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Prime Butterballs have a higher calling than dinner table

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.

"We got the national turkeys getting pardoned at the White House," said Wells, riding in Pike's back seat. A few minutes later, a Secret Service agent with spiky hair and an earpiece came over.

"Y'all got the pardoned turkeys back there?" said the agent. "I'll tell you what, I'll eat 'em."

No one laughed.

"They're Butterball turkeys," Wells said proudly.

Other agents opened the back door of the van, revealing two blue animal carriers labeled "Ship to Disneyland."

Satisfied, the agents closed the doors. The van idled, as Pike awaited instructions.

"The Indian prime minister is coming in soon, so they want us to do this quickly," Rosenblatt, who also sat in the back seat, said, referring to Manmohan Singh, the guest of honor at the state dinner, a predominantly vegetarian affair. As an agent waved Pike into the parking lot, his cellphone rang.

"Gator, we're just getting into the Willard parking lot," said Pike. "I got to call you back."

In the garage of the Willard, Pike, wearing a checkered red shirt and khakis, helped bellhops carefully load the turkeys, some white pails of feed and two bags of wood chips onto brass carts. Pike and his entourage -- the turkeys, hotel managers and executives from Disney -- rode to the third floor, and escorted the birds to Room 326, a deluxe. Hotel staff had laid down a dark blue plastic wrap over the room's foyer and erected a wooden wall to keep the fowl from entering the carpeted bedroom area.

Pike went in and spread a bed of wood chips over the plastic. Bellhops and maids in black and white uniforms sneaked over to inspect the turkeys. Pike took the birds out of their containers and pointed out their necks. "That's the wattle, and that's the snood, here's for taking the birds to -- you can use your imagination." The crowd clucked respectfully.

"Wes, they're gorgeous," said Wells. "Gorgeous."

"They're good-looking dudes," agreed Pike, as he chased them around the foyer. "Here you go, little buddy."

"Honey, you're at the Willard," said Rosenblatt, leaning over to pet Courage's downy white feathers. "It doesn't get much better."

As Rosenblatt brought over two silver bowls of water, Pike tried to lower the room's temperature. "They like it cool," he said. The Pikes had adjoining rooms for the night and it was decided that the bird handler would sleep with the turkeys.

After all the excitement of the trip, the turkeys seemed rather languid in their hotel room and Courage's waddle looked a little pale.

"He'll color up," said Pike. Rosenblatt, who said she needed a cigarette, decided it was time for everyone to leave the birds and their handlers in peace.

"It's time for their nap," she said.

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