This week’s entry: United States presidential pets
What it’s about: From Martha Washington’s parrot to the puppy President Obama promised his daughters during his first inaugural address, pets have been part of every first family in our nation’s history. While the majority have been cats, dogs, and—in the pre-automobile era—horses, there have been some unusual furry creatures in the White House, and we don’t just mean Chester A. Arthur’s side-whiskers. If we had been planning ahead, we could have timed this with Presidents’ Day, but it didn’t quite work out. Thanks, Obama.
Strangest fact: “Silent Cal” let his animal collection do the talking for him. While notoriously reserved, Calvin Coolidge owned a fearsome collection of pets, including a bobcat, a black bear, a pygmy hippo, and lion cubs he named Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau. He also owned numerous dogs, a donkey, a goose, a wallaby, and a duiker (a small member of the antelope family). Not to be outdone, successor Herbert Hoover owned two alligators, as well as a pack of dogs of various breeds. Precedent for dangerous pets was set early, as Thomas Jefferson owned two bear cubs, and Martin Van Buren briefly owned two tigers!
Biggest controversy: Dogs could get you in and out of trouble in the postwar era. Lyndon Johnson owned several beagles, two of which were simply named Him and Her. In 1964, LBJ was photographed picking Him up by the ears. The nation was shocked, and the president had to go to lengths to convince the public he was a compassionate dog owner to win back the nation’s trust. A dozen years earlier, then-vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon was in hot water when he was accused of improperly accepting gifts from backers, and his position on Eisenhower’s ticket seemed shaky. Nixon gave a televised address to 60 million viewers defending himself and frankly discussing his personal finances. He did admit to getting one gift—a black-and-white dog his 6-year-old daughter named Checkers. Seeing Nixon speak of his “modest means” and his show of emotion at the mention of his children and dog warmed the public to the candidate, and the “Checkers Speech” is thought to have saved his political career. One could make a case that was a bad thing in the long run.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Teddy Roosevelt actually did have a live teddy bear. Our 26th president had two great passions: nature, and shooting at nature, and as such, he has the largest collection of animals of any president. The phrase “teddy bear” was coined when, on a hunting trip during his first term, he refused to shoot a black bear other hunters had tied to a tree, considering it unsportsmanlike. The story spread, and led to the popularity of stuffed toys bearing the president’s nickname. That bear is often conflated with Jonathan Edwards, a “small bear” his children kept as a pet in the White House. The Roosevelt family menagerie also included guinea pigs, a lizard named Bill, numerous dogs, cats, and ponies, a pig, a rabbit, a badger, a barn own, a hyena, and a garter snake named Emily Spinach.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: One of our worst presidents was also one of our worst pet owners. Andrew Johnson—a loyal Southerner who was the only senator from a Confederate state to remain in the Senate—ran on a unity ticket with Lincoln during the Civil War. But Johnson was widely criticized for standing in the way of rights for newly freed slaves, and frequently clashed with Congress, which impeached him in 1868, acquitting him by only one vote. Nearly as disappointing, Johnson seems to be the only president who didn’t bring any pets to the White House. The list lamely offers that he fed white mice he found in his bedroom. (The only less inspiring pet may be John Quincy Adams’ sole contribution to the list: silkworms.)
Also noteworthy: Rutherford B. Hayes is noteworthy for very little (apart from being the focus of a previous Wormhole), but he was the first American to own Siamese cats. A pair of the felines, Siam and Miss Pussy, were gifts from the King of Siam (now Thailand).
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: One of John F. Kennedy’s many dogs was famous in her own right—Pushinka was a gift from Soviet Premire Nikita Khrushchev, and was the offspring of Soviet space dog Strelka. As a precursor to human space flight, the USSR’s space program launched 57 dogs into space. Strelka, along with copilot Belka, a rabbit, and several mice and rats, were the first living things to orbit Earth and return alive. The previous dog-cosmonaut, Laika, orbited the Earth on Sputnik 2, but as technology did not yet exist to safely return a space capsule from orbit, she died several hours into the mission.
Further down the Wormhole: Horses were common presidential pets in the early days of the Republic, but since Chester A. Arthur left the White House in 1885, only two presidents—Kennedy and Reagan—have owned them. Typically, horses live 25 to 30 years, but a 19th-century horse named Old Billy reportedly lived to age 62. The oldest horse in modern times was Sugar Puff, who died in 2007 at age 56, according to Guinness World Records. Another record listed in the book is most times struck by lightning. This dubious honor belongs to the late Roy Sullivan, a park ranger who survived being struck seven times over the course of 35 years. We’ll look at his shocking (sorry, couldn’t help it) story next week.