On the third floor of the Willard InterContinental Hotel in downtown Washington, a stone’s throw from the home of President Obama, four people (the author included) armed with a giant roll of clear tape, wrapped brown paper, and three large bags of pine shavings faced an important task.
In a couple of hours (the time fluctuated thanks to Monday afternoon traffic) two 50-pound turkeys would need to call the foyer of room 326 their home. There was much work to be done.
Why would two birds be spending the night in a hotel that typically houses dignitaries (many of whom, I’m sure, eat poultry) on the same floor that houses the Martin Luther King Jr. Suite? The answer is simple: these are no ordinary birds.
For the past four months, Cole and Gary Cooper of Cooper Farms in western Ohio have been raising a pair of turkeys that will on Thursday have the pleasure of avoiding the dinner table. As the chairman of the National Turkey Federation, Cooper got the privilege of being home of the turkey —and the back-up turkey— that will get pardoned by the President in the annual Turkey pardoning ceremony.
Gary Cooper told TIME before heading to the District that having the opportunity to raise the presidential turkey is the “pinnacle of the turkey industry” which raised over 240 million turkeys last year—46 million of which were eaten at Thanksgiving.
“It’s a real honor to be able to chosen to do this,” said Gary, whose farm has been in his family for generations. “The whole thing is just a very positive experience for not just my family, but the whole industry and the nation.”
The two-decade old tradition of having the sitting President goofily wave his hands over a nonchalant bird after a brief speech on Thanksgiving morning is often mocked and, at times, compared to the pardoning of actual (human) prisoners. Last Week Tonight host John Oliver recently questioned why we bother pardoning turkeys at all given they’re all “guilty of being delicious.” Yet, it’s one of those harmless traditions likely to stick around.
Life on the farm has been pretty luxurious for the two male, broad-breasted white birds who have been chosen, which were named Mac and Cheese on Wednesday. Cole, 29, built a custom red barn for the flock of potential presidential turkeys he raised near his home. Their dwellings have been kept at a cool 75 degrees for their comfort and they’ve been free to roam in and out of the barn at their will, as long as Cole has been around to make sure the birds don’t become dinner for local predators. They’ve also become pretty fond of Kenny Chesney (in their opinion, Cole says, Life on a Rock is his best work). But between their cozy barn in Ohio and their future home at Morven Park in Virginia, the birds will be a little more restricted.
In recent years, Leslee Oden and Damon Wells of the National Turkey Federation have been preparing hotel rooms for turkeys and they’ve picked up some handy tricks along the way. For instance, two six-foot folding tables can easily be fashioned into a blockade for a bird. Brown paper is a sturdy barrier between a precocious turkey’s peck and the hotels baseboards. And the foyer of the deluxe room with two queen beds at the four-star hotel (currently $229 per night) is the ideal space for the birds.
We roll out the massive strips of tape on the ornate carpet as I toss out questions about life for the birds B.O. (before meeting Obama) and what life will be like after. I ask if we’re cutting the brown paper the “hotdog way” as a nod to my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Snyder. And we discuss the varying breeds of turkeys the Coopers raised in the lead up to Thursday’s ceremony, including Spanish black, blue slate, and bronze turkeys.. In a conversation with TIME, Cole said the two “chosen” birds essentially picked themselves.
“I was actually in the barn on Wednesday, just like any other night to see how they’re interacting with each other,” Cole said last Friday. “And these two birds just walk up to me and started strutting. It was like they said, ‘hey, we’re ready to go.’”
Much like their digs at Cooper Farms, the tape-lined carpet of the Willard is covered with pine-shavings and outfitted with a feeder strategically placed on top of a mini garbage can. Aside from providing familiar flooring, the pine shavings also make the looming task of scooping up their, um, waste easy.
It took a little over an hour to prepare the room for the birds, who still hadn’t arrived when I left, but got more than enough of their share of the spotlight during a media event on Tuesday.