Introducing Honest and Abe, the only pardoned turkeys still gobbling away

Although President Obama pardoned two turkeys Wednesday, as the president does every year, there are
Honest at his home at Morven Park in Leesburg, Va.
Honest at his home at Morven Park in Leesburg, Va.

There’s been some sad news in the turkey pardoning world this week. Yes, Tater and Tot were granted amnesty Wednesday by President Barack Obama and are set to move to a special exhibit called “Gobblers Rest” at Virginia Tech.

But their reprieve came just one day after word that the pardoned turkey alumni group has shrunk in the past year. Courage, a turkey pardoned by Obama in 2009, “was in failing health and passed away in March,” a spokesman for Disneyland, the magical kingdom where Courage had lived out his final days, told The Washington Post in an email.

That leaves just two senior members of the pardoned turkeys club: Honest and Abe, who were saved from the dinner table last year.

It’s actually something of a Thanksgiving miracle that Courage lived as long as he did. While wild turkeys can survive for a few years, turkeys raised for eating have been bred into pale-feathered and colossal versions of the original, dark birds, and their lives are far shorter than normal turkeys even if they’re not slaughtered. Today’s domesticated turkeys are fattened up and genetically engineered to have enormous, delectable breasts. The average commercial turkey weighed about 15 pounds at slaughter in 1960, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These days it weighs about 30 pounds.

That bulk comes with a cost to the birds’ health: They cannot mate (and instead must be artificially inseminated), and their bones and organs cannot support their weight for long. Some pardoned turkeys have lived just a few months, while others have lived about a year.

So let’s give it up for Honest and Abe! They’ve made it to the one-year mark, and their keepers at Morven Park in Leesburg, Va., say they’re as sprightly as ever. The site is the former estate of Virginia’s 48th governor, Westmoreland Davis, and it was a major turkey-producing farm in the early 20th century. Honest and Abe share a pen and shelter with another turkey whose claim to fame is ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, said the park’s executive director, Stephanie Kenyon.

“They’re popular with visitors,” Kenyon said of the pardoned poultry. “They’re very vocal, and they gobble, and people laugh. . . . They’re celebrities, right?”

It’s not a bad life. Honest and Abe dine on an ample scoop of poultry feed mix each day, plus the occasional treat of pumpkin or dried field corn. They like to puff up their feathers – or “display” – for visitors, the park says.

Honest and Abe’s 2014 predecessors, turkeys who were known as Mac and Cheese, both perished in the fall of 2015. “They died of natural causes,” Kenyon said.

As for Courage: Suzi Brown, a Disneyland spokeswoman, told NPR that he’d made it more than six years because “he was under our care and fed a balanced diet.” She added: “He slimmed down quite a bit and lived quite a healthy life here at the resort.”

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