where they REALLY go after their reprieve. Maybe...
In all seriousness, though, the pardoned birds really don't live long after their reprieve, and the few remaining years they do live (on average, around two) aren't terribly comfortable. That's because these turkeys are bred for the sole purpose of being the main course. And because most of us love big fat turkeys with big fat breasts <insert joke here> they're fattened up for just that purpose. Dean Norton of George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, where the pardoned turkeys are sent, puts it this way in a CNN interview.
"The birds are fed in such a way to increase their weight. [Americans] want a nice big breasted turkey and so they are fed high protein diet and they get quite large. The organs, though, that are in this bird are meant for a smaller bird. They just can't handle the extra weight, so they end up living not as long [as wild turkeys]."In short, the turkeys eventually die of what would be considered morbid obesity in humans. Truth be told, the birds would probably suffer less if we just lopped off their head and feet and shoved them in an oven.
Frankly, the whole pardoning of the turkey thing is something that most recent presidents really don't take all that seriously (and judging from the looks on Sasha's and Malia's faces, neither do their daughters). Mostly it's a pointless photo op designed to give presidents an air of geniality. It's cute, and one few fluff events that doesn't invite an awful lot of controversy. But as traditions go, maybe it's time to let this one fly the coop.
Rest in Peace Popcorn and Caramel.