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First Pets: A History of Critters in the White House


First Pets: A History of Critters in the White House

Current first pet Bo Obama enjoys the spotlight.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A President’s Day Parade of First Pets:

Just about every commander in chief to occupy the White House, with very few exceptions, has been pet a lover who owned a variety of animals – from the mundane to the exotic.

Meet the colorful array of first pets who have graced the White House throughout history.

Immortalizing First Pets:

First pets have so captivated America’s imagination that there is now a Presidential Pet Museum in Williamsburg, Va. Founded in 1999, the museum houses more than 500 artifacts related to presidential critters.

The most recent first pet to grace the White House is Bo the Portuguese water dog, a gift from late Sen. Ted Kennedy which joined President Obama’s family in April 2009.

The Obamas initially caught some flak from the media and public due to not adopting a shelter dog, as was their original intent. But First Daughter Malia’s pet allergies warranted acquiring such a low-allergenic breed.

Bo, who in my opinion is the handsomest first dog ever, loves media attention and enjoys shopping, particularly at big box stores such as PetSmart.

Bo got a new adoptive sister in August 2013, when the First Family adopted another Portuguese Water Dog, Sunny.

Here are some more fascinating facts about First Pets.

The First First Pets

A highly accomplished equestrian, George Washington was especially fond of horses, and maintained a large stable of stallions. The Father of Our Country also had a huge soft spot for hounds, and a knack for giving them booze-inspired names such as Tipsy, Drunkard and Taster. According to the VPI Pet Insurance website, he owned 30 dogs at one point. Mrs. Washington, meanwhile, was said to have owned a parrot.

John Adams (1789-1797) shared Washington’s fondness for horses (he built the first stables at the White House) and dogs. Another huge equine fancier was Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877), who was legendary for his rapport with horses.

Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and James Madison (1809-1817) were both fans of fine feathered friends, with a mockingbird and parrot between them. Jefferson also owned two Briard dogs.

The Most First Pets

Abe Lincoln (1861-1865) and his clan were huge pet lovers, with a most diverse brood. Included in Honest Abe’s first menagerie were a pig, rabbits, goats, ponies, assorted dogs and cats, and a turkey. The latter became the inspiration for the now-customary Thanksgiving Turkey Pardoning tradition. (First Son Tad Lincoln had asked his dad to spare one of his pet's relatives from becoming Christmas dinner.)

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) also had quite an impressive collection of pets and exotic animals including a zillion horses; dogs; cats; snakes; guinea pigs; a lion; hyena; a rooster; bears; parrots; rats; and others too numerous to mention.

Roosevelt even established a pet cemetery for his critters at his estate on Sagamore Hill, N.Y., which is now a National Historic Site.

Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) maintained a veritable zoo at the White House, with everything from a number of collies and other dogs too numerous to count; birds; a couple of cats; a donkey; lion cubs; a wallaby; a bear; and a pygmy hippopotamus!

John Kennedy was no slouch in the first pets department, either. His critter collection included dogs, a cat, parakeets, ponies, hamsters, a rabbit and a horse. Lest we forget Pushinka, a pup who was the offspring of a Russian space dog who was a gift to Caroline Kennedy from Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

More Odd First Pets

John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) had a pet alligator, which was presented to him by the Marquis de Lafayette, while First Lady Louisa Adams had silkworms.

Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) received a gift of two tiger cubs from the Sultan of Oman, which he ultimately relinquished to a zoo.

In addition to a “normal” pet (a Newfoundland dog), James Buchanan (1857-1861) owned an elephant (despite that he was a Democrat) and a bald eagle.

First Pets in the Spotlight

George Bush (1989-1993) owned a very erudite Springer spaniel named Millie who wrote a best-selling book “Millie's Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush,” making her the first (and to date, only) first pet author.

The most famous first cat was Socks, who belonged to Bill Clinton (1993-2001). Media-savvy Socks was especially fond of holding court at presidential press conferences and photo ops; would make personal appearances at schools and hospitals; was the subject of a couple of books; and was bombarded with fan mail.

Socks later had to share first pet honors with Buddy, a chocolate Lab whom he could not abide. So Clinton’s secretary, Betty Currie, took Socks off his hands. The former first feline apparently enjoyed this arrangement, as he lived to a ripe old age. (He was believed to have been between 18 and 20 when he was put down in 2009 due to a bout with cancer.)

Another very famous first pet was Checkers, Richard Nixon’s cocker spaniel. During his master’s 1952 vice-presidential candidacy, the pooch became the focus of a famous speech in which Nixon denied accepting money from a political slush fund, claiming that Checkers was the only gift he kept. Although admittedly sappy, the “Checkers Speech” saved Nixon’s candidacy from imminent ruin.

Other First Pets Trivia

Ill-fated President James Garfield (1881), who was assassinated a mere 200 days after taking office, had a dog with the droll name Veto.

Meanwhile, there were a very small number of presidents who did not own pets. The most curious was Millard Fillmore (1850-1853). Although he was a founding member and president of the Buffalo, N.Y., chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, he had no pets while in office.

Other presidents who did not have pets were:

  • James Polk (1845-1849)
  • Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
  • Chester Arthur (1881-1885)

Andrew Johnson (1865-1869), who many historians have deemed the worst president in the history of the administration, also didn’t formally have pets. But in the dark days of his impeachment trial, he was said to have befriended a family of stray mice that occupied his White House bedroom, and would leave them tidbits of food. These apparently were his only pals, a sadly fitting animal alliance for America’s most reviled commander in chief.

Can't get enough of First Pets? Then read all about Socks, the most famous White House kitty, along with other famous political felines by clicking here!
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