WASHINGTON — A good-natured President Barack Obama on Wednesday spared the lives of two California turkeys that played their own parts perfectly.
In what's become a Thanksgiving-eve ritual, Obama offered a presidential pardon to "Apple" and its pal "Cider." The turkeys remained calm and statesmanlike as the president blessed them with a pointed reminder of his own recent political woes.
"Let me say," Obama said, "that it feels pretty good to stop at least one shellacking this November."
Officially, Apple is now the National Thanksgiving Turkey. Cider is the feathered understudy. Both of the 21-week-old birds were raised on the Foster Farms' Wellsford Ranch, outside of Modesto. Both will now live out their remaining days at Mount Vernon, George Washington's home.
The turkeys will be part of a special holiday display through Jan. 6, and then will live with the estate's other livestock.
Yubert Envia and Ira Brister of Foster Farms served as the chief turkey wranglers during the Rose Garden ceremony. Before the event began Wednesday morning, Brister stood by while Apple gobbled away and checked out part of the Rose Garden.
Weighing in at 45 pounds, Apple attracted some tart audience observations about size that cannot be reprinted in a family newspaper.
While Obama spoke, Envia gently stroked Apple. It was also Envia to whom the self-described "leader of the most powerful nation on Earth" directed a post-pardon question.
"That's some kind of wattle," Obama marveled, upon approaching Apple. "Can someone explain to me what this whole wattle thing is about?"
For the record, a turkey's wattle helps keep the animal cool. Like the American flag pins worn by politicians, it also serves as a show-off display. If they had had time, before the 10-minute-long event concluded, both Envia and Brister could have told Obama that, and a whole lot more.
Envia is the Foster Farms vice president for turkey and prepared food operations. He is also the chairman of the National Turkey Federation, which represents the commercial ranches that produce some 247 million turkeys annually. Foster Farms is ranked seventh nationwide among all turkey producers
Brister is the Foster Farms turkey grower, a 31-year veteran of the poultry business. Brister directly oversaw the upbringing, selection and extensive pre-White House schooling of Apple and Cider.
"You don't want to wait until the last minute to start training them," Brister noted. "These are animals. You never know how they're going to react."
Apple, Cider and 23 other contenders were selected for special treatment when they were about five-and-a-half weeks old. The 25 turkeys were removed from the general population and sequestered in a specially constructed, 750-square-foot turkey barn.
Usually, turkeys are raised in facilities than span 20,000 square-feet or so. Also, turkeys usually are killed and eaten.
As part of their training, and selection, the candidate turkeys were exposed to music and crowds.
"It's kind of like a turkey version of 'Dancing with the Stars,'" Obama said, "except the stakes for the contestants were much higher."
Their names, kept under tight wraps until Wednesday, were selected by schoolchildren participating in California's Agriculture in the Classroom program.
In Washington, too, the turkeys have been in the lap of luxury since arriving Sunday. Accompanied by Brister and Envia, the animals were carted to the W Washington DC hotel, two blocks from the White House.
The turkeys slept in their own room, specially prepared with shavings on the floor. Whether Apple and Cider pecked access to the on-demand movie option is a matter between them and their handlers.
"We're pet-friendly," hotel general manager Ed Baten said, "although we usually don't see fowl."
The event Wednesday marks the 63rd time that a president has recognized a National Thanksgiving Turkey. The public relations conceit of a pardon only began with the first President Bush, in 1989. Before that, the birds served a more functional purpose.
"They used to eat the turkeys," Envia said.