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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

America’s First Pets

Air Date: Week of

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U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson holds his dog "Her" by the ears as White House visitors look on, April 27, 1964, on the White House lawn. At left is President Johnson's other dog, "Him." This picture raised criticism from dog lovers. (Photo: Charles P. Gorry, AP)

Harry Truman said, “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” President Obama heeded this advice: he has Bo. But dogs aren’t the only species that have been trusted White House aides. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah has the tale.


GELLERMAN: More people own cats and dogs in the United States than voted in the last presidential election. Americans love their pets and they like their presidents pet-friendly. If you count Andrew Johnson, who fed the mice he found in his White House bedroom, 43 of our 44 chief executives owned animals of all sizes and stripes. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah has our tale.

President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with Lucky in the Rose Garden, 1985. (Photo: Ronald Reagan Library)

SRISKANDARAJAH: What’s the most powerful animal on earth? A lion, a great white or the leader of the free world’s best friend? Well, only the first dog has its own secret service detail.

McLEAN: They were always afraid it might get kidnapped or something might happen to it, so they actually had a double that would stand in for Lucky.

SRISKANDARAJAH: In 1985, Lucky was the dog with a decoy. His owners, the President and Nancy Reagan, appointed Claire McLean first groomer.

McLEAN: And I couldn’t tell anyone I was grooming the President’s dog, it was always hush hush.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Getting the secret assignment was huge.

McLEAN: Oh, it was life changing for me.

SRISKANDARAJAH: But her first cut on the first pup was a snafu.

McLEAN: Lo and behold, I cut a lot of the hair off and didn’t find out 'til later that actually Mrs. Reagan thought I cut too much off.

SRISKANDARAJAH: McLean walked out of the White House with her tail between her legs and too much puppy coat in her arms.

McLEAN: But little did she know that that hair that I picked up and put in a brown paper bag and took home with me would become the foundation piece for the Presidential Pet Museum.

SRISKANDARAJAH: For the past decade, McLean, now retired, has been mining this neglected corner of American presidential history. Her Presidential Pet Museum is mostly in storage, boxes full of photos, clippings and memorabilia. But McLean keeps a few artifacts on hand.

McLEAN: Now we do have the authentic cow bell that hung around Pauline Wayne’s neck. She was a Holstein cow that Howard Taft was very fond of. They called the cow his favorite pet. Would you like me to ring it for you?

President Taft's cow, Pauline Wayne, poses in front of the Navy Building, known today as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Pauline Wayne, the last cow to live at the White House, provided milk for President Taft. (Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Yeah, that’d be great.

McLEAN: Alright, hang on a minute.


SRISKANDARAJAH: McClean’s pet project offers a new way of understanding the White House, through the eyes of animals that lived there.

Take Pauline Wayne. She provided milk to the Taft family from 1910 to 1913 and was the last cow to graze at the White House. Which illustrates two historical points: one, America’s more rural, agrarian past, and two, President Taft’s appetite for dairy.

The White House has been a habitat for 400 creatures. Chuck Zoeller learned their stories while researching the book “First Pet,” published by the Associated Press.

ZOELLER: In contemporary times it’s mostly been dogs and the occasional cat but in earlier years there were definitely some off-beat animals.

[MUSIC: (Early American, jaunty)]

SRISKANDARAJAH: President Thomas Jefferson oversaw the early exploration of the West and some of that wild made its way back to the White House in 1807.

ZOELLER: Jefferson received two grizzly bear cubs from Zebulon Pike, who was an explorer and brought them back from the West.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Zebulon Pike told Jefferson that the native Americans of the West considered the bears “the most ferocious animals on the continent.” Awed by the creatures but concerned for his home’s safety, Jefferson scrambled to relocate the grizzly cubs. In the meantime they stayed with him, in cages on the lawn. Jefferson’s political opponents started joking that the White House had become a ‘bear garden.’

Bears were brought back as White House guests under President Teddy ‘Bear’ Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge.

Grace Coolidge holds Rebecca the raccoon at the White House Easter egg roll in 1927. (Photo: Library of Congress)

ZOELLER: One of my favorites is the Coolidge administration had a small menagerie at the White House.

SRISKANDARAJAH: A bobcat, wallaby, antelope, two lions, pygmy hippos, exotic birds and domesticated raccoons.

ZOELLER: It’s not uncommon to see photo ops from the Coolidge White House that include the raccoons in the photos.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The Zoo at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue exemplified the era of the roaring twenties, even though the famously quiet President Coolidge did not. But he warmed around animals.

ZOELLER: I think that’s been the case for a number of presidents, that the pets associated with them make them seem a little more human and down to earth.

SRISKANDARAJAH: In early American history, exotic, wild animals showed the strength of Presidency and reach of its influence. But in recent times, the White House animals prove their political worth by showing their owners’ softer side.

In 1952, then vice-presidential candidate Nixon faced allegations of illegally using 18,000 dollars in campaign donations. On a national broadcast he denied the accusations.

Sen. Richard Nixon, Republican Vice Presidential Candidate, relaxes with his family and their cocker spaniel, Checkers, on Sept. 28, 1952. (Photo: AP)

NIXON: One other thing I probably should tell you because if I don’t, they’ll probably be saying this about me too…

SRISKANDARAJAH: With a hangdog expression, he confessed. He had taken one donation. A cocker-spaniel puppy.

NIXON: Black and white, spotted. And our little girl, Trisha, the six year-old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog. And I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Checkers shielded Nixon from blame and kept him on the Eisenhower ticket that took him to the White House.

It wasn’t the first time a candidate had unleashed a dog to swing an election. On the campaign trail in 1944, FDR got dragged into the mud by rumors about his beloved Scottish terrier, Fala. Opponents said FDR had left his dog on an Aleutian island and had ordered a Navy destroyer to retrieve Fala at considerable tax payer cost.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's pet Scotty, Fala, sits beside a portable radio as FDR was accepting the nomination for a fourth term at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, July 20, 1944. (Photo: AP)

ROOSEVELT: Well of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family don’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent attacks.


SRISKANDARAJAH: The political attack playbook hasn’t changed much through history. And the page on pets is dog-eared. Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney can’t seem to shake the story of him strapping his Irish Setter, Seamus, into a crate on the roof of his car, for a 12 hour drive to Canada. Even though the incident happened nearly 30 years ago, dog advocates still have a bone to pick.

The howls of animal cruelty have reached the highest office before. In 1964, LBJ was photographed lifting his hound by its long ears. He cleared up his reputation with a recording.

JOHNSON: C’mon Yuki, sit down, come here. You want to go ride, you want to see the cattle, you wanna go see ‘um, do you?

SRISKANDARAJAH: The duet is called “Dogs have always been my friends.” LBJ on lead vocals, Yuki follows.

President Clinton’s cat, Socks peers over the podium in the White House briefing room Saturday March 19, 1994. (Photo: Marcy Nighswander AP)

JOHNSON: Come on sing for me.


SRISKANDARAJAH: In the tightly choreographed world of presidential politics, the only ones who aren’t on script are the animals. And sometimes they can tell us more than the politicians they belong to. For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.

JOHNSON: Come on, sing for me….




The White House Historical Association recently had an exhibit on White House Pets

The Presidential Press Museum

First Pet is a collection of Associated Press photos of White House pets


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