A History of Prominent Presidential Pets

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Illustrations by Giovana Gelhoren, Kylie Lin, Angeli Mittal and Meher Yeda

Both German Shepherds, Major and Champ are the latest presidential pets. Champ’s name holds emotional significance for Joe Biden, as his father often said to him, “Get up, champ.” Major was adopted from the Delaware Humane Association a few months before Biden announced his bid for presidency and will be the first shelter dog to live in the White House. In late November, Biden fractured his foot after slipping while playing with Major.
Bo was gifted to former president Barack Obama by Senator Ted Kennedy prior to his reelection after Obama promised his daughters Sasha and Malia a puppy whether he won or lost. Sunny was later adopted in 2013 as a companion for Bo, and despite having a few incidents, including biting a guest and pooping outside of the president’s office, remains adorable nonetheless.
Having started his life as a stray in Arkansas, Socks was a black and white cat adopted by Hillary and Bill Clinton’s daughter Chelsea. Socks soon became a media sensation and had to be kept on a leash to prevent photographers from luring him out for photo ops! Socks also became the first pet to have their own website, returning each piece of fan mail with a paw print.
Arguably one of the most famous presidential pets of all time, Millie the English Springer Spaniel remains the only pet to have lived in the White House through two presidencies, those of George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. She’s also the author of “Millie’s Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush,” which details a day in her life with the president and the first lady. The Hill reported that George H. W. Bush was worried about the weight of his English Springer Spaniel named Ranger, prompting him to write a letter to White House staff asking offices to pledge not to feed Ranger and for Ranger to wear a “Do not feed me” badge along with his ID.
Lyndon B. Johnson kept redesigning and enlarging the White House dog house for his pair of beagles until the press began calling it “a palace.” His dogs also created a mini scandal for Johnson in 1964 when he was photographed lifting Him up by his ears, causing a slew of angry phone calls and letters to come in from pet lovers around the nation.
“We did get something, a gift, after the election ... It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted. And our little girl Tricia, the 6-year-old, named it Checkers … Regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.” In what is now known as the “Checkers Speech,” Richard Nixon introduced to the nation the one political gift he would keep: his new dog. In the same speech, he vehemently denied accusations of using a secret campaign trust fund to fund his political expenses. Checkers never actually lived in the White House because Nixon only had her while he was senator and vice president.
Dubbed “The Informer” by the Secret Service, Fala the Scottish Terrier sometimes accompanied FDR during wartime travels. However, after a 1944 rumor that Fala was left behind on a trip to the Aleutian Islands and had to be retrieved by a naval ship, FDR was forced to deliver the “Fala Speech” during his campaign where he denounced the accusations and said that while he wasn’t resentful, “Fala does resent the attacks … his Scot soul was furious.”
Herbert Hoover adopted Billy the opossum after he wandered onto White House grounds. Coincidentally, at around the same time, a local high school athletics program lost their own opossum and visited the president to see if Billy was their lost mascot. Although the opossum wasn’t a match, Hoover allowed the high school to loan Billy for the rest of their season.
In late November of 1926, Rebecca the raccoon arrived at the White House ready to be slaughtered and served as the entree of Calvin Coolidge’s Thanksgiving dinner. However, the combination of not wanting to try raccoon meat in addition to his taking a liking to the animal caused Coolidge to issue a pardon and adopt Rebecca as one of his many presidential pets.
A true presidential pet icon, Laddie Boy the Airedale Terrier was loved by the press and received regular coverage in newspapers. Warren G. Harding included Laddie Boy in nearly every aspect of his daily life, from fundraising events to golf outings with friends. He even gave Laddie his own chair to sit in during cabinet meetings!
Theodore Roosevelt had numerous pets, including a lizard, a pig, a badger, a blue macaw, a one-legged rooster and even a hyena. Algonquin was a Shetland Pony given to Teddy’s 9-year-old son Archie by the Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock as a gift. The horse once even kept Archie company in his room in the White House while he was sick.
Originally named “Miss Pussy” by Rutherford B. Hayes’s wife Lucy, Siam was the first Siamese cat to grace the White House. Gifted to the Hayes’ by the American counsel in Bangkok, Siam’s journey to Washington D.C. included being shipped from Thailand to Hong Kong and to San Francisco before finally arriving at the White House.
After receiving the cubs as a gift from the Sultan of Oman early in his presidency, Martin Van Buren began making adjustments to add them to the White House. However, Congress argued that he couldn’t keep the felines and claimed they were the property of the United States. The cubs ultimately ended up at a local zoo, though there’s some debate over whether Congress confiscated the cubs or if Van Buren donated them. The exact year that Van Buren received the cubs is not confirmed.
The first ever presidential pet, Polly the parrot actually belonged to George Washington’s wife Martha and didn’t live in the White House. Rather, the Washingtons lived in the President’s House in Philadelphia while the White House in D.C. was being built. While Washington preferred his horses and did not care much for the parrot, Polly was a favorite among guests, spending time with the first lady and providing entertainment for presidential visitors.