||Issue Date: 12 / 2004
Our Presidents' Pets
When U.S. presidents move their families to the White House, they always bring their pets with them--after all, pets are part of the family. Since the Presidential Mansion was first occupied in 1800, the first family--primarily the children--have had a collection so diverse that the list sounds like a roll call in a city zoo. At one time or another, the White House has housed nearly every animal that can walk, crawl, or fly--sheep, snakes, parrots, coyotes, hamsters, tropical fish, guinea pigs, pygmy hippos, roosters, bald eagles, bobcats, alligators, lizards, turtles, donkeys, and dogs--lots of dogs.
President George W. Bush and presidential pet Spot. (Roger L.
Wollenberg / UPI)
Teddy Roosevelt captured a young lion and several bear cubs and turned them loose on the grounds. John Q. Adams raised silkworms, which supposedly provided the fabric for his wife's inaugural gown. William McKinley had roosters. Herbert Hoover had an opossum. And Calvin Coolidge had a raccoon named Rebecca who walked on a leash.
Claire McLean, founder of the Presidential Pet Museum in Lothian, Maryland, reports that the White House has been home to over 400 pets over the years. "Learning about the pets gets most kids interested in presidents," she said. "Ask a child if they want to learn about presidents and you will get little interest. But ask them if they want to learn about presidential pets and they get excited."
History tells us that Andrew Johnson befriended a family of mice, feeding them during the dark days of his impeachment trial, and after he was acquitted by a single vote. During World War I, Woodrow Wilson attempted to care for farm animals whose owners had enlisted in the war. He kept a herd of sheep on the White House lawn. A German shepherd dog named King Tut helped to get Hoover elected after a picture of Hoover and his dog was sent to thousands of voters.
In the early days, many of the animals were barnyard animals. President Taft's cow, Pauline Wayne, supplied milk for the first family. Washington kept 12 horses and used them and his hounds for fox hunting. Lincoln had two goats, Nanny and Nanko, who rode with him in the presidential carriage. Coolidge had a donkey and a goose that had starred in a Broadway play. Madison had a ram that liked to chew tobacco. He also used sheep to cut down on landscaping costs, and he had chickens and goats.
In 1863, Tad Lincoln, 10, quickly befriended the live turkey that was sent to the White House for Christmas dinner. Tad named the turkey Jack, fed it as a pet, and taught it to follow him around the White House grounds. As the holiday approached and the bird was about to be killed, Tad tearfully burst into one of his father's Cabinet meetings and pleaded for his pet's life. Lincoln took out a card, and on it he wrote a presidential reprieve.
Jack turkey became part of the presidential household and had his run of the grounds. 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 nearby soldiers could vote. As President Lincoln and Tad were watching from an upstairs window, they saw Jack strut out among the voters. "Why is your turkey at the polls? Does he vote?" Lincoln teased his son. "No," Tad answered, "he's not of age yet."
Sometimes, the animals caused a president embarrassment. For example, Tad Lincoln and his friends embarrassed Mrs. Lincoln by hitching two goats to a dining room chair and driving it into a sitting room where the first lady was entertaining distinguished guests. In a similar incident, Theodore Roosevelt's son Quentin interrupted an important meeting and dropped four snakes on his father's desk. Senators and party officials scrambled for safety. Eventually, the snakes were captured and sent back to the pet shop where Quentin had found them.
In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson had to apologize to animal rights organizations because he was photographed picking up his beagle Him by his ears. LBJ was astonished at the sensation that this caused, telling reporters that he had been pulling Him's ears since he was a pup and "he seemed to like it."
Another time, Benjamin Harrison's goat His Whiskers darted through the White House gates, pulling the grandchildren behind him in the cart. The president ran down Pennsylvania Avenue holding on to his hat and waving his cane, but the goat kept running. The cart was finally halted by several Washington, D.C., residents who had seen their president chasing the runaway goat.
Calvin Coolidge's wife Grace had a mockingbird that flew around the White House. The bird caused a bit of problem for the first lady, however, when she found out that keeping mockingbirds in confinement in D.C. was punishable by a $5 fine and a month in jail. "I was reluctant to part with my chorister," Grace revealed, "but I was even more averse to embarrassing my country by the imprisonment of its first lady."
Another legal case concerned Richard Nixon's beloved cocker spaniel Checkers. In 1952, when Nixon was running for vice president, he was accused of being in direct violation of gifts governed by Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution. Although the major charge focused on an $18,000 contribution, Nixon appealed to the American people on television, saying the only gift he'd received was his beloved cocker spaniel Checkers. In his famous "Checkers Speech," Nixon said his children loved the dog and he wasn't going to give it back. Americans were swayed and Nixon went on to become vice president under Eisenhower. But he had learned a lesson: In 1972, when he was president, Nixon was given two pandas by the People's Republic of China. He immediately donated them to the National Zoological Park in D.C.
Gifts of animals
Nixon was not the only president to be given animals as a gift. James Buchanan received a herd of elephants from the King of Siam (now called Thailand). Decades later, the U.S. consul in Siam sent Lucy Hayes, wife of Rutherford B. Hayes, a Siamese cat, the first ever to arrive in the United States. Thomas Jefferson was given two bear cubs by Lewis and Clark. The sultan of Oman gave Martin Van Buren a pair of tiger cubs. Theodore Roosevelt's daughter Alice received a black Pekingese from the last empress of China. On numerous occasions, foreign diplomats and dignitaries presented Calvin Coolidge and his family with animals representative of their countries. These gifts included lion cubs, bears, an antelope, a pigmy hippo, and an assortment of wild birds.
Caroline Kennedy's pony Macaroni was a present from Lyndon Johnson; and her dog Pushinka was given to her by Russian Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev. It was at the height of the Cold War, so Pushinka (daughter of the first dog in space, Strelka) was X-rayed and thoroughly searched for "bugs" or a possible doomsday device before being allowed in the presidential quarters.
Man's best friend
Because of Americans' fascination with the first family, the press has spent nearly a century snapping pictures of presidential dogs: Harding's Airedale, Eisenhower's weimaraner, Truman's Irish setter, Reagan's King Charles spaniel, and LBJ's beagles. Ford's golden retriever gave birth to nine puppies in the White House, as did George Bush's springer spaniel Millie, who authored a best-selling book (actually ghostwritten by Barbara Bush). Millie's Book is a look at the White House through the eyes of the canine.
President George W. Bush's dog Spot was the only pet to live in the White House during two administrations. Spot was born to Millie, George Bush's springer spaniel, when the elder Bush was president. Like the rest of the first family, both Spot and Millie were readily recognizable to the public. Spot died recently, but the Bush's other dog, a Scottish terrier named Barney, has been seen frequently with the president and first lady.
Before the Bushes, presidents have owned greyhounds, mastiffs, terriers, retrievers, Pekingese, bulldogs, chows, shepherds, sheepdogs, collies, and more. Some, like Lyndon Johnson's Yuki, were mutts. Yuki had been found at a Texas gas station by Johnson's daughter Luci, and he became one of the president's favorite dogs. LBJ taught Yuki to "sing" on command and was frequently photographed with him or his other six dogs.
Devoted dog-lovers, Warren Harding and his family invited other dogs to a birthday party for his dog Laddie Boy. They served a dog-biscuit cake.
There have been twice as many dogs in the White House as presidents, with Coolidge owning 12 of them. From George Washington to George W. Bush, there have been an estimated 113 canines (more if you count the puppies born during the Kennedy, Ford, and G. Bush administrations).
Calvin Coolidge once observed: "Any man who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House." Harry Truman stated: "If you want to have a friend in Washington, you should buy a dog." Other chief executives must have felt the same way, because more dogs have roamed in the White House halls than any other species of animal.
Without a doubt, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Scottie Fala was the most famous of the canines. From the time he was a puppy, Fala accompanied the president everywhere, and thus he was photographed thousands of times. The Secret Service reported that Fala was so recognizable that it was difficult to keep the president's trips secret.
At home, Fala ate his meals in Roosevelt's study, sat with the president at Cabinet meetings, and slept in a chair at the foot of his owner's bed. When the president met secretly with Allies aboard a Naval ship, Fala set in Roosevelt's lap. At White House press conferences, he ran free through the crowd.
After Fala discovered the White House kitchen, where everyone fed him, the puppy was sent to the hospital with a serious intestinal disturbance. As a result, Roosevelt issued a stern order to the entire White House staff: "Not even one crumb will be fed to Fala except by the president."
Even years in the future, the rule was regarded as a presidential proclamation. The president's server, Fred D. Fair, remembers fixing Fala's food, then handing it to the president, who would feed Fala out of his hand. "Many times, I remember dignitaries and other important folks waiting for their supper until Mr. Roosevelt finished feeding Fala," Fair recalls.
Horses have been the second-most-popular presidential pet, with a surprising number of presidents excelling in riding ability. Although modern-day presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush ride horses on their ranches, early presidents forged a deep bond with the horses they rode during wartime, and brought them to the White House. The list of horse-loving presidents includes George Washington, John Adams, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Theodore Roosevelt.
President George H.W. Bush and first dog Millie. (Joe
Marquette / UPI)
In 1797, John Adams built the first stables at the White House to accommodate his horses. Andrew Jackson's wartime mount was Sam Patches, but he also had racing horses. George Washington's favorite horse was Nelson, whom he had ridden when he accepted Gen. Charles Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown, the battle that ended the Revolutionary War. Ulysses S. Grant, who had been leader of the Union Army during the Civil War, stabled 10 horses and ponies, including one flippantly named Jeff Davis, after the president of the defunct Confederacy. Grant was regarded as one of the greatest equestrians of his era; in fact, before the war, he had set equestrian records at West Point and had ridden wild broncos in circuses.
Zachary Taylor also kept his old warhorse Whitney (whom he rode sidesaddle into battle) on the White House lawn. There, visitors would pluck hairs from his tail for souvenirs. When Taylor died, the horse followed his master's body in the funeral procession.
Without a doubt, our presidents have been devoted to their pets and cherished their company. Calvin Coolidge had 29 pets, Theodore Roosevelt 50 or more. Reportedly, John Kennedy sought escape from the stress of the Oval Office by visiting the children's animal play yard near the West Wing. It was stocked with lambs, ponies, dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, parakeets, a canary, a cat, a rabbit, and a horse.
Perhaps Kennedy had the right idea. Maybe there needs to be a White House zoo. What do you think?
Boller, Paul F., Presidential Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Bryant, Traphes, with Frances Spatz Leighton, Dog Days at the White House: The Outrageous Memoirs of the Presidential Kennel Keeper, New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1975.
Dallas Morning News (selected stories), January 20 & 21, 1993.
Durant, Alice and John. Pictorial History of American Presidents. New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1962.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns, "No Ordinary Time," Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, 1994.
Kane, Joseph. Facts About Presidents (5th edition). New York: H. W. Wilson, 1989.
Truman, Margaret, White House Pets, New York: David McKay Inc., 1969.
The Washington Post's Remembering Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Whitney, David C., The American Presidents. New York: Prentice Hall, 1990.
Linda Owen is a freelance writer based in San Antonio, Texas.