In the short, happy life of your farm-raised turkey, the end is a terrible thing to contemplate -- more on that in a minute -- so perhaps the pardon afforded two West Virginia turkeys by President Bush yesterday did merit the international news coverage that it set into play, at least from the turkeys' point of view.
So we will report with a straight face that the newly elected leader of the free world and the vice president of the United States strolled to the immaculately kept Rose Garden at the White House yesterday to look at a steroid-enhanced barnyard animal. And as part of the annual staged event, thousands of otherwise sane grown-ups across the nation already had voted to give it the name "Biscuits," and that of "Gravy" to its standby.
Then dozens of international reporters, photographers and television cameramen documented the 15-minute presidential pardoning, the chief feature of which was Bush sort of throttling the turkey.
"This is an election year, and Biscuits had to earn his spot at the White House," Bush told a crowd of schoolchildren, White House staffers and turkey producers. Saying that the team of "Biscuits and Gravy" had narrowly defeated the ticket of "Patience and Fortitude" in "neck and neck" voting on the White House Web site, he launched into a series of Election 2004 gags.
"It came down to a few battleground states," Bush said of the balloting for naming the presidential turkey. "It was a tough contest, and it turned out some 527 organizations got involved -- including Barnyard Animals for Truth. There was a scurrilous film that came out, 'Fahrenheit 375 Degrees at 10 Minutes per Pound.' Now it's time for healing."
With that, he saved Biscuits and Gravy from the fate of the 45 million other birds that will wind up on Thanksgiving dinner tables next week, allowing them to live the rest of their lives -- usually about three to six months -- at Frying Pan Park, a farm and petting zoo in Virginia. Bush walked over to pet Biscuits, which caused the bird to flare its tail feathers in a flourish and bop its head about so rapidly that the president briefly grabbed it by the neck. (This was better than last year, which featured the unfortunate moment of the bird poking its head at the First Zipper, which set off Internet giggles by the score.
The sense of pardon, though, was no joke for the birds.
They are from the Hardy County farm of Kevin Foltz, wire services reported, which raises about 140,000 turkeys each year for Cargill Turkey Products. Something with "products" and "turkey" in the name doesn't bode well for the residents of said barnyard, and Bruce Friedrich of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says that our worst fears were not worse enough.
"These animals are raised in a way that would result in felony charges if dogs and cats were so treated," he says. "They've been bred and drugged. Every minute of their lives is unmitigated misery. They're crammed into sheds and never get to do anything associated with being a turkey."
Real turkeys, Friedrich points out, can fly as fast as 50 mph, run nearly as fast as an Olympic sprinter and live longer than most dogs. Commercially raised turkeys, he says, are genetically altered to grow so fast and so big that none of them can fly, or reproduce without artificial insemination, and they can barely stagger about the barnyard without keeling over from a heart attack. If not plucked for Thanksgiving or Christmas, they often die within two years.
None of the previously pardoned turkeys, for example, is still alive.
But it's the end of it all we come to, which makes the presidential pardon worthwhile, and which might make a good time for parents to stop the kiddies from reading right here.
On commercial farms, the killing process begins when the legs of the turkeys are strapped into metal shackles. Then they're turned upside down, moved along a rotating chain and their throats are slit before their bodies are dropped into scalding water.
"The birds are conscious when first shackled, but we've developed sheets, known as curtains, that hang in the factory . . . that provide a calming sensation for the birds," says Sherrie Rosenblatt, spokeswoman for the National Turkey Federation, an association of turkey producers and processors. "And they're rendered unconscious shortly after being shackled."
She says that while "slaughter" is an accurate term for what happens next, "process" is probably a nicer one.
Patience and Fortitude, we hardly knew ye.