Then and Now: Presidential pets through the ages

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Even though it is our national bird, only one president has even had a bald eagle while in office, and that was James Buchanan, who had two. Photo of the Presidential Pet Museum. Courtesy of the Presidential Pet Museum on Facebook.

History can be a heavy subject, as looking into some of the dark truths of humanity’s past is not the most uplifting task, but sometimes it’s important to take a different approach. In this column, a lot of the topics I plan to cover are more serious and can be frustrating and saddening, but I’ve decided that at the end of each month, I’ll do an article about something more lighthearted. So today, without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting pets that U.S. presidents have had! 

Now, I did my search chronologically, so the first unique pet that caught my eye was one owned by George Washington. Our first president had many animals in his tenure as commander-in-chief, but one that stands out is a donkey gifted to him by King Charles III of Spain, which the brilliant founding father decided to name … Royal Gift. This one totally confuses me, as George came up with original names for many of his other animals (including naming a Greyhound ‘Cornwallis’ after the British general he defeated, which is a pretty savage thing to do) but I guess he threw in the towel for this one. 

Now, you have probably heard of Dolley Madison, the wife of fourth president James Madison, but have you heard of ‘Polly Madison?’ That would be the name of the parrot that the couple owned, and during the War of 1812, when the White House was attacked, the two things Dolley was able to save before having to evacuate were the famous portrait of George Washington and the beloved parrot.  Three presidents later, Andrew Jackson would also have a parrot named either ‘Polly’ or ‘Poll,’ and this one got itself into trouble. According to this quote from Reverend William Norment, the parrot began incessantly cursing during Jackson’s funeral service:  

“Before the sermon and while the crowd was gathering, a wicked parrot that was a household pet got excited and commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people and had to be carried from the house.” 

Even though it is our national bird, only one president has even had a bald eagle while in office, and that was James Buchanan, who had two. 

“Before the sermon and while the crowd was gathering, a wicked parrot that was a household pet got excited and commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people and had to be carried from the house.” 

Reverend William Norment

Faithful to Washington’s decision to name an animal Cornwallis, Ulysses S. Grant named his horse ‘Jeff Davis.’ Not only was the horse named after the Confederate president Jefferson Davis, but it had actually belonged to his brother Joe Davis before Grant’s men had raided his land. 

Back to the subject of parrots, William McKinley named his ‘Washington Post.’ It’s unclear why he did this, even though the paper did exist at the time, but I’m not sure if this naming was out of admiration or mocking of the Post.  

Now if the animals above haven’t surprised you much, let’s talk about Teddy Roosevelt for a second. During his tenure at the White House, the man was basically Dr. Doolittle. Sure, he had dogs and horses like the rest of them, but also there were snakes (one named ‘Emily Spinach’ by his daughter Alice), a hyena named ‘Bill’, a lion named ‘Joe’ (who was unfortunately unable to actually live at the White House for health reasons), a zebra, a bear named ‘Jonathan Edwards’ (yes, after the fiery 1800s preacher) and many, many more. 

‘Pauline Wayne’ was the name of William Howard Taft’s cow, unfortunately the last of her kind to grace the White House. 

Herbert Hoover was not a particularly liked president due to the Great Depression breaking out during his term, but he did own a husky named ‘Yukon!’ (if only it had been a husky named ‘UConn,’ but they sound the same audibly so close enough …) 

Lastly, I’d like to refer to the three presidents who did not have pets: James Polk, Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump. Considering that among that group there is a 66% rate of having been impeached, and that among those who have pets the rate is just about 2%, I’d say it’s an absolutely valid statement to say that presidents having pets a good thing! (Only the best political analysis in this column.)  

Also, if you found this article interesting, please check out the Presidential Pet Museum website at presidentialpetmuseum.com, they’ve got plenty of cool stories about all the hundreds of animals I wasn’t able to cover here! 

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