Since Washington was first appointed president in 1789, the White House has seen a parade of pets held by both the Commander in Chief and his family. Of our 45 presidents, 30 of them have owned dogs, but many chose to keep rather exotic fauna on the White House lawn.
Here is a list of some of the craziest congressional critters.
Table of Contents
The Weirdest Animals in the White House
While a parrot may seem like an average pet to us, there have been only three presidents who invited these talkative birds into their house. You can trace the first record of domesticated parrots back to the Romans in Brazil around 5,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that they started to be kept as pets here in the United States.
George and Martha Washington were said to have various birds in the White House, but none loved their caretaker as much as Martha’s parrot Polly. Polly could be seen sitting beside Martha when the couple entertained guests and was rumored to be devastated when she died in 1802.
READ NEXT: 13 Weirdest Animals in Texas
Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel owned an African Gray Parrot named Poll. While the bird was originally a gift for his wife, the president continued to care for him after his wife’s death. Due to their high intelligence, parrots have been observed mimicking or repeating words and sounds. This is especially true for Poll. Famously this rambunctious bird was thrown out of Jackson’s funeral for frightening guests and loudly swearing.
25th president William McKinley also had a very boisterous Amazon Parrot, which he named The Washington Post. Named after the newly established newspaper, this bird was formally appointed White House Greeter and could successfully finish the tune of ‘Yankee Doodle’ when given the first note.
Due to their native presence, the Opossum has quite a history in US politics, appearing in cartoons and even the halls of the White House. President Benjamin Harrison and his family-owned many pets, including multiple dogs and even two Opossums. President Harrison requested that these elusive marsupials be brought to him from Maryland by Jerry Rusk ( the current Secretary of Agriculture) as a gift for his grandchildren.
By their given names, Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection, it is suggested that the president himself named the friendly pair. When these creatures were introduced, the platform of the Republican party was “Protection and Reciprocity are twin measures of Republican policy and go hand-in-hand,” explaining their unique monikers.
READ ALSO: 10 Best Places to See Wildlife
There have been two presidents in US history that have had alligators as pets. Gifted to him by the Revolutionary general Marquis de Lafayette, John Quincy Adams kept his ‘gator in the unfinished East room, even allowing the massive reptile to use the tub. It is said that the president enjoyed shocking and surprising guests with this unusual pet.
In the 1930s, 31st president Herbert Hoover acquired two alligators from Clarence Woolley for his son Allan, who was at the time 14. These two alligators spent much of their time away from the rest of the ‘zoo’ in their respective bathtubs. I can imagine that the numerous pet dogs held by the family must have been very nervous with these scaly reptiles stalking around!
In 1807 President Thomas Jefferson received a pair of Grizzly Bear cubs from Captain Zebulon Pike. Pike noticed that the bears were different from those found in the East and detailed their habitat near the Continental Divide in an accompanying letter. Jefferson was well aware of the massive creatures, having heard accounts of them in the expedition notes by Lewis and Clark.
The 26th President also brought a pet bear into the White House. Teddy Roosevelt and his family were widely known as animal lovers, with him and his children introducing countless creatures to the Oval Office. Jonathan Edwards, the pet bear, was named in honor of the First Lady and her ancestors. As the bear grew older, accounts stated that it became unruly and difficult to manage, forcing the Roosevelts to send the animal to the Bronx Zoo.
Early in his presidency Martin van Buren received a generous gift from Kabul al Said, the Sultan of Oman: two young tiger cubs! While Van Buren fought (forgive my quip) tooth and nail to keep the darling cubs with him at his residence, the current Congress decided this was not possible. Despite the president’s arguments, the cubs were confiscated and sent to a local zoo.
While a full-grown Hippopotamus can weigh upwards of 600 pounds (not to mention their temper), making them an utterly impossible pet, 30th president Calvin Coolidge did, in fact, have a pet hippo! A pygmy hippo was gifted to Coolidge in 1927 by Samuel Harvey Firestone, a prominent businessman, and friend to the president. The Liberian native was named Billy and was said to have a bright and “frisky” personality.
While not quite reaching the size of a common hippo, Billy was still too much for the White House yard, so Coolidge gifted him to the National Zoo. Billy received much attention and was a favorite of zoo-goers for many years. He was even featured in the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.
Considered an odd choice for a pet in general, I could not imagine having these slinky spinners around the White House! John Quincy Adams was president from 1825 to 1829; during this time, his wife Louisa was said to be sickly and often affiliated with depression. Both the President and First lady had an extreme interest in Silkworms.
Adams enjoyed watching them grow and work while Louisa often spun the soft silk into beautiful fabrics. The small worms lived on the many Mulberry trees that dotted the property.
During this time, the Mulberry tree was commonly a sign of economic prosperity, as it was a symbol of America’s autonomy from other silk-producing countries, such as China. Although the trees, and their accompanying Silkworms, quickly went out of fashion after a devastating freeze in 1840, it is still interesting to picture the President himself counting the tiny eggs with care while his wife sat quietly spinning.
As I mentioned earlier in this list, Teddy Roosevelt and his family brought many exotic animals into the White House. Between the Guinea Pigs and Snakes, there was even once a Hyena named Bill. Bill was gifted to the President by Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia in 1904. While Teddy considered Hyenas sometimes to be “cowardly” animals, it is rumored that the President became rather fond of Bill, feeding him table scraps and even teaching him tricks!
After some time, though, like many of the more rambunctious creatures, Bill was given to a local zoo to live the rest of his life out in style.
READ NEXT: 15 of the World’s Most Ill-Tempered Animals!
9) Siamese Cat
Not unlike Parrots, the Siamese Cat was not always a popular pet choice in the United States. Native to Thailand, these inquisitive felines were not introduced to the US until 1879. This Siamese, named Siam by First Lady Lucy because of her regal stature, was gifted to President Rutherford B. Hayes by an American consul in Bangkok named David B. Sickels.
Siam quickly became a favorite of both the First Lady and their daughter Fanny. Unfortunately, whether due to some unknown illness or the tremendous stress of international travel, Siam passed away within 6 months of living at the White House. These regal cats were brought back to the White House by both President Ford and President Jimmy Carter.
Much like the Roosevelts, the Coolidge family made quite the mark on the history of pets in the White House. Besides the Pygmy Hippo, President Coolidge had all sorts of pets, from a Wallaby to many Collies. At one time, the Coolidge household did include two peculiar pets, a pair of twin lion cubs.
These lion cubs were gifted to the President by the Mayor of Johannesburg, South Africa. He named the twins Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau, which without the historical context may be seen a bit weird. The idea behind their name was ultimately that each of the twins would be fed equally and therefore must exist as one together, a direct commentary on the calls to lower tax while simultaneously staying on budget.
This concern was directly addressed in Coolidge’s tax reforms during the 1920s.
In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt received another generous gift from Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, a lion. This lion, named Joe, made it to the United States but in poor condition. Once he arrived, the President sent him to the National Zoological Park to be nursed back to health.
Although Joe did make a full recovery, he was sent to live at the National Zoo, I am sure in part due to his feisty reputation and never made it to the White House.