WASHINGTON — Every November, the president of the United States is presented with the National Thanksgiving Turkey -- and promptly issues it a formal pardon.
But unlike the turkeys granted reprieves from the chopping block over the last 15 years, this year's bird will not be sent to Frying Pan Park, an animal farm in the Washington suburbs, to gobble to its heart's content for the rest of its days. This afternoon, minutes after being spared, the 35-pound presidential turkey -- along with a back-up bird -- is going to Disneyland. On United Flight 197. First class.
With a contentious Congress in recess, some might speculate that the turkeys are benefiting from the benevolence of a capital in seasonal good cheer. But the travel plans may have more to do with a letter-writing campaign sponsored by People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals, along with some reports in the media, decrying the fate that befell the pardoned birds in the past."We sent a letter to President Bush early last week, as we have for the last five years in a row, asking him to send the birds to a better environment than Frying Pan Park, where they shiver in a 10-by-10 shed with no mental or physical stimulation and tend to die within six months," said Bruce Friedrich, director of vegan campaigns for PETA. "Really, the pardon for the last 15 years has been more like a death sentence."
The park, an animal sanctuary in Herndon, Va., that re-creates a 1930s farm for visiting schoolchildren, denies that it has mistreated the turkeys, which it considers honored guests.
"The claims of poor or inhumane treatment were a little painful for our staff, because they take pride in the care of the animals," said spokeswoman Judy Pedersen. "Many of these turkeys are bred for the table. They don't tend to have a long retirement."
For its part, Disney said that it scored the presidential turkey with a request to the National Turkey Federation, a Washington-based advocacy group that has provided a Thanksgiving bird to the commander-in-chief since 1947.
But this being Washington, conspiracy theories have popped up about the real motive behind the destination change. With the White House referring all questions to the federation and the federation not returning calls, PETA is sure the president wants to fend off any more negative publicity. "He's dodging Turkeygate," Friedrich said.
Frying Pan Park thinks the federation recognized all the good ink it could get by sending the turkey to media-rich California. And Disneyland is sure it won the bird to help the park celebrate its 50th anniversary.
"It's very exciting," said Disneyland's Valarie Sukovaty.
All sides seem to agree that Disneyland is a wonderful grazing ground for turkeys that might otherwise have landed as breast meat on Thanksgiving.
"We wish them all well," said Pedersen. "They've been with us for 15 years, a rich tradition at Frying Pan Park. And if they're ever looking for a place near the White House, the presidential suite doors remain open."
PETA, which put in calls to the White House and to Disneyland to make sure "the turkey is not shoved into the cargo hold of an airplane, where thousands of animals die every year," expressed a certain Happiest Place on Earth sentiment. "It's hard to imagine a nicer place for anyone than Disneyland," Friedrich said.
The presidential pardon is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. today. Then, like a Super Bowl MVP who declares that he's going to Disneyland, the National Thanksgiving Turkey and its companion will be whisked away in a motorcade -- at Disney's expense -- to a 2:40 p.m. flight from Washington Dulles International Airport to LAX.
On Thursday, they will be honored as grand marshals of Disneyland's Thanksgiving Day Parade, sitting on a float.
Raised on a farm in Henning, Minn., the birds will live out their days at Santa's reindeer ranch in Frontierland -- and have something to be thankful for.