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The Bizarre History of White House Pets

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There's a new Portuguese water dog roaming the White House grounds. Now that Sunny has joined Bo, let's look back at some of our favorite White House pets.

Billy: Calvin Coolidge's Pygmy Hippopotamus

Calvin Coolidge may have been known for his reticence, but he showed little of his trademark reserve when it came to acquiring pets. After taking over the presidency upon the death of Warren G. Harding, Coolidge assembled a menagerie that would rival most zoos' collections. He had six dogs, a bobcat, a goose, a donkey, a cat, two lion cubs, an antelope, and a wallaby. The main attraction in his personal zoo, though, was Billy, a pygmy hippopotamus.

Billy was born in Liberia, but was captured at a young age. He came into the possession of tire mogul Harvey Firestone, who gave Billy to President Coolidge as a gift, possibly because Firestone didn't want to feed the critter. (Even a pygmy hippo is still quite rotund; Billy was six feet long and weighed upwards of 600 pounds.)

Coolidge donated Billy to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Since there were only a handful of pygmy hippos in the U.S. at the time, Billy quickly went to work as a stud, an endeavor at which he found some success. He sired 23 little hippos, and many of the pygmy hippos you see in American zoos today are his descendants.

The White House Gators

Herbert Hoover wanted to put a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and...a gator in the Oval Office? It's true. Hoover owned a slew of dogs, but those weren't his only pets. His second son, Allan Henry Hoover, owned a pair of gators that were occasionally allowed to wander around the White House grounds. Sound crazy? Blame John Quincy Adams for setting the precedent. The sixth president also had a pet gator. His was a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette; it lived in a bathroom in the East Room of the White House. According to some reports, he enjoyed using the gator to scare his guests.

Fala: FDR's Traveling Companion

What do you get the Depression-conquering president who has everything? A lapdog. In 1940 Franklin Roosevelt received a Scottish Terrier puppy named Big Boy as an early Christmas gift from a family friend. FDR immediately realized that Big Boy was no name for a presidential companion and rechristened the pooch Murray the Outlaw of Falahill, after a Scottish ancestor. For the sake of simplicity, though, he called his new pal Fala.

FDR-Fala.jpgAfter that, Fala became FDR's inseparable companion and traveled everywhere the President went. The dog "gave" $1 a day to the war effort, generosity that earned him the rank of honorary private in the Army. Each morning when FDR's breakfast tray came in, it included a bone for Fala. Fala also made a famous appearance in one of his master's speeches. When FDR was decrying personal attacks from his political opponents, he jokingly said that it was okay to mock him, but leave Fala alone. "You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him — at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or 20 million dollars — his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since!" Fala stayed with FDR until the President's death in 1945 and lived in the care of Eleanor Roosevelt until his death in 1952.

Millie: Literary Sensation

When George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, he brought his pet springer spaniel Millie to the White House. The bubbly canine won over the nation's heart so completely that she even collaborated with the First Lady on Millie's Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush. Millie brought further joy to the Bush family when she gave birth to a litter of six presidential puppies in 1989. Just as her master helped slip one of his boys into the White House, so did Millie: when George W. Bush moved into the Oval Office, so did his dog, Millie's son Spot Fetcher.

Barney, Miss Beazley & India: The W Years

Sadly, Spot Fetcher had to be put down in 2004, but the Bushes weren't pet-deprived. They had a pair of Scottish Terriers named Barney and Miss Beazley, both of whom had websites and appeared in White House-produced web videos. (Your tax dollars adorably at work!) The Bushes also had a black cat named India, who also went by "Willie." The name India rankled some citizens of the country of the same name to the point that many Indians supposedly named their dogs "Bush." The name wasn't meant to be controversial, though; the Bushes merely named their cat after Ruben "El Indio" Sierra, who played for the Texas Rangers while George W. owned the team. Spot Fetcher was similarly named after former Rangers middle infielder Scott Fletcher.

Other First Pets of Note:

Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection — Benjamin Harrison's two opossums. Harrison's son Russell also had a pet goat named Old Whiskers.

Pauline — The last cow to live at the White House. She made milk for President Taft's consumption.

Old Ike — To save cash during World War I, Woodrow Wilson brought in a flock of sheep to take care of the White House's groundskeeping duties. Old Ike, a ram, supposedly chewed tobacco.

ford-liberty.jpgLaddie Boy — Warren G. Harding's beloved Airedale who had his own seat at Cabinet meetings and gave a 1921 "interview" with The Washington Post in which he talked about Prohibition and shortening the workday for guard dogs.

Liberty (pictured) — Gerald Ford's golden retriever hung out in the Oval Office and could supposedly read a sign from Ford that she should go be affectionate to guests—a cute and cuddly way to gracefully end the President's conversations.

Socks and Buddy — President Clinton's faithful cat and the chocolate lab he acquired while in office. Socks didn't like Buddy's youthful friendliness, so the two pets had to be kept separated at all times. The tensions were so bad that the family couldn't keep both pets at the end of Bill's second term, so Socks went to live with Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie.

Gamecocks — Ulysses S. Grant supposedly kept some gamecocks at the White House.

Two tiger cubs — Martin Van Buren received the cats as a gift from the Sultan of Oman. Congress supposedly made him give the gift to a zoo.

Satan — One of Abigail Adams' unfortunately named dogs. She called the other one Juno.

Jonathan Edwards — Theodore Roosevelt received this black bear cub as a gift from supporters in West Virginia who gave the bear the name, he wrote to a friend, "partly because they thought they detected Calvinistic traits in the bear's character."

Dr. Johnson, Bishop Doane, Fighting Bob Evans, and Father O'Grady — Teddy Roosevelt's kids also had these tremendously named guinea pigs.

Josiah — Roosevelt also had a pet badger, of course.

Bonus Trivia: Checkers

nixon-checkers.jpgNixon's dog was immortalized in the "Checkers speech," which Nixon gave while facing allegations of illegal campaign contributions. He said the only gift he'd accepted was a cocker spaniel named Checkers for his daughters. Checkers, however, was never the White House dog. This scandal bubbled up while Nixon was Eisenhower's running mate in the 1952 election, and Nixon gave the Checkers speech to convince Republicans to keep him on the ticket. Although the speech was a success and Nixon later made it to the White House, Checkers never got to be First Dog; he passed away in 1964.

This article originally ran in 2008.

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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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Inside the Quest to Save 42 Giant Presidential Statues
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In 2004, Presidents Park opened in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was a huge open-air museum containing 42 two-story-high busts of the presidents to date at the time. Visitors could perambulate among the presidents, reading plaques about them. (Note: There are only 42 busts in total because of Grover Cleveland's two nonconsecutive terms.)

In 2013, local builder Howard Hankins was hired to remove and destroy the busts, after the attraction itself went bust. Hankins had another idea. He carefully transported all the busts to his family farm. This cleared the way for an Enterprise Rent-a-Car facility now located on the former grounds of Presidents Park. It also left him with 43 giant statues, many of them slightly damaged, to deal with.

Over the ensuing years, Hankins has walked among the busts, weeding the grounds and struggling to figure out what to do with these "giants of men." He loosely envisions a similar attraction, this time called The Presidential Experience. Ideally it would have a better location to attract tourists. But Hankins lacks the funding to make it a reality. Since the original haul, he has managed to secure a tiny template for an Obama bust, but couldn't afford to purchase the full-size version. No word yet on a Trump bust.

In the short film All the Presidents' Heads directed by Adam Roffman, we meet Hankins, see the busts, and learn about the possible second coming of a presidential roadside attraction. Enjoy:

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