Last week the Obamas welcomed a new furry member into their home, a second Portuguese Water Dog as a pal for their dog Bo. Sunny, reportedly named for her cheerful disposition, is around 2 months old and came home to the White House from her birthplace in Michigan. As when Bo joined the First Family, some controversy surrounded the selection of a purebred dog from a breeder, verses adoption of one of millions of homeless shelter dogs in the country. But with the Malia Obama’s allergies, Portuguese Water Dogs were chosen as a great match with their “hypoallergenic” coat. However, though even “hypoallergenic” dogs like PWDs are available from rescues, everyone has the right to choose the pet that works best for their family. And if the video posted to the White House Blog are any indication, exuberant little Sunny is fitting in just fine with her new big brother Bo.
While the current and recent administrations have all had First Pets of the canine variety, and a few with cats, the White House has been home to many much more exotic pets throughout our country’s history. Barack Obama even had the pleasure of owning an exotic pet as a child that many Americans are no longer allowed, due to bans on keeping primates in many states. While growing up in Hawaii he had a little monkey named Tata, most likely a baby macaque. But many US presidents owned exotic pets while in office. Here are just a sampling of some of the unique animals that our nation’s leaders have owned and loved.
George Washington taught his parrot Polly to sing, but Andrew Jackson parrot Poll learned to curse instead!
The Father of our Country, George Washington, was also an exotic “Pet Parent!” But while Polly the parrot may have been owned by the most famous president, it was Andrew Jackson’s parrot that was the most infamous First Pet. Jackson’s Poll, not Polly, dropped the “y” and the decorum, swearing like a sailor (or a General). When Jackson died, the foul mouthed fowl caused a disturbance at his funeral. As reported in one obituary:
“While still at school, word reached Cumberland University that General Jackson was dead. Only six weeks before he had shaken his hand. Rev. Norment says he went to the funeral and that the General’s parrot, excited by the multitude and the wailing of the slaves, let loose perfect gusts of ‘cuss words.’ The Negro slaves of the General were horrified and awed at the bird’s lack of reverence.”
Other parrot owning presidents include Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, and Theodore Roosevelt, though arguably, a few of those birds were more of a pet for the First Lady than the president himself. In addition, John F. Kennedy had parakeets and Lyndon B. Johnson had lovebirds.
Thomas Jefferson was very fond of his mockingbird, Dick; less so with rambunctious bear cubs
Thomas Jefferson loved birds, but particularly one of his favorite mockingbirds named Dick, whom he loved “…with peculiar fondness, not only for its melodious powers, but for its uncommon intelligence and affectionate disposition, of which qualities he gave surprising instances. It was the constant companion of his solitary and studious hours. Whenever he was alone he opened the cage and let the bird fly about the room. After flitting for a while from one object to another, it would alight on his table and regale him with its sweetest notes, or perch on his shoulder and take its food from his lips. Often when he retired to his chamber it would hop up the stairs after him and while he took his siesta, would sit on his couch and pour forth its melodious strains.” (The First Forty Years of Washington Society: Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (Margaret Bayard) from the Collection of her Grandson, J. Henley Smith. New York: Scribner, 1906. (as quoted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc. on Monticello.org.))
Thomas Jefferson also had, for a short time, a pair of bear cubs he received as a gift from Captain Zebulon Pike in 1807. However, according to the Jefferson Encyclopedia, Jefferson wrote to his granddaughter, Ann Cary Randolph Bankhead, about the cubs saying simply, “These are too dangerous and troublesome for me to keep. … I shall therefore send them to Peale’s Museum.” Charles Willson Peale had opened a museum in Philadelphia that displayed paintings of famous American figures (including Jefferson) that Peale had painted along with various natural history objects. Previously, Peale advertised that a “Famous Grisly [sic] Bear” would be on display at the museum for 2 weeks. But the 2 year old grizzly proved too dangerous: It broke its chain and escaped, and had to be put down.
However, in writing to ask Peale to if he would take the two bears, Jefferson mentioned nothing of the pear being “dangerous and troublesome” but instead stressed that his cubs, were “perfectly gentle” and “appear quite good humored.” Even going so far as to claim that “they didn’t eat much, primarily, ‘Indian bread’.” Downplaying the difficulty in keeping the bears, Jefferson acted a bit like modern sugar glider mills trying to make a quick sale. Peale wrote back: “This charge I will cheerfully undertake.”
It isn’t clear how long the bears were with Peale before one of them “broke out of its cage and, after terrorizing the Peale family, was shot in the basement kitchen. The other bear was put down as well, then both were mounted and placed on display in Peale’s museum.” (Jefferson Encyclopedia) Sadly, while the descendants of Jefferson’s mockingbirds are still to be found around Monticello, his cubs ended only as a cautionary tale; Do not keep what you can neither tame nor contain.
Sometimes the presidency is a game of cat and mouse
Martin Van Buren “Old Kinderhooks” received two tiger cubs as a gift from the Sultan of Oman. The pair lived with him in the White House for a few months until Congress convinced Van Buren that his kitties were really a gift to to the people… and to share them by letting them live at the zoo. Many years later, in December 1960, another president received a tiger as a gift. This time it was Mohini of Rewa, the first white tiger in the U.S., and she was presented to President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the White House lawn, a gift of Metropolitan Broadcasting Corporation. This time, however, no act of congress was needed to convince to move her to the National Zoological Park.
On the other hand, Andrew Johnson was devoted not to big, powerful cats… but to tiny white mice! He did not keep the dainty rodents in cages, but instead fed them food and water off of saucers in his bedroom and let them run free in the White House. It isn’t recorded what the First Lady thought of this arrangement.
John Quincy Adams and Herbert Hoover both had pet alligators. Andrew Jackson just drew them.
John Quincy Adams was reportedly a surly guy, and his pet was as well. President Adams had an alligator given to him by General Marquis de Lafayette. The reptile lived in the White House… in the East Room bathtub, specifically. It is said that “the Madman of Massachusetts” took great glee in “the spectacle of guests fleeing from the room in terror.” Perhaps it was Adams’ alligator that inspired this doodle by Andrew Jackson, though he certainly had reason enough to be drawing one. As explained in The Atlantic:
“Jackson was the first president to leave behind full-fledged doodles from his time in office. This drawing dates from 1833. Although Jackson’s immediate predecessor, John Quincy Adams, had kept a pet alligator in the White House, the animal was more commonly associated with Jackson’s military exploits. An 1828 campaign song, “The Hunters of Kentucky,” celebrated Jackson’s heroics at the Battle of New Orleans, in 1815, noting that in his brigade, “Every man was half a horse / And half an alligator.”
Herbert Hoover, too, had either alligators or crocodiles (references vary on specifics) as pets at the White House. His second son, Allan Henry Hoover, owned a pair of gators that were occasionally found wandering around the White House grounds, either by permission… or escape.
Benjamin Harrison had a pet goat who would pull his grandchildren around in a cart
True to the spoiling nature of grandpas, Benjamin Harrison gave his grandchildren several pets. Among them was a goat named either “His Whiskers,” or “Old Whiskers,” depending on the report (for the record, the Library of Congress lists this image as “President Harrison’s Grandchildren and His Whiskers“). His Whiskers often pulled the children around the White House lawn in a cart. Once, while the President Harrison was waiting for his carriage at the front of the White House, His Whiskers raced through the White House gates, pulling his little grandchildren in the cart. “President Harrison ran down Pennsylvania Avenue holding on to his top hat and waving his cane, but the goat kept running, only stopping after numerous Washington, D.C., residents had seen the Commander in Chief chasing the runaway goat cart!” (Inside the White House)
Benjamin Harrison was in good company. Abraham Lincoln allowed his little boys, Tad and Willie, to keep as many pets as they wished, including two goats, Nanny and Nanko. Nanny and Nanko were so beloved by the Lincoln family that they rode with the President in the Presidential carriage. But as with His Whiskers, kids (human) & kids (goats) are an unpredictable combination.
“…the president’s sons hitched Nanny and Nanko to carts or kitchen chairs and drove them through the main floor of the White House. One time Tad harnessed Nanko to a chair and drove through the East Room during a White House reception. Dignified women pulled up their hoop skirts as Tad drove around the room and out the door again.”
Benjamin Harris himself also had a pair o’ ‘possums, with a pair o’ awesome names: Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection. He shared the honor of being an opossum fan with a later president, even more into running the White House like his personal zoo; Herbert Hoover. Hoover’s opossum was named Billy O’Possum and was caught on the grounds but the president and his children took a shine to the grumpy marsupial. Billy was a favorite of the American people as well, though, and even served a temporary stint as a high school mascot for Hyattsville High School in Maryland. The Hyattsville High School Athletic Association lost their beloved opossum mascot right as the county prep baseball championships were about to start.
As reported in the Hyattsville Patch:
The Daily Tribune reported that team captain William Robinson said “with the White House ‘possum nothing can stop us winning now.”
After winning their championship and returning the possum, The Palm Beach Post from July 14, 1929, reported that the team wrote the following letter:
“Dear President Hoover,
Please accept the hearty thanks of our association for your kindness in acceding to our request for the use of the White House o’possum as a mascot during the closing weeks of school. Having won successively the Prince George’s County high school championship in soccer, baseball, basketball and track and field events, we cannot fail to appreciate the value of this little animal as a purveyor of good fortune.
Accordingly, we have resorted Billy Possum to the keeping of the White House in the hope that he will bring you full measure of good luck, trusting, however that with your kind permission, we may again be honored with his effective leadership in our athletic program next fall.”
The Palm Beach Post reported that President Hoover replied with a handwritten note:
“My Dear Robert:
I am glad to have your formal report on the efficiency of Billy O’possum–it will be incorporated into his service record. Precautions will be taken to maintain his health and spirits for the further needs of the Prince George’s County high school teams.
Being president of the United States and a dad at the same time sometimes means putting up with some turkeys
Abraham Lincoln’s tenderness toward animals and his own children meant opening his home to more than the goats, Nanny and Nanko. The Lincoln family had ponies, cats, dogs, pigs, a white rabbit… and Jack, the Turkey. Jack was intended to be a gift to the First Family for Christmas dinner, but the son of the “Great Emancipator,” Tad, had his father’s kind heart. Tad became attached to the turkey and pleaded with his father to spare the bird’s life. President Lincoln finally agreed, and “Jack” became a family pet. One funny story about Jack and Tad is told at Inside the White House:
On Election Day 1864, while the Civil War raged close to Washington, D.C., a special booth was placed on the White House grounds so that soldiers serving nearby could vote. President Lincoln, his private secretary Noah Brooks, and Tad were watching from an upstairs window when they saw Jack strut out among the voters.
“Why is your turkey at the polls? Does he vote?” Lincoln asked his son.
“No,” Tad answered, “he’s not of age yet.”
Today we still “pardon” turkeys, but as a national Thanksgiving tradition. These turkeys are not really pets of the President’s family, of course, but the birds are spared and spend a short time with them, between their other turkey duties; pictures, press conference… and then perhaps appearing in a parade at Disney World or Disneyland. The celebrated pardoned turkeys do not end up as Disney’s famous turkey legs (neither do any emu, despite the rumors), but nor do they remain at “The Happiest Place on Earth” anymore, though that was once the case. Recent pardoned turkeys have gone to live out the rest of their natural (but still very short) lives at the home of another president… George Washington. They stay on display (accompanied by a camel named Aladdin) at Mount Vernon for the holidays, and then “retire” and stay on property (but not on display to the public.)
The past two years, we in Utah have started a tradition of pardoning turkeys, as well. The Governor’s pardoning ceremony is held at Thanksgiving Point, where the turkeys are promised sanctuary to spend their days. Last year’s lucky bird was “trained” for the spotlight by Boy Scouts in a Sanpete troop and was very friendly and pettable.
When Teddy Roosevelt is your father, you get to have a pet badger
When Theodore Roosevelt took office, he took along six children and more pets than the White House had ever seen – more than 50, individuals. The Roosevelt family of pets included dogs, cats, bears, lizards, guinea pigs, a pig, horses, a badger, a blue macaw, a hen & a one-legged rooster, other (2-legged) roosters, a flying squirrel, a raccoon, a coyote, a lion, a hyena, a zebra, a barn owl, a piebald rat, kangaroo rats, a rabbit, snakes, and a much beloved pony.
President Roosevelt loved the pets as much as his children did. According to Inside the White House, the president’s pony, Algonquin “was so beloved that when the President’s son Archie was sick in bed, his brothers Kermit and Quentin brought the pony up to his room in the elevator. But Algonquin was so captivated by his own reflection in the elevator mirror that it was hard to get him out!”
Perhaps one of Roosevelt’s most famous, and infamous, pets was Josiah, the badger. While having a pet badger might be the dream of Doctor Who‘s incumbent Doctor, Matt Smith, Josiah was regularly known to bite people. Josiah the badger does what he wants. JOSIAH THE BADGER DON’T CARE. (Note: Josiah was not really a honey badger. In all likelihood, he was an American badger (Taxidea taxus))
Like Bo, the First Dog, Calvin Coolidge’s raccoon Rebecca loved the Easter Egg Roll
Calvin Coolidge may have been runner up for most pets, behind Teddy Roosevelt. According to Presidential Pet Museum:
“Calvin Coolidge was dog crazy, with a pack that included a terrier, an Airedale, a bulldog, a Shetland sheepdog, a “police dog,” a “bird dog,” two chow chows and three collies. Quite a pack, but the critter collecting didn’t just end with the canines. Coolidge was called “Silent Cal” for his terseness, but his abode was noisy, with canaries, a thrush and a mockingbird among the denizens. Add to that the honking of Enoch the goose, the braying of Ebenezer the donkey, the mewling of two house cats and one pet bobcat and the snurfling of two pet raccoons, and one imagines that at least part of the ’20s was definitely roaring in the White House.”
One of those raccoons, named Rebecca, was at first intended to be dinner. The cute little coon was on the menu for the First Family’s Thanksgiving dinner, a gift from either a Peruvian diplomat… or Peru, Mississippi, depending on your source. But her charm was them over, as she was tame, clever, and friendly. There was no way the pet-loving Coolidges could do anything but adopt her. They made her a large treehouse enclosure and walked her about on a leash when outside. But as the FLOTUS, Grace Coolidge wrote:
“…in the house she had her liberty. She was a mischievous, inquisitive party and we had to keep watch of her when she was in the house. She enjoyed nothing better than being placed in a bathtub with a little water in it and given a cake of soap with which to play. In this fashion she would amuse herself for an hour or more.” (“Wombats and Such” by David Pietrusza)
As David Pietrusza writes further, “While most Americans of the time were dining on relatively simple gastronomic fare, Rebecca seemed a veritable gourmet. Her fare consisted of green shrimp, chicken, persimmon, eggs (a particular favorite), and cream.”
The president himself was also very pleased with Rebecca, so much so that he announced her arrival to the press in one of his regular
press conferences. He said she was “…very playful, very
interesting, and seems very well trained and well behaved.” He would often play with her as a reward to himself for finishing his afternoon paperwork and walk around the house and grounds with Rebecca the raccoon draped around his neck, like a living stole.
Even then, that was not all. The Coolidge’s also had a bear, a duikir (a type of small African deer or antelope), mice, a wallaby, a wombat, rabbits, a pygmy hippo, lion cubs, Pekin ducks, and a pygmy hippopotamus.
Calvin Coolidge was also 20% cooler than you by having a pet pygmy hippopotamus
The impact made by one of President Coolidge’s pets can still be felt today… especially if you’ve ever spent time on Pinterest cooing over pictures like this one. Billy was a gift to Calvin Coolidge from Harvey Samuel Firestone, the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. The”little” (Billy was a pygmy hippo, but already full-sized at 6 feet long and about 600 pounds) hippo was captured on one of Firestone Tires’ large plantations in Liberia.
As with many of Coolidge’s wilder pets (even Rebecca the raccoon, eventually) Billy was taken to live at the National Zoo. However, the president still kept in close contact with his erstwhile “pets,” visiting often. And Billy contributed greatly to the zoo, other zoos, zoos to this day, as well as the goal and purpose of zoos from then on. Wayne Ferrebee explains:
“Billy’s life and times straddled a great dividing point for wild animals in captivity. In the beginning of the twentieth century, zoos were more or less for entertainment purposes only. Creatures were captured and exhibited for profit in circuses or for status in menageries. When the animals died of stress, disease, or malnutrition, new specimens were obtained. The National Zoo and the Bronx Zoo were both feeling their way towards nobler scientific and conservation ends, however there was still a whiff of the nobleman’s menagerie about them. Good animal husbandry was frequently unknown or subsumed for larger aesthetic or cultural reasons.”
“Billy was a very “frisky” hippo and a mate named Hannah, was acquired by the zoo on September 4, 1929. Unfortunately Billy and Hannah’s first three offspring met hasty ends. Although the Washington Post quickly concluded that “inability to survive the neglect of an errant mother was the cause given for baby Hippo’s demise,” it seems that human ignorance was more to blame. The pygmy hippos were initially kept in the lion house (a stressful environment for pregnant pygmy hippos!). When the pair was moved to their own lion-free facilities, their offspring did fine. Pygmy hippos became one of the first great success stories of the zoo.”
“Billy died on October 11, 1955 having outlived Coolidge by 23 years. His last offspring, Gumdrop XVIII was born five months later. Billy left a tremendous legacy. The majority of pygmy hippos in America’s zoos are his direct descendants, and, as zoos improve their conservation programs (and their international ties), his progeny are spreading around the planet. Additionally, thanks to his fecundity, his longevity, and his highly placed political and business connections (and even his simple hippo joie de vivre) Billy helped popularize a new conception of zoos. Zoological parks are no longer a novelty or a diversion but a critical tool to understanding wildlife. They are also a conservation measure of last resort in a dangerous world of ever diminishing wilderness habitat.”
Almost all of Billy’s offspring were given the name Gumdrop. The baby hippo shown in this photo from an old Life magazine is one of these candy sweet “gumdrops.”
One more thing. Billy was quite a celebrity, what with being both a rare animal for our country and a pet of the leader of the free world, and so he was taken to Queens, New York for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where he appeared in the Firestone exhibit. After that, the press began changing Billy’s name to the more formal William Johnson Hippopotamus. Perhaps he needed to compete with some of the other Coolidge critter clan. After all, the President’s pair of lion cubs were named Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau.
The Kennedy household had plenty of kids and plenty of pets, including this guinea pig of John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s.
While recent presidents have not owned such exotic (or controversial) pets, you don’t have to go back to the roaring 20’s to find a variety of fauna in the White House. On Presidential Pet Museum, Dr. Philip Schoenberg, a history professor at New York’s College of Aeronautics and proprietor of presidentialexpert.com has this to say:
“John Kennedy had a more diversified range of pets than anyone else”… “the young commander-in-chief, who sought warm escape from Cold War stress by visiting an animal play yard near the West Wing that was stocked with lambs, ponies, dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, parakeets, a canary, a cat, a rabbit and a horse.”
The lot included a few exotics like Robin the canary, Zsa Zsa the rabbit, Sardar the horse, ponies named Macaroni, Tex, and Leprechaun, parakeets named Bluebell and Marybelle, hamsters named Debbie and Billie, and this guinea pig being held by JFK’s son, young John F. Kennedy, Jr. (courtesy of curator CavyMom). While we don’t know the piggy’s name, another president had very interesting names for his guinea pigs indeed.
Theodore Roosevelt’s children gave their 5 piggies oddly official names; named Admiral Dewey, Dr. Johnson, Bishop Doane, Fighting Bob Evans, and Father O’Grady.
Not all people are pet people, so it makes sense that not all presidents would be pet people. But it seems the American people tend to want a person leading them who, like them, has at least one critter in their heart and home. So, it is not surprising that we are fascinated by the animals who live with the leaders of our country.
“I am unable to understand,” Grace Coolidge once wrote, “how anyone can get along without some sort of pet.” Yeah, us too, First Lady. US TOO.