Science, Tech & Environment

PHOTOS: America’s first pets are more than the presidents' best friends

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President Barack Obama runs with his family dog, Bo. Bo is just one of the first pets who have lived in the White House. (Photo by White House Photographer Pete Souza.)

Of all the animals on earth, only the first dog has its own Secret Service detail.

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Presidential pets have a long history at the White House. From President Teddy Roosevelt's eclectic menagerie of pets, including a coyote, hyena and several snakes, to President Barack Obama's beloved dog Bo; presidential pets have had a special place alongside America's first families.

In 1985, Claire McLean, the founder and president of the Presidential Pet Museum in Williamsburg, Va., was appointed groomer to the Reagan's dog, Lucky.

"They were always afraid it might get kidnapped or something might happen to it, so they actually had a double that would stand in for Lucky. I couldn’t tell anyone I was grooming the president’s dog, it was always hush hush," she said.

McLean said the experience was "life-changing," however, her first hair cut for the first pup was a snafu.

"Lo and behold, I cut a lot of the hair off and didn’t find out 'til later that actually Mrs. Reagan thought I cut too much," she explained.

Though McLean walked out of the White House with her tail between her legs and too much puppy coat in her arms, it wasn't a complete disaster. McLean took home the excess hair and used it as the foundation piece for the Presidential Pet Museum.

For the past decade, McLean, now retired, has been mining this neglected piece of American presidential history. McLean's project offers a new way of understanding the White House, through the eyes of animals that lived there. The Presidential Pet Museum is mostly in storage, with boxes full of photos, clippings and memorabilia, including a portrait of Lucky made from her actual hair and the cow bell that belonged to President William Taft's favorite pet, a Holstein cow named Pauline Wayne.

 

Pauline Wayne provided milk to the Taft family from 1910 to 1913 and was the last cow to graze at the White House. It's an illustration of two historic points: America had a very much more rural, agrarian past, and President Taft had an appetite for dairy.

The White House has been a habitat for 400 creatures. Chuck Zoeller, director of creative services at the Associated Press, learned their stories while researching the book “First Pet,” published by the Associated Press.

"In contemporary times it’s mostly been dogs and the occasional cat but in earlier years there were definitely some off-beat animals," he said.

President Thomas Jefferson oversaw the early exploration of the West and some of that wild made its way back to the White House in 1807. He received two grizzly bear cubs from explorer Zebulon Pike who told Jefferson that the bears were considered “the most ferocious animals on the continent.”

Awed by the creatures but concerned for his home’s safety, Jefferson scrambled to relocate the grizzly cubs. In the meantime they stayed with him, in cages on the lawn. Jefferson’s political opponents began joking that the White House had become a ‘bear garden,’ a joke that later became true.

Both President Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge later brought bears into the White House as pets.

Calvin Coolidge kept a bobcat, wallaby, antelope, two lions, pygmy hippos, exotic birds and domesticated raccoons as pets, and Zoeller said it's not uncommon to see photo ops from the Coolidge White House that include the raccoons in photos.

In early American history, exotic, wild animals showed the strength of the Presidency and its influence. But in recent times, the White House animals prove their political worth by showing their owners’ softer side.

"I think that’s been the case for a number of presidents, that the pets associated with them make them seem a little more human and down to earth," Zoeller said.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln's son Tad befriended a turkey sent to the White House for Christmas dinner. He named the bird Jack and treated him as a pet. Tad pleaded with Lincoln to pardon the bird from the "executioner." The White House Historical Assoiation said this anecdote was the start of the yearly turkey pardoning photo-op at Thanksgiving.

In 1952, then vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon faced allegations of illegally using $18,000 in campaign donations, which he denied. On a national broadcast, he confessed to taking one donation: a black and white, spotted cocker-spaniel puppy named Checkers.

Checkers shielded Nixon from blame and kept him on the Eisenhower ticket that took him to the White House.

That wasn’t the first time a candidate had unleashed a dog to swing an election. On the campaign trail in 1944, Franklin Delano Roosevelt got dragged into the mud by rumors about his beloved Scottish terrier, Fala. Opponents said he had left his dog on an Aleutian island and had ordered a Navy destroyer to retrieve Fala at considerable tax payer cost.

Roosevelt said that Fala resented the attacks.

The political attack playbook hasn’t changed much through history. Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney can’t seem to shake the story of him strapping his Irish Setter, Seamus, into a crate on the roof of his car, for a 12-hour drive to Canada. Even though the incident happened nearly 30 years ago.

It's not the first time that the howls of animal cruelty have reached the White House. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was photographed lifting his hound, Yuki, by its long ears. He cleared up his reputation by recording a duet called “Dogs have always been my friends," with Johnson on lead vocals and Yuki following.

In the tightly choreographed world of presidential politics, the only ones who aren’t on script are the animals. And sometimes they can tell us more than the politicians they belong to.

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