Presidential Pets 

Bruce Crumley on the adorable (and somewhat strange) animal companions that once resided in the White House

Given the incomparable demands and stress of the office, it’s perhaps not surprising that most American presidents have relied on the same companionship and affection that many of their fellow citizens do: the family pet. Indeed, over more than two centuries, the White House has seen a veritable menagerie of critters populate its offices, salons, bedrooms, stables and lawns – ranging from the banal but beloved to the frankly freaky.

While their status as humankind’s best friend understandably ranks dogs as the most numerous of White House animal residents, presidential pets have also included raccoons, sheep, horses, badgers, and even a pygmy hippopotamus and elephants. Top prize for the oddest (and perhaps most dangerous) First Pet went to John Quincy Adams, who is said to have kept an alligator in the East Room. So much for the calming embrace of animal affection after a tough presidential day.

But if that set the bar for unconventional companionship, several of Adam’s successors came close to rivaling his choice.

Unusual First Pets

In addition to owning the hippo, for example, Calvin Coolidge, also counted lion cubs, a bear, an antelope, a wallaby and a bobcat among his many animals (including the odd dog and cat). Outdoorsman Theodore Roosevelt also had bears among his pets, as well as snakes, pigs, an owl, raccoon, badger, hyena, zebra and lion.

"Josiah" the Badger, 1903 (From the collection of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, National Park Service)

James Buchanan opened his home to an eagle, but also elephants given to him by the King of Siam. In similar fashion, Martin van Buren received a gift of pet tiger cubs from the Sultan of Oman. Probably the earliest example of exotic animal gifts to presidents were the bear cubs Thomas Jefferson was offered by explorers Lewis and Clark. In the 1960s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave John F. Kennedy a puppy named Pushkina – a present with political punch, given that the dog’s mother had been aboard Sputnik 2, and had become an icon of the Space Race Moscow was winning at the time.

John F. Kennedy's terrier is carried off plane at airport as family returns from Florida (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Next to those animals, the herd of sheep that Woodrow Wilson kept grazing on the White House lawn seems almost commonplace. So, too, does the opossum Herbert Hoover counted among his pets, as does Andrew Jackson’s parrot, Poll – who nevertheless stands out for having reputedly had quite the potty mouth.

Horses, goats, fowl, cows and songbirds also abounded over the years.

Dog Days

Despite that diverse and downright weird list of presidential creatures, probably the best-known and favorite White House pets have been the cats and dogs featured in most American households. The first of those to gain wide public and media attention was Laddie Boy, Warren Harding’s Airedale Terrier. Fala, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Scottish Terrier, similarly won considerable fame as a cherished and faithful presidential companion.

Laddie Boy, President Harding's Dog, ca. 1970-1989 (From the collection of Ohio History Connection)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt driving in his convertible with his dog Fala through Hyde Park, 1944 (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

First Family dogs and cats really came into their own during recent presidencies, thanks in part to the increased mass media exposure of their owners.

Before there was much oohing and ahhing over the Obama’s Portuguese Water Dogs Bo and Sunny, George H. W. Bush had pulled pet-lovers heartstrings with his dedication to dogs Millie and Ranger. George W. Bush’s presidency was similarly studded with images of his Scottish Terrier Barney, as well as cameos by Spotty – who, born to Millie during the first Bush presidency, is the only pet known to have lived in the White House under two different commander-in-chiefs.

George H. W. Bush campaign button, 1992 (From the collection of Senator John Heinz History Center)

Canine Ear Scandal

Even before he won the top job, Vice-President Richard Nixon’s dog Checkers became famous due to a shout-out in a famous speech denying suspicions of financial improprieties. Under Bill Clinton, both black Labrador Buddy and pet cat Socks became regular participants in White House photos, as had Liberty under Gerald Ford’s term.

Nixon's Dog "Checkers", 1962, Ralph Crane (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Lyndon Johnson generated much interest (and amusement) with his family’s beagles known simply as Him and Her. The pair also led to a public outcry after a picture was taken of Johnsonlifting Him up by the ears – producing canine yelps that the president explained away as “a sound of joy.”

Lyndon Johnson's Dogs, Him & Her, Francis Miller (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Learn more about the presidency and American Democracy.

Words by Bruce Cromley
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