Thursday, November 21, 2013

After Quick Deaths For All Of President Obama's Pardoned Turkeys, A Change In Plans For The 2013 Birds

RIP Cobbler, 2012 National Thanksgiving Turkey
Seven toms died within months of the White House ceremony...Mount Vernon officials cite "historic accuracy" as reason for refusing to house this year's Presidential birds...but will still display them for Christmas program...
President Barack Obama will be presented with the 2013 National Thanksgiving Turkey, a bird from Badger, Minnesota, next Wednesday, Nov. 27 during the annual White House ritual orchestrated by the National Turkey Federation.

During the six decades the organization has been gifting Presidents with live birds, "generally we found they live for around two years" after pardoning, said Keith Williams, the Federation's Vice President for Communications.

But the eight turkeys President Obama has pardoned since 2009--the four birds the public sees and the four "alternates"--are all dead.  Seven died within months of their White House ceremonies, Williams confirmed.  Just one tom lived to a second Thanksgiving.

Cobbler, 2012's National Thanksgiving Turkey, was 19 weeks old and 43 pounds when he was pardoned.  He was 13 months old when he was euthanized on Aug. 22 at Mount Vernon, President George Washington's historic Virginia estate, where the White House sent the six turkeys from 2010, 2011, and 2012.   

Alternate Gobbler was seven months old when he died on Feb. 5, less than three months after the pardon. 

Contemporary turkeys are bred to rapidly gain weight for meat rather than to live long lives.  But Dr. Bob Evans, the poultry veterinarian who oversaw Cobbler and Gobbler's medical care from the day they hatched, last year told Obama Foodorama that Cobbler and Gobbler could live as long eight years.   

"Cobbler fell ill a few days prior to his death," said Melissa Wood, Mount Vernon's Director of Media Relations, in an email.

"He was humanly euthanized, with the cause of death unknown," said Wood.

Gobbler died in his coop "of natural causes," said Wood. "His death was quick and unexpected." 

Liberty, the 2011 National Thanksgiving Turkey, was euthanized at Mount Vernon on April 26 of this year.  The lone Obama bird to see a second holiday had a heart problem.  Alternate Peace was euthanized at Mount Vernon in November of 2012, just before Thanksgiving.  

2010's Apple and alternate Cider died "in early 2011" at Mount Vernon, Williams said.  They were euthanized; shortly after arriving, the turkeys fell ill with respiratory infections and suffered painful foot disorders that spread to their joints.  2009's Courage and alternate Carolina were sent to Southern California and died within months of their pardons, Williams said, but did not provide an exact date. 

In their joint Thanksgiving press releases for 2010, 2011 and 2012, the White House and the Federation described Mount Vernon as "a nationally recognized livestock facility."  

Wood did not respond to a query asking which organization(s) have "recognized" or accredited Mount Vernon, and no such information appears on the organization's website.  She also did not respond when asked if the facility has a poultry veterinarian on staff.

Washington would not have had white turkeys at Mount Vernon...but birds will still be displayed for the holidays... 
This year there will be a change in post-White House living arrangements, Williams said:

In a deal struck last week, the 2013 National Thanksgiving Turkey and his alternate will be sent to another historic Virginia estate, Morven Park in Leesburg.

But it has nothing to do with dead turkeys, Williams insisted, and credited the new living arrangement to aesthetics.

Mount Vernon officials told Williams they no longer want to care for President Obama's birds because the hybrid broad-breasted, white-feathered toms do not match "the historic accuracy" of turkeys from Washington's era, Williams said.  

Art prints from the 1700's show wild turkeys with multi-colored red, orange, and brown feathers, Williams said.

"They [Mount Vernon officials] said 'really we're trying to be very historic-minded and Washington did not keep turkeys, he shot them and had them brought in, so it would have been very different-looking turkeys,'" Williams said.

Despite their historic incongruity, the 2013 turkeys, like all the others sent to Mount Vernon, will be on display to the public for the Christmas at Mount Vernon program, from the day after Thanksgiving through Jan. 6, 2014.  

Mount Vernon has been advertising the display for weeks.  The turkeys will be kept outdoors, "all day," according to the holiday schedule, in conditions they have never before experienced.  

Like most turkeys raised for market, from birth the Presidential Flocks live in climate-controlled facilities heated to about 72 degrees.  

At Mount Vernon the turkeys had no such standard luxury.  For Christmas at Mount Vernon, the turkeys lived in an open-air pen surrounded by a split-rail fence.  A small unheated wood hutch designed to look like a Colonial cabin has been the only shelter in previous years.  

While the public was enjoying the spectacle of Cobbler and Gobbler last year, the average temperatures in December at Mount Vernon ranged between 26 and 46 degrees with wind, rain and snow, according to the National Weather Service.
Cobbler & Gobbler at Mount Vernon
Farmer Craig Miller weighs in...
It's a situation that Craig Miller, the award-winning farmer who raised Cobbler and Gobbler at his Miller Farm in Rockingham County, Virginia, found disturbing when he visited his birds at Mount Vernon last year.

"They should not have gone to Mount Vernon," Miller said.  "It's just too cold."  

"They came out of a 72 degree environment indoors, and then they're put outdoors.  It just makes no sense."  

Miller and his family spent weeks training Cobbler and Gobbler for their big day at the White House, and their barn, dubbed "the turkey palace," was so warm that they were in their shirtsleeves as they worked.
Miller said he's "not surprised" the turkeys are dead, though he was sad to hear the news from Obama Foodorama; neither the Federation nor Mount Vernon had informed him.  It would have been more humane to slaughter the birds, said Miller, who last year raised about 43,000 turkeys.

"I love animals.  But these are food animals," Miller said.  "Instead of going to Mount Vernon, they should have been slaughtered and then given to a food bank, or to feed the homeless."

Williams defended the Mount Vernon arrangement. 

"Sometimes turkeys like the cold," Williams said.  

"This year's turkeys are from way up in Badger, Minnesota, which is about ten miles from the Canadian border.  It's really, really cold up there," Williams said.

Except the Minnesota turkeys are living in a special heated garden shed, courtesy of the Federation's current Chairman, poultry farmer John Burkel (a photo of the shed is in this post). 

Morven Park prepares for the Presidential turkeys...
Morven Park is in the midst of prepping for the 2013 turkeys, Williams said.  The former home of Virginia Governor Westmoreland Davis is open to the public.  The 1,000-acre estate is a National Register Historic Property, has three museums, historic gardens, hiking trails, an equestrian facility, and sustainable agriculture programs.  

A farmer, Davis held office from 1918-1922, so turkeys that look like today's white birds wouldn't have been on his estate, just as they wouldn't have been at Mount Vernon in Washington's day.  

But Morven Park administrators seem to have no qualms about housing historically inaccurate turkeys.  They are eager to welcome President Obama's birds, Williams said.  

The estate is developing a two-acre site as a demonstration garden, and has dubbed it Turkey Hill Farm.  The pardoned duo will live there with Franklin, a bronze heritage turkey that is already in residence.  

The turkey facility is currently being built, Williams said, and described the plans.

"It's like a playhouse for kids--it has ventilation, windows, and it's all enclosed," Williams said. 

The Federation will offer its full support in an advisory capacity, Williams said.  

"We have access to veterinarians for advice, and to all the information USDA has to offer."

White House officials declined to comment when asked what their role is in ensuring the care that pardoned turkeys receive after President Obama's ceremonies, instead referring all queries to the Federation.

A brief history of turkey pardons...
This year is the 66th presentation of the National Thanksgiving Turkey, a tradition started in 1947.  Some Presidents have eaten their birds, or donated them to be eaten.  It wasn't until 1989 when President George H.W. Bush granted clemency to his presentation turkey that the tradition of the annual pardon began, the White House says. Every President since has offered the presentation turkeys a reprieve from the Thanksgiving table.

From 2005 to 2009, the first year of the Obama Administration, pardoned turkeys were sent to Florida's Disney World or California's Disneyland, where more than half of them died within a year of arrival, according to animal rights group Farm Sanctuary. 

President Obama's 2009 duo, Courage and Carolina, were sent to Disneyland, where they served as honorary Grand Marshals for the Thanksgiving Parade.

President Obama's pardoned turkeys...

2012: Turkeys Cobbler and Gobbler were from Virginia.  Cobbler died on August 22, 2013.  Gobbler died on Feb. 5, 2013.

2011:  Turkeys Liberty and Peace were from Minnesota.  Liberty died in April, 2013 and Peace died in November 2012. 

2010: Turkeys Apple and Cider were from California.  Both died early 2011.

2009: Turkeys Courage and Carolina were from North Carolina.  Both died in early 2010.


*Photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama