What do Richard Nixon and “Liberty” the turkey have in common? Both were pardoned.
Bad jokes aside, each year the President of the United States shares the spotlight with a single turkey. At a highly publicized event in the Rose Garden, that fortunate bird changes from fowl to friend: it’s converted from a meal into a pet.
That transformation can lead to some discomfort: although most Americans eat meat, few eat pets. Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer reminds us that the dividing line between animals we eat and animals we don’t eat varies in different countries: the French eat horses, the Chinese dogs. Much as we may shudder, even here in America we have no fixed definition; we reevaluate and change which animals we consider pets and which food. The term “pet” itself originates in such ambiguity: it was first used for a beloved lamb.
Turkeys remind us that there is nothing inherent in an animal that makes it a pet: yes, dogs co-evolved with human beings in ways that guinea pigs did not, and yet both are beloved household pets. It is our attitude and relation to that animal that makes it a pet.
Unlike the estimated 46 million turkeys that Americans consume at Thanksgiving, one turkey gets away with his life and goes on to be a living symbol of America: the pardoned turkey retires to George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the turkey our national bird; on this one day in November, the eagle is supplanted, and Franklin gets his wish. But what if the turkey had become the national bird – would we be eating a symbol of ourselves?
That is precisely what we do each Thanksgiving, of course; we eat a symbol of America. Thanksgiving is the American national holiday, bar none. Sure, we have Fourth of July, Labor and Memorial Day. But we don’t travel thousands of miles through crazy traffic on those days. We don’t gather as families and as extended families. Those are not the days for which we scrub the house and buy the groceries and cook all day. That’s Thanksgiving, the American holiday.
Other countries have harvest festivals, but they are centered around a more general appreciation of nature’s bounty. For Americans, Thanksgiving is nearly eponymous with that other t-word, turkey; an estimated 88 percent of Americans eat turkey for Thanksgiving.
Turkeys are indigenous to North America; from the perspective of Europeans, they are peculiar and uniquely American. They were also one of the first food sources for the settlers, and we trace the Thanksgiving turkey to the meal the pilgrims shared with the Native Americans at Plymouth Plantation in 1621. But as a national holiday, Thanksgiving isn’t that old. In 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared it a holiday. Ironically, our tradition of caring for pets also took on new prominence around that time, with the founding of the first humane society in 1866.
The historian Eric Hobsbawm argues that most of our traditions are “invented,” and much of what we associate with the past or with the essence of our nation is of relative recent vintage. The turkey pardon has only been around since 1947, and was not formalized till 1989. But recognizing that traditions are “invented,” Hobsbawm argues, does not diminish their power.
For most Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving this year, the holiday will be less about our larger national history and more about individual family ties. A majority of American households has pets, and considers those pets part of the family. The fact that we distinguish dogs and cats from turkeys is an invented tradition. It is time that we bring our care for pets in line with our holiday traditions: if turkeys can be pets, we need to stop eating them.
Deciding not to eat turkey this Thanksgiving will not diminish the holiday. On the contrary, it is a way of celebrating the core values of Thanksgiving: the particularities of American life, the extension of love and kindness to others, and the affirmation that we celebrate life in all its myriad forms as we pay tribute to nature’s bounty. Extending a loving gesture towards that larger nature – towards the living turkey and the larger ecology – is a way of reinventing our traditions in a way that remains quintessentially American.
Dartmouth College English professor Colleen Glenney Boggs’ book, Animalia Americana, which explores American attitudes towards pets, will be published by Columbia University Press in January. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project (www.theopedproject.org).