"The Office of the Presidency — the most powerful position in the world — brings with it many awesome and solemn responsibilities,” said President Obama on a chilly November 2013 day in the Rose Garden. “This is not one of them."

Nearby, a 38-pound turkey named "Popcorn" stood on a podium, white feathers ruffling in the wind. Popcorn, along with his understudy, "Caramel," were beneficiaries of the annual Presidential Turkey Pardon, sparing them from meeting the same end as millions of other Thanksgiving turkeys.

“Popcorn, you have a full reprieve from cranberry sauce and stuffing,” said Obama, who looked more nervous than the comically stoic bird, even though humans are far more likely to take a bite out of a turkey than the other way around. "We wish you well."

White House records have it that presidents have been receiving holiday turkeys since at least the 19th century. Though various entities throughout history have taken it upon themselves to select a bird befitting the highest office, eventually the deed became a very official matter.

To that end, the National Turkey Federation has been responsible for supplying the presidential holiday bird since 1947. In response, the White House began feting the feathered delivery in the Rose Garden with more pomp and circumstance than such an event would seem to demand. The NTF gets a primo photo op and some press, and the president gets to take a break from having lunch with Turkey’s Prime Minister to spare a turkey from becoming lunch.



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President Barack Obama pardons 'Popcorn' in 2009 as his daughters watch in embarrassment.


President Harry S. Truman was the first to enjoy the official annual presentation of a Thanksgiving turkey via the NTF. Sadly, that bird’s fate involved Truman’s 25 Missouri-based relatives. White House records say that President Eisenhower appears to have eaten every bird presented to him as well.

But other birds have been sent off to farms or petting zoos to do whatever it is turkeys do after the Rose Garden photo op, sparing the White House cooks a grim and dirty task.

For example, President John F. Kennedy, when gifted a bird with a “Good Eating, Mr. President” sign hanging around his neck, spontaneously decided to spare his turkey. Whether it was out of general kindheartedness is in dispute. Kennedy sent the apparently scrawny bird directly back to the NTF. “We’ll just let this one grow,” he said.



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President John F. Kennedy pardons a turkey in 1963, just three days before his assassination. 


According to White House reports, tales of such off-the-cuff turkey pardoning go back all the way to Lincoln, whose son Tad apparently had a soft spot for a bird destined for the dinner table.

As for when the first official pardon occurred, accounts diverge. Some sources say that President Ronald Reagan issued a pardon to a bird named Charlie in 1987. Others say that George Bush granted the first official pardon two years later. His son, George W., pardoned the first female turkey, Katie, in 2002.

Most of those pardoned turkeys end up in pastoral settings, which include Mount Vernon, George Washington’s former estate, and the unfortunately named Frying Pan Park, also in Virginia. Some live out their lives in petting zoos and others have even ended up in California’s Disneyland. The birds live fairly short lives; Popcorn, it appears, has already died.

On Wednesday, Obama will have the chance to spare the lives of two more turkeys, the names of which have not yet been released. The birds come from an Ohio farm older than the turkey-pardoning tradition itself: the 76-year-old Cooper Farms in Fort Recovery, Ohio.

“The Cooper family is proud to have the opportunity to be part of this time-honored tradition,” says Gary Cooper, chief operating officer of Cooper Farms and NTF chairman. “As a family-owned farm, we take great pride in the turkeys we raise.”

The Coopers revealed how to get a turkey accustomed to the limelight: The farm has hosted thousands of students to gawk at the gobblers since October. If that sort of attention can’t ruffle the feathers of the soon-to-be famous presidential bird, nothing can.



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President Ronald Reagan accepting a turkey in 1983... which later ended up on the first family's Thanksgiving dinner table.


Unflappable birds aside, the event gets plenty of press for the nature of its absurdity. It also draws plenty of ire from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, who protest the event every year. PETA isn’t alone in its distaste for the event. Ari Solomon, who works for Mercy for Animals, isn’t a fan, either.

“I think that it trivializes these animals," he says. "Turkeys are really just as sensitive as the dogs and cats we live with at home. To single one out and make a joke of it, it makes a mockery out of these millions of turkeys who won’t be spared.”

But Gary Cooper’s youngest son, Cole Cooper, sees the tradition in a different light. Since July, he’s been raising the rafter (the correct term for a group of turkeys) from which the presidential turkey will be culled in a custom-built red barn. He’s making the trip to the White House this week, along with his dad. Cooper’s uncle also carted a bird to the White House in the ‘90s.

“This is my heritage,” he says. “It is what my grandpa started and what I grew up with, as I watched my dad, aunt and uncle expand Cooper Farms into what it is today.”

Track the progress of those turkeys on Twitter by following #PresidentialTurkey14.