Presidents and Their Pets


Squirrels, raccoons, frogs, rabbits, and hundreds of dogs!

These animals are quite an unusual assortment, but they all have something in common. At one time or another, each of these animals lived in the home of a president of the United States. Since it was completed just after the turn of the century, the White House has seen a variety of presidential pets.

Thomas Jefferson was the first president to bring a pet into the White House. Presidential aides and servants were constantly surprised by the swooping dives and loud calls of the chief executive’s pet mockingbird. And whenever President Jefferson found time to enjoy one of his favorite pleasures, playing the violin, his mockingbird would join in the fun. However, the sounds of the violin and mockingbird did not always blend for the most perfect musical duet.

In the summer of 1825, Lafayette, the great French general of the Revolutionary War, came to Washington. As a young man, he had been an able assistant to Gen. George Washington. Now sixty-eight, Lafayette accepted President John Quincy Adams’ invitation to stay at the White House.

Wishing to show their warm friendship for the French general, people across the country sent him presents. Boxes and crates of all sizes and shapes arrived. One special messenger brought a rare collection of Louisiana swamp creatures, including ten speckled frogs and one live alligator! A White House bathroom was quickly made into a small aquarium where the alligator had the privacy of his own spotless bathtub!

Another White House gift became a matter of life and death to young Tad Lincoln. A friend of President Lincoln’s, a successful turkey grower, sent one of his best gobblers to be served for a White House Christmas dinner. Tad quickly made friends with the handsome bird and named him Jack. The two of them spent many hours racing around the White House grounds. Finally, when it came time for the turkey to be readied for the holiday feast, Tad would not hear of such a thing.

“Father, you can’t let anyone kill Jack,” the boy pleaded. “He’s my friend!”

“But if we do not serve him for Christmas dinner, I might offend the man who gave us the turkey.”

“Then I’ll talk to him. I’ll tell him Jack is my friend and that I want him to live.”

President Lincoln nodded, gently resting a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Then Jack will be spared,” his father agreed. “A good friend is worth far more than a good dinner.”

Horses have always been popular White House pets. President Andrew Jackson liked them so well he had a racing stable added to the grounds. Whenever possible, he hurried to the new stable, selected a fine thoroughbred, and galloped across the countryside.

President Ulysses S. Grant was also a skilled horseman and enjoyed showing his son Jesse many unusual riding tricks.

Of all the presidential families, none had a greater collection of pets than the family of President Theodore Roosevelt. His six children, ranging in age from four to seventeen, were true animal lovers.

Pets were kept everywhere. There were horses, cats, dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits, squirrels, birds, and raccoons. Twelve-year-old Kermit even kept a small kangaroo rat under his bed, but it was kept a secret. “Don’t worry your mother,” President Roosevelt cautioned his son. “That animal may be clean and harmless, but your mother would not sleep well knowing there was a rat in the house.”

Dogs outnumber all other pets that have lived in the White House. Historians estimate over two hundred dogs have lived there.

Fala, a small Scottie belonging to President Franklin Roosevelt, was his master’s constant companion. He was even mentioned in some of the president’s speeches.

“I like to practice my speeches on Fala before I give them in public,” President Roosevelt once said. “If he falls asleep, I know I should do some more rewriting.”

President Warren G. Harding also enjoyed the companionship of another Scottie called Laddie Boy. On free afternoons when President Harding practiced his golf shots on the White House south lawn, Laddie Boy was always there. After each shot, the small dog would dash ahead, retrieve the ball, and carry it back to his smiling master.

Tinkerbelle was the name given Caroline Kennedy’s tiny toy poodle. President Kennedy himself helped to train the dog to roll over, sit up, and greet strangers with her paw extended. When she was old enough, Caroline also enjoyed riding her Shetland pony, Macaroni.

Are there any pets in the White House now that you know of?

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn