The White House is playing Hunger Games with its presidential turkeys

It's traditional for the US president to pardon a turkey every year before Christmas - and this year, the people are being given a vote on which one to save.

Barack Obama's presidency is having a rough time as the Healthcare.gov scandal rolls on, caused pretty much entirely by some terrible IT project management. So, considering that, you'd think the White House would have all of its developers working day and night on fixing the website of the president's flagship policy.

You would not expect to see something like this:

But wait, you haven't seen the fight cards yet!

That, right there, is the White House turning the bizarre tradition of the president "pardoning" a turkey every year just before Thanksgiving into the Hunger Games. Or, for older readers, it's a "two men enter, one man leaves"-type scenario. With more gobbling - and they've even recorded both turkeys gobbling in case you need to take that information into consideration when making a judgement.

Truman was the first president to be presented with a turkey, but it was George H W Bush who made it a permanent tradition with his first turkey in 1989. The theory is that the pardoned bird will be allowed to live a happy, carefree life at Mount Vernon, a sprawling estate that was once George Washington's and which now belongs to the nation.

In practice, turkeys - what with being bred to be raised fast and killed as soon as they reach a decent weight - rarely live beyond four years. Every turkey Obama has pardoned so far, including the one he pardoned last year, has already died, according to ABC. A reporter visited Mount Vernon (EDIT: Kidwell Farm in Virginia) in 2001 and asked a farmer there how happy the turkeys which had been sent there were:

“We usually just find ‘em and they’re dead,” the farmer told him, before explaining that the birds are bred for eating and not retirement.

“Their flesh has grown so fast, and their heart and their bones and their other organs can’t catch up,” he explained.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Obama in 2009, clearly enjoying this tradition. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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