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Monday, February 19, 2018

Zoo History: All the President's Pets

Donald Trump doesn't have a dog.  Among all of the other... different things about the 45th President of the United States, that seems to be the one that a lot of people obsess over.  No dog, no cat.  The Obamas had Bo, the Bushes had Barney, the Clintons had Socks, and poor Barron Trump doesn't even get a pet rock to play with.

For almost as long as there have been "First Families", there have been "First Pets."  In the earlier days of the Presidency, when the White House wasn't as much as a glorified working farm where the President pottered around absentmindedly, there would have been lots of animals on the place.  Just as adults had their horses, kids had ponies to trot around on grounds with.  There would have been goats and sheep and chickens, some of which would have been affectionately adopted by the First Tykes.

Of course, just like the regular citizenry, some American Presidents acquired pets of a slightly more exotic caliber.  Some obtained gifts of native wildlife from enthused local citizens as they toured about the country.  Such was the case for Teddy Roosevelt, who literally had someone throw a badger at him as he passed through a train station in Kansas.  Josiah, as the little beastie was named, took to running around the White House, nipping at the ankles of visitors.  To be fair, Roosevelt, having an extraordinary keen interest in nature, kept a wide variety of other animals, including a hyena which begged for scraps at the White House table, who was later sent to the National Zoo.

Other animals were sent as gifts from abroad.  Unlike the giant pandas sent to the US after Richard Nixon's visit to China in the 1970s, these were sent to the President as an individual, rather than as a gift to the nation.The Sultan of Oman, for instance, sent Martin Van Buren a pair of tiger cubs. A bitter argument broke out between Van Buren and Congress as to whether the tigers belonged to him, and should stay in the White House, or to the nation, and should be placed in a zoo.  Van Buren lost that round (and most other rounds), and the cats were sent to a  zoo.   The Marquis de Lafayette, knowing that his old pal George Washington liked to hunt foxes, sent him some golden pheasants in case the general wanted a change of pace. Those pheasants, incidentally, are now stuffed and on display at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Among the most famous foreign gifts was the pygmy hippopotamus named Billy, gifted to Calvin Coolidge from the Firestone Plantation in Liberia.  By the time Billy arrived in DC, Silent Cal already had a pretty extensive menagerie, including, at various points, a raccoon, a bobcat, and a wallaby.  Somebody (presumably with the silent blessings of the White House cleaning staff) decided that Billy's acquisition was just way over the red line, and the hippo was sent to the National Zoo.  There, he achieved something that Coolidge never really obtained - a legacy (I mean, seriously, name ONE thing about Calvin Coolidge besides the fact he didn't talk much.  Can you?).  Billy became the most prolific breeder in the zoo, and his genes are still well-represented in the population today.

Other Presidents received gifts from explorers during the exploration of the country.  Thomas Jefferson, another nature-loving polymath, received a prairie dog from the Lewis and Clark Expedition... which was quickly overshadowed when he received a pair of grizzly bears from Zebulon Pike.  For a period of time afterwards, the White House became known as "The President's Bear Garden"... of course, it got burnt down a few years later during the War of 1812, so a lot of things got forgotten, probably.  Jefferson only kept the bears for a few months (on display on the White House lawn) before sending them to a museum in Philadelphia, where one had to be shot after escaping and running amok.  Jefferson also had a mockingbird that he liked to feed by holding food between his lips for the bird to snatch up.

John Quincy Adams, in turn, had an alligator, brought to him by the Marquis de Lafayette, which he kept in one of the White House's bathrooms.  On the other end of the wild and crazy spectrum, Adams also kept silk worms.  Interestingly, this wasn't the only alligator to take up residency in the White House - Herbert Hoover later had a pair, presumably to keep his mind off of the Great Depression.

To learn more about Presidential Pets - the exciting and the mundane - check out the Presidential Pet Museum.  The museum itself is now closed for renovations, but their website offers an encyclopedic view of the history of animals in the White House.  It just goes to show that, at least in the past, the Smithsonian didn't have the only zoo in the nation's capital.

Happy President's Day!

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