First condemned, then pardoned, without a statement of rights
WASHINGTON D.C.––Perhaps nothing could underscore the role of turkeys as Thanksgiving sacrificial victims than the annual ritual at which U.S. President Joe Biden on November 21, 2022 “pardoned” the 46-pound and 47-pound turkeys Chocolate and Chip on the South Lawn of the White House.
For what sin or crime were Chocolate and Chip pardoned, without ever having been indicted, charged, tried, convicted, or even read any sort of statement of rights?
Chocolate and Chip were merely turkeys, presented to the White House by the National Turkey Federation in a secularized parody of ancient peoples delivering other prized animals and even humans, indeed even their own first born, to temple high priests for ritual slaughter, supposedly expiating themselves for the “sin” of existence.
If blood sacrifice could expiate anyone of anything, surely this blood-soaked planet must have been expiated many times over by now.
Not expiation but advertising
The real purpose of the Thanksgiving turkey-pardoning ritual at the White House, however, is not expiation but advertising, putting a superficially happy spin on what is in truth not just a holiday bloodbath, but the daily exercise of putting more than 10 million animals per year on American dinner tables and in lunch boxes.
Back on November 23, 2014, United Poultry Concerns founder and president Karen Davis, acting in the capacity of defense attorney for all turkeys, spent the day before Thanksgiving across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, pointing out the realities of turkey production and slaughter in specific, and of meat consumption in general.
Repeating this demonstration annually proved impractical, but Davis continues to remind everyone she can that while Americans eat as many as 46 million of the 65 million turkeys consumed in the U.S. each year during the Thanksgiving holiday celebration, much of the rest of the world sees the whole event much as Americans view the curbside “Feast of Atonement” slaughters celebrated in the Islamic world, as a festival of excess having long ago become divorced from whatever the original purpose of it.
The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality
Davis, author of More Than A Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality (2001), would like to see the whole turkey-eating motif for Thanksgiving rethought and abandoned.
Indeed, as a longtime vegan, Davis would like to see the whole practice of meat consumption rethought and abandoned.
Meanwhile, pre-Thanksgiving protests outside the White House were for years something of an annual tradition for Davis––and were, as well, a slightly delayed birthday celebration for United Poultry Concerns, recognized by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(3) charity on October 3, 1990.
Davis at the time was a 46-year-old English teacher at the University of Maryland.
“Several prominent people in the animal rights movement discouraged me from starting an advocacy organization for chickens and turkeys,” Davis told ANIMALS 24-7.
“While a couple of people back then said ‘Go for it,’” most notably Animal Rights International and Coalition for Nonviolent Food founder Henry Spira, who died in 1998, “some others warned that an organization focusing on chickens and turkeys would never survive, let alone thrive. How totally wrong they were! UPC has influenced every single farmed animal activist in our movement,” Davis contends, “and our influence and inspiration are worldwide.”
Re-purposed the White House ceremony
Davis recites a long list of accomplishments toward helping to make the treatment of poultry prominent on the animal advocacy agenda, focal in recent years to the work of many much larger organizations.
But perhaps Davis’ most prominent achievement has been her indirect influence in re-purposing the annual White House “pardoning” event, at which the U.S. President accepts a gift of turkeys, then redirects them to a zoo, a sanctuary, or some other public institution at which they will live out their usually brief lives, instead of being eaten.
Though still an event meant to promote turkey consumption, the annual presidential turkey “pardons” have ironically become probably the first and only time each year that most Americans ever transiently think about turkey welfare, or consider––even fleetingly––that raising and killing turkeys for human consumption may be inhumane.
National animal advocacy organizations have made use of Thanksgiving hoopla since before the tradition of presidential “pardons” of turkeys has verifiably existed, despite “Folklore that Abraham Lincoln’s young son asked his father to spare a pet turkey that was supposed to be part of their Thanksgiving dinner,” recited this year by Betsy Klein of CNN.
What Lincoln actually did was issue the 1864 proclamation that made Thanksgiving an official U.S holiday.
Several animal advocacy organizations have annually made a public case for not eating turkeys for longer even than the 32 years United Poultry Concerns has existed.
The Farm Animal Rights Movement, for instance, has promoted “Gentle Thanksgivings,” taking a variety of forms, almost since inception in 1981.
PETA, also founded in 1981, likewise promotes veganism each year with some sort of Thanksgiving event.
Farm Sanctuary has delivered rescued turkeys to adopters nationwide and celebrated Thanksgivings with dinners at which guests feed turkeys since 1987, the first year that a presidential “pardon” of turkeys was mentioned, but two years before it actually became a White House ceremony.
An annual White House media event featuring turkeys was by 1987 already a long-established tradition, but taking a very different form.
National Turkey Federation
“Back in 1947,” recounted Brad Plumer for Vox.com two days before the 2014 ceremony, “the National Turkey Federation began donating turkeys to the White House because they were alarmed by Harry Truman’s proposal to promote ‘poultryless Thursdays,’” as part of an economic austerity program.
“Truman accepted this lobbying morsel and ate the birds, as did his successor Dwight D. Eisenhower,” Plumer continued. “Some accounts claim that John F. Kennedy invented the turkey pardon in 1963, but this appears to be yet another over-sentimental Kennedy myth. JFK simply thought his turkey was too scrawny and sent it back to the farm.
“It’s also true,” Plumer allowed, “that Abraham Lincoln once spared a turkey destined for Christmas dinner after his son Tad intervened, but this wasn’t a formal pardon. Formally ‘pardoning’ a turkey appears to have originated with Ronald Reagan in 1987,” Plumer wrote. “Journalists had been asking the president whether he would grant presidential pardons to key Iran-Contra figures like Oliver North and John Poindexter. Reagan changed the subject by quipping that he would have pardoned that year’s Thanksgiving turkey, had it not been on its way to a petting zoo already. Two years later, in 1989, Reagan’s successor George H.W. Bush made the turkey pardon an official White House event.”
Influence of Henry Spira
United Poultry Concerns was already an idea in the back of Davis’ mind. Davis spent hours brainstorming about her idea with anyone influential in animal advocacy who would listen, but except for Spira, not many did.
Spira, arguably the most accomplished anti-vivisection crusader of the 20th century, had argued since 1985 that the animal rights movement should logically refocus from anti-vivisectionism to dietary change, since after the passage of the Animal Welfare Act amendments of 1985, dietary change offered the next most promising opportunity to effect a steep reduction in what he termed the universe of suffering.
Spira was not alone in making this case, nor was he the first to make it. Beginning with the Dorilites of central Vermont in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there had been vegetarian and even vegan communes in the U.S. more than seventy years before anyone founded a humane society. And others shared Spira’s belief that it was time for the animal rights movement to refocus on farmed animals, specifically by promoting the idea of not eating them.
Urging people to care about birds
Already integral to the animal rights movement when Davis formed UPC were, besides the Farm Animal Reform Movement, the Humane Farming Association (1985), and Farm Sanctuary (1986). Both were, and are, heavily oriented toward encouraging veganism––but both emphasized compassion for cattle and pigs, not out of indifference to poultry, but because public opinion research indicated that most people could be persuaded to respond to the suffering of fellow mammals before they thought about birds.
Spira recited like a mantra during his last 13 years that poultry do more than 95% of all the human-caused animal suffering and dying in the world, and therefore should hold a far higher moral claim on humane movement consciousness than they had ever received.
Spira showed the way with full-page newspaper ads pushing poultry baron Frank Perdue (1920-2005) to make animal welfare reforms, most of which were not forthcoming within either man’s lifetime.
PETA took up Spira’s campaigns on behalf of poultry after Spira died. Says the PETA web site, “Frank Perdue is remembered by PETA as the man directly responsible for more animal suffering and deaths than perhaps any human in history.”
Big groups “chickened out”
Also before Davis formed United Poultry Concerns, authors Peter Singer, Jim Mason, and John Robbins had already pointed out the astronomical numbers of chickens and turkeys killed for human consumption in their opuses Animal Liberation, Animal Factories, and Diet For A New America.
But there had never been strong big-group support for campaigns on behalf of poultry.
While real-life chickens are not cowardly, as Davis is quick to point out, the wealthiest and most influential animal advocacy groups had ignominiously “chickened out” of campaigns on behalf of poultry almost as soon as they started.
The Humane Society of the U.S. circa 1986 introduced a campaign decrying the “breakfast of cruelty,” featuring bacon and eggs, then backed away as if splashed with hot grease. American SPCA president John Kullberg spoke in favor of vegetarianism in 1991 and was promptly fired, after 14 distinguished years in office.
The Little Red Hen
Who would stand up for the chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese?
“Not I,” said one big-group executive after another.
“Then I will,” said Davis, flapping her arms and thrusting her beak at Vegetarian Times founder Paul Obis at the AR-1991 conference like one furious Little Red Hen––with jet-black hair––after Obis accepted an ad for a packaged chicken pilaf mix.
Except for Obis, who could not get away on that occasion, hardly anyone took the Little Red Hen seriously at first. She had no money, no major political connections, and was even by her own admission an extreme eccentric, reportedly allowing rescued chickens to run in and out her windows and across her desk in the middle of the few very important mass media interviews that came her way.
But the Little Red Hen turned out to be the right person for the job. Reporters left those strange interviews saying to themselves––and to ANIMALS 24-7, in calls seeking further perspective––“Karen Davis is a chicken! She is telling us what chickens would, if they could.”
After talking to Davis, fellow journalists often could not help realizing that chickens are much more intelligent and sensitive than they had ever imagined. They found Davis likably charismatic, perhaps because of her oddness, and eventually she began getting more ink than many of the supposed animal rights movement superstars.
More important, some reporters confessed––in print––that they could no longer eat chicken. Somehow the Little Red Hen had gotten to them.
Speaking for turkeys
Those who know chickens really well are aware that that chickens do not limit their circle of compassion to their own kind. They can practice cannibalism, and roosters notoriously fight to the death, the trait that makes cockfighting possible, yet a hen will faithfully sit on any eggs she is given, and will mother the hatchings to the best of her ability whether they are close relatives, reptiles, or even a neonatal kitten placed in the nest to keep warm––and not because hens are too stupid to know the difference.
On the contrary, many hens will somehow know enough to lead ducklings and goslings to water, will lead other birds to whatever they need, and will even try to lead a kitten to kibble, skipping the nursing stage perhaps because they simply lack the means to nurse.
Such an instinct may be why The Little Red Hen wrote More Than A Meal on behalf of turkeys and made it probably her most gripping of many books, beginning with Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry (1996, updated in 2009.)
Davis did some first-rate investigative reporting to chase down the origins of myths about turkeys, and the origins of turkeys themselves.
Influence on the wing
For ANIMALS 24-7, on a flight from San Francisco to Seattle, More Than A Meal was a page-turner, opened at takeoff and completed right at landing.
As the flight taxied to the gate, a young man seated across the aisle and one row back asked if he could have the title, in order to buy his own copy. He had been reading along, he explained, and got hooked.
Handing the young man a business card, ANIMALS 24-7 expected to hear that he was an animal rights advocate and militant vegan.
Not at all. He was a second-generation wildlife biologist. His dad was restoring huntable turkey populations not far from Davis home in Virginia. Still, the young man never knew before that there was so much to know about turkeys, and he sounded as if the Little Red Hen had ensured that he would never see turkeys the same way again.
This was Davis’ goal, in writing More Than A Meal, in staging her White House demonstrations, and in her continuing advocacy.
Presidential “pardons” for turkeys donated by the National Turkey Federation are only a small step toward ending human poultry consumption––after all, dozens of other turkeys are eaten on Thanksgiving by the White House occupants, staff, and their families––but the transition of the White House turkey ceremony to symbolically saving some turkeys’ lives is, we hope, more than just a beginning.