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Presidential Pets Sparked White House Joy

Presidential pets sparked White House joy through the nineteenth century and beyond. Dogs won as most popular pets over time. With the Victorian Explosion in dog breeding, the variety of furry faces in the White House was astounding. With the many dogs, a wide range of Presidential Pets entertained the public. Parrots, goats, mice, horses, sheep and turkeys all found their home in the White House, along with a bear and a couple of alligators. Even silk worms found their place to cheer a sullen First Lady.

Following are a few of our favorite Presidential Pets in no particular order.

President Theodore Roosevelt, 1901-1909

Roosevelt had more Presidential Pets than any other resident of the White House. Among them were several dogs of different breeds, a small bear, a lizard, guinea pigs, a pig, a blue macaw, a hen, a one-legged rooster, a hyena, a barn owl, Peter rabbit; and a pony named Algonquin and a badger.

According to the National Park Service:

“There was a Hyacinth Macaw named Eli Yale. Due to the parrot’s colorful plumage, Theodore is said to have commented that it “looked as if he came out of Alice in Wonderland.”

Several snakes also joined the Roosevelt menagerie.  Quentin once surprised his father in the middle of an important meeting in the Oval Office when Quentin dropped his snakes on the table.

…the officials scrambled for safety. The snakes were eventually captured and promptly sent back to the pet shop. Alice, Quentin’s sister, also had a pet garter snake that she named Emily Spinach because it was as green as spinach and as thin as my Aunt Emily.” (NPS)

President Thomas Jefferson, 1801-1809 

Among several Presidential Pets in the Jefferson White House were several mockingbirds. One named Dick appeared to be the president’s favorite.

Personal friend and American historian, Margaret Bayard Smith wrote that Dick’s cage was suspended among the roses and geraniums in the window recesses of the presidential cabinet.

 “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.” (Margaret Bayard Smith)

Jefferson also had a pair of grizzly bear cubs for a short time. According to Monticello.org, they were gifts from Captain Zebulon Pike in 1807.  According to Monticello.org the president was aware that grizzlies were considered among the most dangerous creatures in the United States. 

“Jefferson must have been aware of that reputation, as he would have heard first-hand accounts of the western grizzly from Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who had recently been in Washington following their expedition to the Pacific.”

Their status as Presidential Pets was short lived. Jefferson quickly sent the pair to Peale’s Museum where they lived in cages. At least one was killed when it attempted to escape. (Monticello.org)

President Grover Cleveland, 1885-1889; 1893-1897 

President Cleveland counted at least one mockingbird plus several canaries among his Presidential Pets, although birds really belonged to First Lady Frances “Frank” or “Frankie” Cleveland.

In her book, White House Pets, Margaret Truman writes:

Unlike Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Cleveland found the birds annoying on occasion, especially the mockingbird. One evening when he was up late working, the mockingbird’s antics kept interrupting his concentration. He had the bird moved. Sudden silence and the fact that the bird might have been placed in a draft worried him even more. Mr. Pendel, an aide, spent part of the night moving the mockingbird from place to place trying to find a compromise where the bird wouldn’t catch cold, and where it’s warbling could not be heard by the President.” (White House Pets)

Cleveland and his wife also had multiple dogs and reportedly hundreds of imported fish kept in pools in the Rose and Orchid conservatories at the White House. Among them were familiar goldfish as well as exotics that were gifts to Mrs. Frances Cleveland from the U.S. Consul in Indochina.

President Abraham Lincoln, 1861-1865 

One of the most popular of all U.S. Presidents, Abraham Lincoln was responsible for many critical actions including the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. He also was known as an animal lover with many presidential pets who had the run of the White House.

Lincoln was a dog lover. Sadly, he had to leave his beloved dog Fido with a neighbor when he moved to the White House. At that time only purebreds were considered valuable while mutts (also called tramps) were considered worthless. Nevertheless, Fido was considered a valuable member of the family. Putting Fido’s quality of life before his own, Lincoln felt the dog’s anxiety issues would worsen with the chaos of life in the White House. (Rescued Dog Becomes Fido Lincoln)

A small dog named Jip later became Lincoln’s constant companion. Army Nurse Rebecca Pomeroy, wrote:

“Jip “helped relieve Lincoln of ‘some portion of the burden, for the little fellow was never absent from the Presidential lunch. He was always in Mr. Lincoln’s lap to claim his portion first, and was caressed and petted by him through the whole meal.” (Abraham Lincoln Association)

According to the National Archives Lincoln allowed his sons Tad and Willie to have as many pets as they wanted.

The result was a menagerie that included rabbits, turkeys, horses, and even two goats, Nanny and Nanko.   In fact, Nanny and Nanko even rode with President Lincoln in the Presidential carriage.”  (National Archives)

With carts made from kitchen chairs, Tad and Willie often pulled the pair through the White House, scattering society guests.

Another member of the Presidential Pets was a turkey given to the First Family for their Christmas dinner in 1863. But Tad named the bird Jack and taught it to follow him around White House grounds. When the President told Tad that the turkey would be the center of their holiday feast, Tad begged for mercy. Lincoln gave in, delivering the country’s first turkey pardon. (Turkey Pardons Started With Tad Lincoln)

 

President Andrew Johnson, 1865-1869 

President Andrew Johnson took office unexpectedly after the assassination of President Lincoln. Johnson was very different from Lincoln, both politically and personally. He is one of very few who had no presidential pets. 

According to Civil War Talk:

During that terrible year of 1868, Johnson faced an impeachment trial, which he survived by one vote. With his administration in ruins, Congress made it clear that they would render him powerless. Rejected by Washington society, friendless, alone, and deeply depressed, Johnson found solace in a family of white mice in his suite in the White House.” (Civil War Talk)

Johnson’s daughter wanted to set traps for them. Instead, he set out a small basket of flour and some water. Before long,  he had a family of mice that he watched over.

They came to provide a lone glimmer of happiness for the president during what was otherwise a very dark time.” (Civil War Talk)

Johnson’s personal secretary, William G. Moore wrote in a diary that is now held by the Library of Congress:

The little fellows give me their confidence and I give them their basket and pour upon the hearth some water that they might quench their thirst.”.

President John Tyler, 1841-1845 

Among Tyler’s pets was a horse named, The General. When he died, Tyler buried him on his estate. The  headstone reads:

“Here lies the body of my good horse ‘The General.’ For twenty years he bore me around the circuit of my practice, and in all that time he never made a blunder. Would that his master could say the same! John Tyler.”

President Martin Van Buren, 1837-1841 

Sultan of Oman Kabul al Said gifted him a pair of tiger cubs. He welcomed them enthusiastically into the White House and prepared their living quarters. Sadly, Congress claimed these Presidential Pets as property of the United States because they were gifted while Andrew Jackson was still in office. Van Buren argued, but Congress sent the pair to a zoo.

President Andrew Jackson, 1829-1837 

One of the more infamous Presidential Pets belonged to President Andrew Jackson. The parrot named Poll was notorious for his salty language. According to The Hermitage, Home of the People’s President, On June 5, 1827, Andrew Jackson purchased a parrot from Decker & Dyer, a specialty shop in Nashville, in the amount of $25 as a gift to Rachel.

Reverend William Menefee Norment said:

“Before the sermon and while the crowd was gathering, a wicked parrot that was a household pet got excited and commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people and had to be carried from the house.” (The Hermitage)

People were “horrified and awed at the bird’s lack of reverence.”

Jackson also had several prize horses as the leading breeder and owner of thoroughbreds in his native state of Tennessee. One was a gift from the city of Philadelphia. Jackson named the white stallion Sam Patch after the famous daredevil high diver who set the bar for others including Annie Edson Taylor who went ove the falls in a barrel. 

President John Quincy Adams, 1825-1829

President John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa might win the top spot for weirdest Presidential Pets with their silkworms in the Mulberry Trees on White House grounds. Although the silkworms were more of a project for Louisa Adams than the President, he took interest in their progress. The work of raising the worms, collecting their silk and spinning it seemed to help his wife cope with her depression.

Silkworms enjoyed a surge of popularity during the nineteenth century as they became associated with economic prosperity and morally upright productiveness. According to Livia Gershon in JSTOR raising silkworms had a strong appeal as light work that increased household productivity.

Raising silkworms also offered a spiritual uplift by reminding people of how much beauty comes into the world through a plain-looking worm.

Among the Presidential Pets often associated with Adams was an alligator that had allegedly been gifted to him by French General Lafayette.

According to fact researchers at Grunge, the long believed legend is probably untrue. For some reason, Harriet Taylor Upton wrote about Lafayette’s alligators living in the East Room of the White House.

“Auguste Levasseur, who accompanied General Lafayette the entire trip, wrote a very detailed two-volume recounting of the journey, “Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825,” which included Lafayette’s visit with President John Quincy Adams. Levasseur never mentioned Lafayette giving alligators to Adams, nor storing any alligators at the White House.” (Grunge)

President Herbert Hoover 1929-1933

Alligators as Presidential Pets did however appear during Hoover’s stay in the White house. The Herbert Hoover Library and Museum of the National Archives writes:

Hoover’s younger son, Allan, had two pet alligators that frequented the White House grounds, amazing and quite possibly terrifying guests.

Herbert Hoover made reference to the alligators in the second volume of his memoirs:

“Allan was still in the stage of adventure where all sorts of animals must be accumulated.  By providing food and water for birds, he induced scores of them to daily visit us.  He also provided them quarters by hanging gourds in trees. Two dogs and two cats were necessary, and among the transitory possessions were two ducks which he trained to sit on the front porch to the infinite entertainment of passers-by.  A selection of land turtles gathered from the woods was all right; but two small alligators, presented to him by Clarence Woolley, were somewhat of a trial, for Allan believed they must be bedded at night in the bathtubs.” (Hoover Archives)

President Calvin Coolidge, 1923-1929

Calvin and Grace Coolidge are known for having a menagerie of Presidential Pets. Among them were multiple dogs, cats, birds, a goose, a bobcat, a donkey, a pygmy hippo, a black bear and a raccoon named Rebecca.

According to the Coolidge Foundation:

The Coolidge’s loved animals, and at various times owned many dogs, cats (Climber, Tiger, Blacky), birds, and a raccoon named Rebecca. While Coolidge was president, he received twin lion cubs as a gift from the mayor of Johannesburg. The White House named the cubs “Budget Bureau” and “Tax Reduction.” Coolidge was especially fond of Rob Roy, his collie.” (Coolidge Foundation)

Coolidge supporters in Mississippi sent a live raccoon in November 1926, for the first family’s Thanksgiving dinner. But the family named her Rebecca and made her a family member instead,

The Library of Congress writes:

They let her roam the trees on the White House property. Her adventures were routinely reported in newspapers and she gained quite a bit of fame, making a star appearance at the 1927 Easter Egg Roll at the White House…”

Rebecca often roamed free in the White House, including playtime in a half-filled bathtub.

W hen Rebecca went out on the town with the first lady, she sported bling –  an embroidered collar identifying her as the “White House Raccoon.” She vacationed with the first family, escaped often, and pretty much ruled in the way she saw fit…”

When Coolidge left office in 1929, Rebecca retired at the Rock Creek Zoo, now called the National Zoo.

 

A Note About Queen Victoria And Pets

Dogs were domesticated for centuries. In part, thanks to Queen Victoria’s exuberance for animals, both the merchant class and the aristocrats of the 1800s loved their dogs and invited them into their homes. Portraits with dogs became so popular that people would hire a prop dog to sit for their portrait if they didn’t have one of their own.

Many of the breeds we know today originated in the 1800s. Queen Victoria kept 55 dogs in her kennel, which was paved with red and blue tiles. The compartments were warmed with hot water. All of the dogs were acquainted with the Queen, who visited them often while she was at the castle.

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