Reporting from Washington — Last month, Walter "Gator" Pelletier, chairman of the National Turkey Federation and an executive at Butterball, approached Wes Pike, his go-to bird handler, with a secret mission: raising two well-mannered birds that wouldn't trash a room at the Willard hotel or go ballistic on President Obama during a pardoning ceremony in the White House Rose Garden today.
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 4-pound birds were hand-fed corn, soybeans and a mix of grains and vitamins. The birds walked on a fresh bed of kiln-dried pine shavings and gobbled and clucked freely with humans, to better prepare them for the members of the first family, administration officials and reporters at the ceremony.
They listened to a constant loop of music provided by Disney ("more new-age Disney rock," Pike said) to acclimate them to the noises the lucky two would encounter as grand marshals riding a Thanksgiving Day float at Disneyland.
The now-40-pound broad-breasted white turkeys will fly first class on a United aircraft and live out their days in Frontierland's Big Thunder Ranch. (With life spans lasting usually a few months, Thanksgiving turkeys are bred for breast meat, not longevity.)
Sherrie Rosenblatt, communications director of the National Turkey Federation, said that 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. soldiers fighting overseas, many of whom were trained in North Carolina.
Both birds will be at the ceremony -- and neither will be eaten -- but Courage is to receive the official pardon.
About 9 a.m. Tuesday, Pike loaded his family and turkeys into a van and headed for Washington.
In the garage of the Willard hotel, Pike helped bellhops load the turkeys, white pails of feed and two bags of wood chips onto brass luggage carts. Pike and the rest of the turkeys' entourage escorted the birds to room 326, a deluxe.
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," Pike said. Rosenblatt decided it was time for everyone to leave the birds and their handlers in peace.
"It's time for their nap," she said.
Horowitz writes for the Washington Post.