Turkeys stay in style at Willard Hotel before presidential pardon

RULING THE ROOST: One of the 40-pound turkeys checks out his deluxe room. Post-pardon, the birds will fly first class to Disneyland to live out their days.
RULING THE ROOST: One of the 40-pound turkeys checks out his deluxe room. Post-pardon, the birds will fly first class to Disneyland to live out their days. (Photos By Jason Horowitz/the Washington Post)
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By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Recently, Walter "Gator" Pelletier, the chairman of the National Turkey Federation and an executive at Butterball, the nation's largest turkey producer, approached Wes Pike, his go-to bird handler, with the secret mission of raising two well-mannered birds that would not trash a room at the Willard Hotel or go ballistic on President Obama when pardoned in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday.

Pike, 54, accepted the challenge. From Butterball pens in Goldsboro, N.C., he picked 22 15-week-old toms from a flock of 52,000 poults and moved them to a safe barn across the road. There, the birds were hand-fed a diet of 57 percent corn, 30 percent soy beans and a mix of grains and vitamins. The birds walked on a fresh bed of kiln-dried pine shavings and gobbled, clucked and putted freely with humans, to better prepare them for the crowd of first-family members, administration officials and reporters attending the ceremony.

They listened to a constant loop of music provided by Disney ("more new-age Disney rock," said Pike) to better acclimate them to the noises the lucky two will encounter as grand marshals riding a Thanksgiving float in Disneyland. The 40-pound broad-breasted white turkeys will fly first class on a United aircraft ("United Turkey One," said Mike Hyland, a Disney spokesman) and live out their post-pardon days at Frontierland's Big Thunder Ranch. (With life spans lasting usually a few months, Butterball turkeys are bred for breast meat, not longevity.)

And to reduce the possibility of turkey lash-outs during the annual ceremony, Pike practiced lifting the birds onto and off of tables, a maneuver that would amount to the life's work of the chosen birds.

As Thanksgiving approached, the nation turned to Butterball with 145 million turkey pounds processed a year, ("Celebrate Every Day with Butterball"). As Butterball established the "Turkey Talk-Line" of "50 professionally trained, college-educated home economists and nutritionists," to respond to "puzzling turkey situations" like "what to do when the turkey is on fire," the 22 chosen birds matured. Pike conducted examinations ("confirmation and feathering") to see which of them seemed most "presidential." Sherrie Rosenblatt, communications director of the National Turkey Federation, said Pike looked for the "most regal" birds. "A turkey," she said, "that knows when to strut and when to be calm, to gobble at all the right points."

Pike selected the two standouts about five weeks ago. The 20 others, he said, crossed the road "back into the general population."

Pelletier, Pike and their associates named the White House bird Courage, and its alternate Carolina. The breeders believed Courage paid tribute to the U.S. service members fighting overseas, many of whom were trained in North Carolina.

As Courage enjoyed the Goldsboro air on Monday, Sarah Palin toured nearby Fort Bragg to promote her memoir, in which she writes "I love meat." Pike expressed familiarity with Palin's record of turkey pardoning, though he called "unfortunate" an episode last Thanksgiving, in which the former governor, after forgiving one bird in Wasilla, Alaska, conducted a lengthy television interview in front of a worker pressing birds, wattle-down, into killing cones.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, Pike loaded his family and turkeys into a white GMC van and drove up Interstate 95. At 3 p.m., the vans arrived at the Washington headquarters of the National Turkey Federation on New York Avenue, near the White House, to pick up Damon Wells, the group's legislative affairs officer and Rosenblatt.

Then they headed over to the Willard, where a motorcade escorting an Indian statesman to the hotel for Tuesday's state dinner raced by, sirens whirring. The turkeys gobbled.

"They hear these high-pitched noises," said Pike. "That'll wake 'em up."

Pike pulled up to a police barrier in front of the Willard Hotel's garage.

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