Presidential Pets

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As originally seen in WAG Magazine, April 2012

Sure, everybody knows Bo, the current four-legged White House occupant, but did you know that the White House is also home to 70,000 well-tended bees and has welcomed silkworms, raccoons, cows, an eagle, an elephant, a possum and a tiger? Not to mention dozens of dogs, cats, birds and farm animals? If the White House carpets could talk, they’d have quite a story to tell.

Recent presidential pets seem plagued by the same problems that afflict many of my dog-training clients. While Bo is well-behaved and stays out of the spotlight, some canine residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. have behaved in most un-presidential ways. There was feisty little Barney, the George W. Bush family Scottie, who famously bit a Reuters reporter, and Buddy, the Clintons’ Labrador puppy, whose exuberant behavior overwhelmed and traumatized Socks, Chelsea’s aging cat. And then there was Lucky. Lucky was a Bouvier des Flandres given to Nancy Reagan by a March of Dimes poster child. Lucky was an energetic, large and unreliably housebroken herding dog, perfectly unsuited to life in the White House. After a nine-month stay in Washington, Lucky moved to the Reagans’ California ranch and was replaced by Rex, a 15-pound Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

Dogs, cats and horses have always been so popular with our presidents that only four previous leaders have been pet-less. But what qualifies as a pet? You may be startled to learn that Calvin Coolidge, a famously quiet and serious man, kept a raccoon named Rebecca within the hallowed walls of the White House. Rebecca liked to bathe in the White House kitchen sink and squeeze the soap into balls. During dinner, she ate in the bathroom adjoining the family dining room, enjoying shrimp, chicken, persimmons and eggs. After a grueling day in the Oval Office, Coolidge would stroll the grounds with a cat and later the ubiquitous Rebecca.

Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy set the bar high for variety, although Roosevelt wins on creative pet names. Both presidents indulged their children with dogs, cats, birds, rabbits and ponies, but Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, added a macaw, a flying squirrel, a one-legged rooster, guinea pigs named Fighting Bob Evans and Father O’Grady and Emily Spinach, a garter snake.

Foreign heads of state often presented animals to the presidents as living representations of the bounty of their respective countries. Most were gratefully accepted, named and cared for. (John Adams even kept an alligator in the presidential tub.) Some of the less pet-like animals lived out their days at the Rock Creek Zoo, now a zoological park managed by the Smithsonian Institute. Past residents include Billy the Liberian pygmy hippo, a pair of African lions named Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau, tigers from the Sultan of Oman, a rare Mexican bear and several Australian wallabies and wombats.

Some dogs became a part of the historical record. Fala, a Scottish Terrier, was the constant companion of Franklin D. Roosevelt. When a rumor spread that Roosevelt inadvertently left Fala in the Aleutian Islands and redirected a Navy ship to collect him – at great cost to taxpayers – Roosevelt gave a speech denying this and defending his dog. He could tolerate slander directed at himself but against his pooch? Unthinkable.

A canine also played a role in the speech of a future president. When vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon railed against critics who accused him of financial improprieties involving his backers, he acknowledged that he kept only one proffered gift – a small white dog named Checkers.

Pets help to humanize the president and his family. These voiceless and vote-less companions care not a whit for status or protocol. How else to explain the sight of Benjamin Harrison chasing a goat down Pennsylvania Avenue? The goat – Old Whiskers – was taking the presidential grandchildren on an unscheduled and presumably dangerous ride, and it was up to the 23rd president of the United States to retrieve them.

Theodore Roosevelt brought his ailing son Archie’s pony up to the boy’s bedroom. Algonquin rode in the elevator to reach his destination. Fala attended FDR’s funeral. Indeed, few statues of this president exist without a small bronze rendering of his loyal companion.

It seems that even the White House is not really a home without a few trusted, furry companions.