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The Wild History of Presidential Pets, From Dogs to Gators
07 | 20 | 2021
On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath of office and became the first President of the United States. Since then, 44 other men have occupied the highest office in the United States. And all but three have taken a furry friend.
Washington, an avid dog breeder, started the trend and kept a coterie of pooches, including a quad of boozily-named coonhounds called Drunkard, Taster, Tipler, and Tipsy. Washington’s successor, John Adams, continued the tradition — but gave his dog a much darker moniker: Satan. And one of the most legendary early presidential pooches is Abraham Lincoln’s mongrel Fido, whose name has since become a generic label for dogs across the nation.
Some dogs have even been embroiled in politics. Lyndon B. Johnson famously caught flak when he picked up his Beagles, Him and Her, by the ears. Herbert Hoover made photographs of his pooch, King Tut, a central part of his presidential campaign so that he could look more “approachable.” And in 1944, when Republicans attacked Franklin D. Roosevelt for his alleged treatment of his Scottie dog, Fala (false rumors spread that Roosevelt had forgotten the dog in Alaska and had sent a costly Navy ship to retrieve him) the President responded with a speech that, pundits say, secured his re-election.
I don’t resent attacks, and my family don’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and … his Scotch soul was furious. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself … But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog.
Indeed, not even cats — a species that should be a natural fit for the sly ways of Washington — are immune from political smears. During Bill Clinton’s tenure, his domestic short-hair, Socks, received (and “responded” to!) a significant amount of fanmail. This upset Representative Dan Burton of the House Oversight Committee, who argued it was a waste of taxpayer money to use White House postage and stationery on letters addressed from an illiterate feline.
Other presidential cats, however, would have taken issue with that description. Lincoln often claimed that his cat, Dixie, was “smarter than my whole cabinet.” Theodore Roosevelt’s cat, Tom Quartz, was named after a Mark Twain character from his novel, Roughing It. And Rutherford B. Hayes’ cat — the first Siamese cat ever brought to the United States — was more well-traveled than many Americans at the time.
Unconventional Pets Invade the White HouseCredit: Library of Congress/ Prints & Photographs Division/ LC-F8- 41372
Other White House pets have been more wild — literally. Thomas Jefferson briefly kept two grizzly bear cubs after Captain Zebulon Pike sent them while adventuring out west. (Jefferson called the cubs “quite good humored.”) Not to be outdone, Martin Van Buren was ecstatic after he received a gift of two tiger cubs from the Sultan of Oman. (Unfortunately, Congress disapproved and confiscated the young cats and sent them to a zoo.) And lest we not forget Calvin Coolidge, who briefly kept two lion cubs with government-inspired monikers: Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau.
But none of that compares to the White House under Theodore Roosevelt, who might as well have charged visitors admission to his private zoo. The Roosevelt White House included a bear named Jonathan Edwards, a badger called Josiah, a hyena called Bill, a guinea pig christened Fight Bob Evans, a Shetland pony named Algonquin, and a one-legged rooster. (There were also dogs, lizards, a pig, a blue macaw, a barn owl, a rabbit, and a garter snake.)
The parade of wacky animals doesn’t stop there. During his term, Coolidge was guilted into accepting a pet Bobcat named Smoky, fearing he would lose votes from the county in Tennessee the cat hailed from if he said no. He also had a pygmy hippo called William Johnson Hippopotamus. (But you can call him “Billy.”) Meanwhile, Benjamin Harrison kept two opposums — Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection — and John Quincy Adams had an alligator, a reported gift from Marquis de Lafayette.
Practical Presidential PetsCredit: Library of Congress/ Corbis/ VCG/ Getty Images
Some animals were brought to the White House for more practical reasons. Coolidge’s famous pet raccoon, Rebecca, was originally brought to the White House as dinner. Coolidge, however, quickly fell in love with the critter and built her a tree house instead. (He would even walk her around the White House grounds on a leash!) Lincoln’s turkey, Jack, was also supposed to be on the menu. Destined to be a Christmas centerpiece, Jack was saved by Lincoln’s son, Tad. Presidents have been pardoning turkeys ever since.
Other creatures helped keep the White House running. William Howard Taft kept a pair of cows, named Mooly Wooly and Miss Pauline Wayne, to provide fresh dairy to the family. During Woodrow Wilson’s tenure, the Executive Mansion’s lawn was home to a flock of sheep to help keep the grass trim and minimize manpower during WWI. And there was Adams, who kept a handful of silkworms nearby to help spin textiles.
And, of course, we can’t forget our equine friends. Dozens of Presidents have had horses, donkeys, and ponies. In the 1850s, Millard Fillmore — who had signed the Fugitive Slave Act, pushing the country closer to the brink of Civil War — proved that no politician could be too out-of-touch when he named his two ponies Mason and Dixon. Years later, Ulysses S. Grant would get clever with his names, too, when he called his warhorse Jeff Davis after his nemesis in the Civil War.
Featured image credit: uschools/ iStock.