On the way to Thanksgiving dinner we found ourselves wondering what happens to the turkey that the US president pardons each year. We were both under the impression that the president is presented with two turkeys, one of which gets pardoned and one of which becomes dinner. I said I thought the pardoned bird went to a zoo or some such, and that it would be wrong for it to go back to the farm where it could become somebody else's dinner.
We talked about the similarity to the two goats on Yom Kippur, one of which becomes an offering and the other of which is sent to Azazel. I pointed out that neither of those goats gets out alive (though they at least serve a holy function), and said I didn't think the turkeys worked like that.
When we got home I looked it up, and found that we were both wrong on several points. (I blame that West Wing episode, though perhaps my mistaken impression predated it and I shouldn't.)
The president is presented with one turkey, not two. There is a backup turkey, in case something unfortunate happens to the first one. (Still on the goat theme: like the backup wife for the high priest on Yom Kippur? Topic for another day...)
This turkey is presented by the National Turkey Federation. (Today I learned that there is a national turkey federation.) This started in the 1940s, apparently as tribute. They ate the turkeys until sometime in the 70s, when presidents started sparing them. The regular ceremonial pardon started with Bush the First (though it also says Reagan pardoned one).
I hadn't thought about this at all, but there is a selection process where a pool of candidate turkeys is filtered on not only size and appearance but also tolerance of loud noises, flashes, and large crowds.
And yes, the turkeys end up at various places where they will not become food.