Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election 2012: Presidential Pets

Celebrating White House Biodiversity with a Look at Presidential Pets

A look at the Election, BHL-Style: Donkey vs. Elephant!
It's Election Day 2012 in the United States and the frenzy of the polls is upon us. We decided to commemorate the election with a look at the varied and sometimes remarkable biodiversity that has graced the White House since our first president in 1789. There are of course the usual suspects - dogs, cats and birds - and some not as readily available in your local pet store, including tigers, elephants, and pygmy hippos! So, as the Elephant and Donkey battle it out today, explore the lighter side of the election with us as we celebrate 200+ years of Presidential Pets.

The Usual Fare: Dogs, Cats, and Birds

Some of most popular Presidential dog breeds are Terriers!
By far the most popular type of animal owned by presidents over the years is the dog. Twenty-eight of our forty-four presidents owned dogs, breeds of which include Terriers, Labradors, Spaniels, Irish Setters, Collies, Eskimo Dogs, and less-usual breeds like Weimaraners, Mastiffs, Wolfhounds, and Airedales. President Obama's dog, Bo, a Portuguese Water Dog, is the current pet-in-residence at the White House.

Significantly less popular among presidential pets are cats (to the chagrin of many a librarian!); only nine of our Presidents owned them. These cat lovers included Lincoln, Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Clinton, and George W. Bush. President Hayes, who held office 1877-1881, owned the first Siamese kitten to reach America.

Not all of our presidents preferred four-legged companions. Feathery friends are also popular in Office - more popular, in fact, than cats! Fifteen of our past presidents have owned birds, the most popular varieties of which are Canaries and Mockingbirds. Some presidents owned more exotic varieties, including a Blue Macaw and Barn Owl (Theodore Roosevelt) and a Bald Eagle (Buchanan). Farmyard-associated Aves have also seen White House time, including a turkey during Lincoln's tenure and roosters during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency.

It's an Equestrian Thing

Up until early 1900s, horses were common Presidential Pets.
It should not surprise you that a close second in most popular pets to the dog is the horse. Up until the early 1900s, when the automobile became king, it was commonplace for influential citizens to own horses. Though President Washington owned many horses, his successor, John Adams, actually built the first White House stables. The most recent president to own a horse was John F. Kennedy, whose daughter Caroline's pony, Macaroni, roamed freely around the White House grounds and was something of an American celebrity. Kennedy's wife, Jacqueline, also owned a horse named Sardar.

Other Barnyard Friends

The horse isn't the only species commonly found on a farm that, at times, has also been a resident at the White House. Many presidents owned cattle, including William Henry Harrison, who kept a Durham variety at the White House, and Rutherford Hayes, who owned pedigreed Jersey Cows. While President Taft was the last president to keep a cow at the White House (his cow Pauline provided him with milk during his 1909-1913 presidency), George W. Bush owns a female longhorn named Ofelia, which they keep at the family ranch in Texas. Goats were also popular among Presidents, with both Harrisons, Lincoln, and Hayes claiming them at pets. And let us not forget the Democratic-icon, the donkey! President Coolidge had one named Ebenezer during his 1923-1929 tenure.

Bigger Doesn't Mean Better

Andrew Johnson left flour on his doorstep to feed mice during his impeachment.
Some Presidents preferred much smaller pets. For example, Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt had raccoons, while Lincoln, Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson raised hamsters. Theodore Roosevelt was also one of only two presidents to own reptiles as pets: he owned snakes and a lizard named Bill. Our favorite small pet story, however, is associated with Andrew Johnson, who left flour on his doorstep at night to feed the local mice population during his impeachment.

A Walk on the Wild Side

Alligator 1 of 3 reptiles species owned by presidents
Though it has been nearly 90 year since anything more exotic than a lovebird called the White House home, some of our former presidents certainly had a flare for the unusual when it came to pets. For example, John Quincy Adams owned the only other reptile pet claimed by a president - an Alligator given him by the Marquis de Lafayette.

Not impressed by an alligator? Well, Martin van Buren received a pair of tiger cubs from the Sultan of Oman. Congress strongly requested the animals be given to the local zoo.

And if you think your pet eats a lot, consider owning something that eats up to 660 pounds of food a day! James Buchanan received a herd of elephants from the King of Siam.

 However, when it comes to the extreme in pet-owning, Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt take the cake. Among his dogs, cats, birds, donkey, and raccoon, Calvin Coolidge also owned a bobcat, lion cubs, a wallaby, a bear, and even a pygmy hippo! Theodore Roosevelt, whom we featured not long ago in regards to his outspoken love for nature, owned not only the typical dogs, cats, birds, and even horses, but also a badger, lion, hyena, wildcat, coyote, bear, and zebra.

During President Coolidge's tenure, the White House featured what amounted to a zoo, complete with wallabies!

Outcasts from the Pet Bandwagon

Think every president owned a pet? Think again! James K. Polk (1845-49), Millard Fillmore (1850-53), Franklin Pierce (1853-57), and Chester A. Arthur (1881-85) left no record of ever owning any pets. Nevertheless, Millard Fillmore was a founding member and president of the Buffalo chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

We hope you've enjoyed our lighter celebration of the election, highlighting the biodiversity of the White House. Our Presidents have certainly owned some remarkable species throughout the years. Check out illustrations of the presidential varieties in our BHL Flickr

To finish our post, we're challenging you to a bit of trivia fun!

We hope you enjoyed this post. Interested in guest-blogging for BHL? We'd love that! Natural history, biodiversity and conservation topics are especially welcomed. Email us your ideas at

- Grace Costantino, Program Manager, Biodiversity Heritage Library

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