A Brief History of Presidential Pets
A Brief History of Presidential Pets
By Aaron Tallent
This Presidents’ Day, we have First Dogs back in the White House since President Joe Biden has brought his two German shepherds, Champ and Major. President Donald Trump was the only Commander in Chief other than James K. Polk to not have presidential pets while in office and Vice President Mike Pence’s rabbit, Marlon Bundo, “served” in that role in a de-facto capacity.
While their pets began receiving national attention in the 20th Century, presidents have owned animals that range from dogs to cats to grizzly bears. Here is a brief history of presidents and their pets.
George Washington: Our first president owned a variety of horses and hound dogs. One was a greyhound named Cornwallis after British General Charles Cornwallis, whom he defeated at the Siege of Yorktown.
Thomas Jefferson: Jefferson received two grizzly bear cubs as a gift from explorer Zebulon Pike, which he donated to the Philadelphia Museum. His most memorable pet was Dick the Mockingbird, who is believed to be the first animal to actually live in the White House.
Andrew Jackson: Old Hickory owned fighting gamecocks and Polly, a grey parrot who learned swear words. She attended Jackson’s funeral, but had to be removed because of excessive profanity.
Martin Van Buren: Omani ruler Said bin Sultan gave Van Buren two tiger cubs. He wanted to keep them, but Congress insisted that they belonged to the people and forced him to donate them to a zoo.
Abraham Lincoln: Honest Abe’s most famous pet was a yellow mongrel dog named Fido who stayed at the Lincolns’ home in Springfield, Ill., because he was frightened by crowds and loud noises. Sadly, he was stabbed by a drunk man a few months after Lincoln’s assassination. Hence the name “Fido” becoming a generic name for dogs.
Theodore Roosevelt: Roosevelt had a variety of pets that included a hyena, badger, pig, and a garter snake named Emily Spinach. His daughter, Alice, gave it the name because she said it was “as green as spinach and as thin as my Aunt Emily.”
Woodrow Wilson: While some of Wilson’s policies, such as the League of Nations, were highly controversial, everyone could get behind his practice of keeping sheep on the White House grounds. They kept the lawn trimmed and he donated the proceeds from selling their wool to the American Red Cross.
Warren G. Harding: Laddie Boy, Harding’s Airedale Terrier, was the first pet to receive national media attention because he fetched golf balls for the president and sat in his own carved chair at Cabinet meetings. First Lady Florence also used him as a poster child for promoting animal rights issues.
Calvin Coolidge: Coolidge and his wife, Grace, had a virtual zoo with no less than 40 animals. These included two lion cubs named Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau, a pygmy hippopotamus named William Johnson Hippopotamus, and a raccoon named Rebecca, which was intended be served at Thanksgiving dinner in 1926. However, the Coolidges decided to keep her as a pet.
Franklin D. Roosevelt: FDR’s most famous pet was a Scottish Terrier named Fala, who frequently sat by his side. A statue of Fala with Roosevelt is included in FDR’s memorial in Washington, DC.
John F. Kennedy: The Kennedys had many pets, including two hamsters named Billy and Debbie who were cared for by daughter Caroline. They escaped from their cage their second night in the White House, but were later found hiding under JFK’s bed.
Lyndon B. Johnson: One of the more famous photos of LBJ is of him sitting in the Oval Office howling with his mongrel dog, Yuki.
Richard Nixon: In September of 1952, Vice Presidential candidate Nixon gave a nationally televised speech to defend allegations of having a secret slush fund, but said “there is one thing that I did get as a gift that I’m not going to give back.” He then introduced the country to his Cocker Spaniel, Checkers. The “Checkers Speech” swayed public opinion and kept Nixon on the ticket. Unfortunately, Checkers passed away before Nixon was elected President in 1969.
Gerald Ford: Legend has it that Ford would end conversations in the Oval Office by calling for his Golden Retriever, Liberty, who would run up to the desk and create a break in the discussion.
Ronald Reagan: In 1985, Reagan bought an unruly Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Rex as a Christmas present for his wife Nancy. Some of Rex’s shenanigans included pulling on the First Lady as she spoke to the media and barking outside the Lincoln Bedroom.
George H.W. Bush: Few pets on this list received as a much attention as the Bushes’ English Springer Spaniel, Millie, who had her own children’s book and was portrayed on four sitcoms. When running against Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992, Bush said “My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos.”
Bill Clinton: The Clintons’ two pets, a domestic short-haired cat named Socks and a Labrador Retriever named Buddy, famously did not get along. Clinton once joked, “I did better with the Palestinians and the Israelis than I’ve done with Socks and Buddy.”
George W. Bush: W.’s Scottish Terrier Barney may be the only pet to be insulted by a foreign leader. When Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced Bush to Konni, his Labrador Retriever, he reportedly said that she was “(b)igger, tougher, stronger, faster, meaner, than Barney.”
Barack Obama: Because Malia Obama’s allergies required a hypoallergenic breed of dog, the Obamas adopted two Portuguese Water Dogs named Bo and Sonny. Both are still alive.
Only time will tell the stories Champ and Major will generate in the Biden White House, but people of all beliefs and backgrounds have a soft spot for pets. In a time of such political upheaval, that could be very refreshing.
About the Author: Aaron Tallent is a volunteer for King Street Cats, where he adopted LuLu, first mate to his other cat, Coop.