On Friday, two turkeys will begin traveling from northwest Iowa to Washington, D.C., where they will star in the annual presidential pardon ceremony.
It will be the last time President Barack Obama will get to spare a turkey’s neck for Thanksgiving. (An “alternate” bird is spared too, with less flourish.)
The Iowa Turkey Federation will host a “send-off” from the farm in Storm Lake, Iowa, on Friday. It’s the sixth time a bird from the Hawkeye State will participate in the Thanksgiving tradition, the group says.
This White House tradition spans nearly seven decades. “We highlight the family aspect of turkey farming, and celebrate with this fun, turkey-centered tradition,” Gretta Irwin, executive director of the Iowa Turkey Federation, told The Des Moines Register.
Everything about the ceremony is serious PR for the National Turkey Federation. NPR reported last year that the group gets so involved in the ceremony that it has a presidential-style motorcade taking the turkeys from the farm to the airport “guarded” by fake Secret Service agents.
Fourth-generation farmers Chris and Nicole Domino of Storm Lake raised the turkeys from which this year’s presidential birds will be chosen. In the turkey industry, raising a presidential turkey is considered the “pinnacle” of a producer’s career.
The Dominos raise about 185,000 turkeys each year, according to the Iowa Turkey Federation.
The hardest part about raising turkeys? In that last week before the turkeys get shipped out, “they get ornery and will peck at you and be difficult,” Chris Domino once said.
The turkeys being “groomed” for the White House ceremony have been living in their own red, white and blue housing.
“What they usually do is they pull 20 or so from their normal size flocks and they have a special building built on the farm where those turkeys are raised — just the 20 of them — with people or noise, so they get acclimated with crowds,” Iowa Turkey Federation spokeswoman Hailey Grant tells Iowa Radio.
The birds destined for greatness get fed by hand.
They turkeys were hatched in July and will be about 18 weeks old by the time they head to D.C.
Two birds will be chosen from among the 20 for the trip to the White House based on their temperament. For instance, they go through “podium practice” to determine which will be the least skittish and most photogenic for the paparazzi.
The turkeys also often listen to radio music to get acclimated to city noise. (Two years ago the turkeys were very fond of Kenny Chesney songs.)
The Iowa Turkey Federation declined to reveal the names of the birds chosen, joking that the information is a national secret. The president will give them their official names, choosing from four names suggested by the Dominos’ children’s classmates, the Register reports.
Three years ago The Week magazine ranked the names of past presidential pardoned turkeys.
Among the worst: May (”Thanksgiving is in November”); Apple (“Didn’t work for Gwyneth Paltrow, worked only marginally better for this turkey”); Katie (“Solid name for a human being; creepy name for a bird”) and Flyer (“Turkeys technically can fly, though not well. This name was kind of a burn.)
Among the best: Gobbler, Biscuits, Pecan and Jerry. “Jerry the Turkey is pure poetry in a way that other turkey names just can’t match,” the website declared. “It has a delightful je ne sais quoi that makes it both humble and hilarious.”
As per tradition, the turkeys will stay in an expensive hotel room in Washington before the event. Two years ago Time described how the two turkeys from Ohio awaiting pardon stayed on the third floor of the Willard InterContinental Hotel in downtown Washington, just blocks from the White House and on the same floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. suite.
This year’s pardoned turkey, and alternate, will head to “retirement” at Virginia Tech, according to The Roanoke Star.
The newspaper reports the birds will live in Gobblers Rest, a newly built enclosure inside the school’s Livestock Judging Pavilion, where the public will be able to visit them.
Rami Dalloul, a poultry immunologist with the university, will chaperone the birds in Washington and take them back to Blacksburg after the White House ceremony.
This is the first time the presidential turkeys will take up residence at a university. They usually live out their days at a farm or historical site.