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When the White House Was Full of Claws, Scales, Stripes and Tails

Historians in the News
tags: presidential history, animals, presidential pets



Residents of the White House have had fur and feathers, claws and hooves, scales, stripes and prehensile tails. Some were found on the property, many came with the new tenants and others were delivered by foreign leaders. But for most of modern U.S. history, the president has had a pet.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is expected to resume that tradition in January with his two German shepherds, Champ and Major, after President Trump’s term ends as the first in decades without any pets living full-time at the residence.

More often than not, presidential pets have been dogs and cats. But many less traditional pets have also lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, their quantity and variety depending on each administration, said Matthew Costello, a senior historian for the White House Historical Association.

“If you’re talking about which White House was quite literally a zoo, it was probably Theodore Roosevelt’s White House,” Mr. Costello said. “Between the six children that he brought with him to the White House and the assortment of pets — the Roosevelts, they just loved animals.”

Pets at the White House have reflected the occupants’ personalities, he said, and the animals sometimes played a prominent role in an administration’s image. “It helps humanize the president a little bit more,” Mr. Costello said. “It’s something that’s relatable to most people. Most people have a pet or have had a pet at some point in their life.”

Although the list of White House pets is lengthy, according to the Presidential Pet Museum, an organization founded to preserve information and artifacts related to presidential pets, the history is also littered with unverified tales and missing details. Still, records clearly show many strange pets.

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President Calvin Coolidge and Grace Coolidge, the first lady while he was in office, from 1923 to 1929, kept a menagerie at the White House, including several dogs, cats, birds, a goose and a donkey. But it was the raccoon, Rebecca, that was among the family’s most famous and beloved pets.

In November 1926, the family received the raccoon from Mississippi to be served for Thanksgiving dinner. But finding the raccoon to be friendly, the family changed her fate, the museum said. Over the years, Mr. Coolidge grew close to Rebecca and sometimes walked her around the White House grounds on a leash. Mr. Coolidge even gave Rebecca an embroidered collar with the title “White House Raccoon,” according to the White House Historical Association.

Read entire article at New York Times

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