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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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7 Things You Might Not Know About William McKinley
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Some American presidents have their faces on currency, some get memorialized in films and sketches. Then there are the others, whose all-but-forgotten names are unceremoniously attached to middle schools and parks across the country—or removed from major mountains. Here’s a look at some facts about our 25th president, William McKinley, who was born 175 years ago today.

1. HE HELPED KEEP A GANG OF COAL MINERS OUT OF PRISON.

McKinley, born in 1843 in Niles, Ohio, studied at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania and Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, but he didn’t graduate from either school. After the Civil War erupted, he volunteered for the Union Army, rose to the rank of second lieutenant, and received a brevet commission to major. Following the war he apprenticed under an attorney, studied law for less than a year at New York's Albany College, and was admitted to the bar back in Ohio in March 1867.

Nine years later, McKinley defended a group of striking coal miners who allegedly incited a riot at a mine in Tuscarawas Valley before tussling with the Ohio militia sent by Governor Rutherford B. Hayes. All but one of the miners was acquitted, and McKinley refused any compensation for his services.

2. AS PRESIDENT, HE BOOTED SPAIN OUT OF FOUR TERRITORIES.

Even though McKinley’s then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, allegedly claimed that his boss possessed “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair” while the situation with Spain was deteriorating, McKinley and Spain would eventually cut off diplomatic relations, and the United States supported Cuba in its struggle with the Spanish.

After the American battleship Maine exploded and sank under mysterious circumstances off the coast of Havana in February 1898, killing 266 sailors, McKinley demanded Spain grant independence to Cuba, and Congress authorized a declaration of war on April 25, 1898 (though they retroactively dated it to April 21). In the roughly 100-day Spanish-American War, the United States destroyed the Spanish fleet outside Cuba’s Santiago, seized Manila in the Philippines, and annexed Puerto Rico and Guam, ending Spain’s run of colonial dominance.

3. HIS HOME LIFE WAS TRAGIC.

McKinley married Ida Saxton, a cashier at her father’s bank, in 1871, and she gave birth to a daughter, Katherine, on Christmas Day the same year. A second daughter, Ida, was born in 1873, but died four months later. Katherine passed away from typhoid fever in 1875, and his wife’s health deteriorated due to phlebitis and undiagnosed epilepsy. During their time in the White House, Ida often needed sedation to enable her to sit through official functions as First Lady, and McKinley would throw a handkerchief over her face when she suffered an epileptic seizure.

4. HE ANNEXED THE REPUBLIC OF HAWAII.

McKinley reversed the policy of his predecessor, Grover Cleveland, and advocated for Hawaii to become a U.S. territory. After the Spanish-American War, the strategic importance of the islands’ location in the Pacific Ocean became more apparent, and an annexation resolution supported by McKinley passed the House and Senate in 1898. The episode marked an end to a lengthy battle between native Hawaiians and white American businessmen for control of the local government. The last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Lili’uokalani, was overthrown in 1893, and Benjamin Harrison actually sent a bill to the Senate to approve the annexation. But Grover Cleveland became president before it was passed, and he withdrew the bill. When McKinley became president, he tried to reintroduce the bill, but was stymied by the Hawaiian Patriotic League, who kept the U.S. at bay until the events of 1898.

5. AN ANARCHIST SHOT HIM JUST MONTHS INTO HIS SECOND TERM.

During a public reception at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. on Sept. 6, 1901, Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley twice in the torso while the president greeted guests in a receiving line. McKinley allegedly uttered, “Don’t let them hurt him,” as the angry mob descended on Czolgosz. Later, at the Emergency Hospital on the Exposition grounds, McKinley said of his assassin, “It must have been some poor misguided fellow,” and “He didn’t know, poor fellow, what he was doing. He couldn’t have known.”

6. AN OB/GYN PERFORMED THE EMERGENCY SURGERY THAT FAILED TO SAVE MCKINLEY'S LIFE.

Matthew Mann, a physician and professor of gynecology at the University of Buffalo, was chosen by a hastily assembled group of doctors to perform surgery on McKinley, but the team could not find the second bullet inside the President’s body. A brand-new X-ray machine sent by Thomas Edison arrived in Buffalo but was never used, as it was thought McKinley’s condition was improving. Instead, his health declined as gangrene set in around the path of the bullet. McKinley died on September 14, 1901, eight days after being shot and just six months into his second term as President.

7. MOUNT MCKINLEY LOST MORE THAN 80 FEET IN 2013, AND THEN LOST HIS NAME.

McKinley never set foot in Alaska and never saw the peak named for him by prospector William Dickey, a designation that was made official by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917. That’s probably a good thing, because it’s been a rough few years for McKinley’s spot on the mountain.

First, the mountain shrank. On September 12, 2013, Alaska Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell announced that North America’s highest peak, Mount McKinley, was 20,237 feet tall, 83 feet shorter than previously thought. The U.S. Geological Survey and Alaska’s Statewide Digital Mapping Initiative used new radar technology to correct the earlier height of 20,320 feet, which had been recorded in 1952 using photogrammetry.

Then, the mountain cut its ties to McKinley. Although the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain in 1975 to Denali, a name used by the Koyukon Athabaskan people, for decades Ohio representatives had been blocking name-change requests sent by the Alaskan state legislature to the United States Board on Geographic Names. Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 that reverted the name of the area to the Denali National Park and Preserve, but the name of the mountain itself had remained steady until 2015. Associate director for the National Park Service Victor Knox said in June of that year that he had “no objection” to a January bill submitted by Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski that would rename the peak Denali. The change became official in 2015, stripping the 25th president’s name from the highest peak in North America.

But, you should use a non-permanent marker on those atlases—the Ohio delegation, including Speaker John Boehner and Representative Tim Ryan, were quick to denounce the decision and have said they're exploring legal avenues to challenge the decision. And in late 2017, Donald Trump considered reversing the decision, though the Alaska senate told him thanks but no thanks.

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Rutherford B. Hayes, National Hero of Paraguay
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Following a traffic accident in 1998, 15-year-old Griselda Servin spent two years in a coma. When she awoke, the Paraguayan was excited to find out that a regional television show, Tell Me a Dream, would be making one of her wishes come true. Servin would have an opportunity to fly to America, which she had always wanted to see, with all expenses paid.

There was one condition. Instead of heading for New York City, which she preferred, the show would be sending her to Fremont, Ohio. Servin would be honoring her country by visiting the resting place of its greatest hero—the 19th American president, Rutherford B. Hayes.

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How Hayes—by most historical accounts, a man who chaired an unremarkable presidency from 1877 to 1881 that was remembered mainly for introducing telephones and Easter Egg rolls to the White House—wound up becoming an icon for a small South American country is remarkable. Not because of the geographical divide, but because Hayes himself might have had virtually nothing to do with it.

In 1864, Brazil had tried to intervene in a civil war in Uruguay; Paraguay was worried that this would destabilize the entire region, and ultimately declared war on Brazil, which enlisted Argentina and Uruguay to overtake the Paraguayans. Paraguay was so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the opposing soldiers that they began painting sticks to look like guns and putting them in the hands of children wearing fake beards. After six years of bloodshed, the country had seen up to 60 percent of its population killed in combat or dead of disease.

Sensing easy prey, Argentina swooped in to claim Chaco, a desolate slice of land roughly the size of Colorado that made up 60 percent of Paraguay's total territory. Losing it meant Paraguay would be in danger of ceasing to exist.

In an attempt to settle the land issue without bloodshed, the countries agreed to arbitration by a neutral third party: the United States. Both submitted reams of documents and testimony arguing why their side should be awarded Chaco.

On November 12, 1878, Hayes released a written decision. It read, in part:

…Be it known that I, Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States of America, having duly considered the said statements and the said exhibits, do hereby determine that the said Republic of Paraguay is legally and justly entitled to the said territory between the Pilcomayo and the Verde rivers, and to the Villa Occidentals situated therein…

Although Chaco was and would remain largely destitute and semi-inhabitable—Paraguayans like to refer to it as the “Green Hell” despite a productive cattle ranching industry—it didn’t matter. To them, Hayes had rendered a just decision that offered some ray of hope after a devastating three-pronged attack, one that had left just 29,000 adult males alive—many still with battle wounds.

Over the next several decades, Paraguay’s reverence for Hayes swelled. It named a state Presidente Hayes, with the town at the mouth of Chaco dubbed Villa Hayes. A museum was erected in his honor; a bust of him greets schoolchildren at Villa Hayes Elementary. The date of his decision, November 12, is a provincial holiday.

Amid the monuments, soccer teams, and postage stamps honoring him, Paraguayans often express disbelief whenever they're confronted with the idea that Americans don’t spend much time thinking about Hayes.

Ricardo Nuñez, mayor of Villa Hayes, was astonished to be told by a U.S. journalist that Hayes’s contemporaries once referred to him as “Rutherfraud” because his office was preceded by a Constitutional crisis, and he had lost the popular vote.

“Rutherfraud? Wow!” Nuñez told NPR in 2014. “That’s amazing!” He could not conceive of such a slur.

Given Paraguay’s history of malevolent rulers, it’s not surprising that they placed a lot of emotional stock in Hayes, who served just one term and died in 1893. The dictator who antagonized Brazil, General Francisco Solano Lopez, once demanded that his Catholic bishops declare him a saint. If they refused, they were executed. Once he took office, he had his elderly mother flogged in public.

While there’s no record of Hayes ordering the courtyard whipping of his mother, the truth is that no one is quite sure just how much he had to do with the decision to allow Paraguay to keep Chaco. Historians don’t know what criteria was used, or if Hayes simply endorsed the decision made by his staff. It’s likely low-level subordinates pored through paperwork and that Secretary of State William Evarts merely gave the ruling to Hayes for a signature.

For a matter that may have occupied just a couple of hours of his life, Hayes has received infinitely more credit for it than for his entire tenure in office. In Delaware, Ohio, his childhood home was torn down to make room for a commercial development. Those wishing to pay a pilgrimage to Hayes’s birthplace will be greeted by a BP gas station with a memorial plaque out in front.

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