It is sometimes said that "the pet makes the man". Well, not in so few words, but there has often been a rather odd connection between pets and the powers that be. Cats, dogs, and horses tend to be the most popular pets among world leaders, but what of the other, less known animal companions?

The purpose of this essay is to point out some of the stranger First Pets in the White House, and in some cases, draw a correlation between the pet and something notable or influential regarding it. “Normal” pets, like cats, dogs, fish, birds, and other conventional pets will be ignored, unless there is something particularly odd about them.

Presidents of the United States of America have, for the most part, had some sort of pet. In fact, the only three Presidents to not have any pet whatsoever were: Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Chester A. Arthur --also three of the least memorable presidents in American History.

Let us start off small; George Washington had a parrot named Polly. While this isn’t a strange pet, the name was actually the cause of my interest in this subject. Whether or not this was the first parrot named Polly, I was unable to find, but no doubt it influenced the stereotyped name of parrots for generations to come. “Polly wanna cracker?”

Skipping John Adams, let’s examine a VERY common myth: Thomas Jefferson and his two pet bear cubs. In point of fact, they were never his pets. He received two bear cubs from Mr. Zebulon Pike from an expedition to the Southwest. They stayed briefly on the lawn near the President's House and then Jefferson had them sent to Mr. Charles Willson Peale for his museum in Philadelphia. Later, they escaped and had to be killed due to their terrorization of the local populace. He also was said to have owned a mockingbird as a pet. Anyone from Texas can tell you that mockingbirds are some of the meanest, most ill-tempered birds in the world, and would sooner try to kill you as look at you. If you disagree, I invite you to walk within one block of any mockingbird nest in the spring.

Skipping James Madison and James Monroe we arrive at John Quincy Adams who had perhaps two of the strangest choices in pets: an alligator and silkworms. The alligator, given to President John Quincy Adams by the Marquis de Lafayette, resided in a bathroom in the East Room for a time. His wife, Louisa, spun silk from the worms.

Moving right along, ignoring Andrew Jackson, we see that Martin Van Buren owned two tiger cubs given to him by the Sultan of Oman which he kept at the White House as pets. Congress insisted that the tigers must be sent to the zoo, and he acquiesced.

Now passing William Henry Harrison (who had a goat and a cow, but so do many people), John Tyler, James Knox Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, we come to one of America’s greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, who owned a Turkey named Jack, two very flatulent goats named Nanny and Nanko, and many other “normal pets”. However, he did also own a white rabbit, which is not in and of itself strange, but rather the superstitions associated with rabbits. The rabbit is considered a symbol of luck, speed, and fertility by many cultures. What’s odd is how the exact opposite of these actually applied to Lincoln’s life. Lincoln was far from lucky (being assassinated and all), he was known to be a somewhat lazy man (which is certainly no crime, being as he was a great president, it is just not exactly a “speedy” trait), and his wife died in childbirth.

Skipping many presidents, let us examine Benjamin Harrison, who, aside from the wackaday assortment of dogs and a goat, owned an opossum, which is considered more to be vermin than pet material, and rarely get on well with dogs. It’s odd that Harrison did not keep cats, as cats tend to get along with ‘possums quite well.

Ignoring McKinley we come to the king of weird pets, Theodore Roosevelt. His pets almost deserve an entry unto themselves. Among his menagerie was a badger: one of the few native animals to America that is even meaner than mockingbirds. One might think this was the impetus of a the young headstrong man we saw on safari, but in fact, got Josiah (Josh for short) late in life, in early 1903 while staying in Del Monte, California. He gave it to his son, Archie, but Josiah was later banished to the Bronx Zoo after he developed the habit of "hissing like a teakettle" and biting guests on the ankle. Of course, this was only the start; he also owned a piebald rat named Jonathan (who had a habit of crawling all over people). His daughter, Alice, had a pet garter snake named Emily Spinach (which she kept in her purse), so named because it was green like spinach and as thin as her Aunt Emily. Word of mouth was still the strongest form of media in those days, and rumors about the president’s daughter owning a snake got way out of control. There was even one that said that she had nearly been killed by a giant boa constrictor that got into the White House. This wasn’t the only snake the family owned, which might have been some cause for the confusion (they also owned lizards and other reptiles). Quentin, another Roosevelt child, ran home with three snakes, one of which was a king snake, and Teddy had this to say on the matter.

”As Quentin and his menagerie were an interruption to my interview with the Department of Justice, I suggested that he go into the next room, where four Congressmen were drearily waiting until I should be at leisure. I thought that he and his snakes would probably enliven their waiting time.” -from Teddy Roosevelt’s letter to his son Archie, 28 Sept. 1907

Of course Teddy had even more strange pets than this. A raccoon (read as vicious little vermin) made its home at the White House alongside a flying squirrel, and a coyote. Yet another odd pet was the mountain lion kitten (which held little fear for the man who chased down and killed a cougar with only his knife and dogs). The lion was kept at at a Camp at Tampa, with some of the other animals. Finally, a hyena and zebra were also a part of the family.

William Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren Harding all owned run of the mill farm animal pets, but Calvin Coolidge decided to mimic Roosevelt, if in slightly less menacing creatures. He owned two raccoons (named Rebecca and Horace) which his family walked on leashes. A donkey named Ebeneezer was the first pet donkey recorded at the White House (ironic, being that he was a conservative). Additionally, he owned a wallaby (aka mini-kangaroo), a pygmy hippo, and some lion cubs, but he loved Rebecca the Raccoon the most. He had a special house built for her. When the White House was being repaired and President Coolidge and his family moved temporarily, the President worried that Rebecca might get lonely, so he sent a limousine to bring her from the White House to stay with them. Coolidge’s love for animals did his reputation little good, however, being still considered a misanthrope by many, and the remaining Presidents’ pets were much more conventional, being limited to dogs, cats, horses, fish, birds, and in the case of Lyndon B. Johnson, a hamster.

There are many possible reasons for the sharp decline in strange first pets:
  • In 1909, President William Howard Taft converted the White House stables into a four-car garage, leaving little room for the really large pets.
  • As previously mentioned, congress tended to have the Presidents give up the more exotic of the animals, for various reasons.
  • The exploration and frontier days of the United States have all but vanished, leaving little room for accepting a bold safari-going President.
  • In today’s world, it would cause lawsuits and a media circus that no President would want.

Whatever the reasons, we have most likely seen the last days of exotic animals in the White House.

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