Gifted Donkeys, Raccoons, and Other Bizarre Pets of the White House

With the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States, the White House will once again have pets scampering about its grounds. The Bidens have two German shepherds, Major and Champ, and Biden even made their dogs part of his campaign, including this Instagram video.  Headlines recently boasted that Major would be the first rescue dog in the White House, but that isn’t one-hundred percent accurate. Also, it got me thinking about what other animals have had the title of “First Pet” over the years.

Joe Biden sits on a bench with his new dog, Major. On the wall large blue letters read "DHA" below in smaller lettering reads "Delaware Human Association Making friends for life."

While Biden adopted Major from the Delaware Humane Association in 2008, a little mixed bread dog named Yuki (Japanese for “snow”) became the first rescue animal in the White House under the Johnson Administration.

Luci, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughter, married Patrick Nugent August 6, 1966, and was out of the White House. On Thanksgiving that year she was driving to the family’s ranch in Texas when she spied an abandoned dog at a gas station, she took it home with her and named the dog Yuki, Japanese for “Snow.” Later she brought the dog on a visit with her to the White House, and Yuki and Johnson became close pals. For her father’s birthday, August 27, 1967, Luci gifted Yuki to President Johnson. When the Johnsons left the White House in 1968, Yuki returned to Texas aboard Air Force One to live with the Johnsons on their ranch.

President Johnson howls with Yuki in the Oval Office.

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Yuki was one of several dogs at the White House during the Johnson Administration, there were five different beagles, including one that was a gift from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, as well as a white collie named Blanco.

President Johnson walks two beagles with the press following.

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Dogs, and pets in general, have a long history with the leader of the United States, with only two presidents having no animals to speak of. Father of our country, President George Washington had several dogs of various breeds, many with colorful names such as Tipsy, Truelove, Mopsey, Sweetlips, Drunkard, and Ragman.

Illustration of George Washington standing with another man, and a dog.

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President Washington also had donkeys, including one aptly named Royal Gift, a Spanish donkey from King Charles III of Spain, as well as horses. Although, let’s be honest, keeping horses was pretty standard for this time period. While dogs have been the most popular presidential pet, there has been a long list of interesting pets.

President Thomas Jefferson who had dogs, birds, and horses, also briefly had two bears, a gift from Captain Zebulon Pike, a member of the US Army who explored the Louisiana Territory. Proving too much for the author of the Declaration of Independence, the bears were donated to the Charles Peal Museum, where they were kept until they broke free from their cage, frightening the Peal family, they stormed the kitchen where they were shot and soon mounted and put on display. Later President Theodore Roosevelt would also have a pet bear.

President John Quincy Adams supposedly kept a pet alligator, a gift from Marquis de Lafayette, and was said to have its very own bathtub. The First Lady Louisa also kept silkworms, providing the White House with silk. Adams’ alligator wasn’t the only presidential alligator. President Hoover’s son kept two!

While parrots were nothing new as a pet, President Andrew Jackson’s parrot, Poll, takes the cake. Parrots are known for their lengthly life span, and Poll did indeed outlive President Jackson, however he created quite the disruption during the funeral. Reverend William Menefee Norment, who was presiding over President Jackson’s service remarked that Poll “commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people and have to be carried from the house.”

President Martin Van Buren was gifted two tiger cubs from Said bin Sultan, the sultan of Muscat and Oman. However Congress apparently argued they were a gift to the country, and not Van Buren personally, and they tigers were sent to a zoo, a fate of many more exotic pets over the centuries.

While the eagle is the symbol of America, only one president has had eagles as pets, which was President James Buchanan.

President Abraham Lincoln had several animals in the White House, including the traditional, dogs, cats, horse, rabbits, and even goats (which multiple presidents had) but one pet started a tradition, sort of. In 1863 the Lincolns received a live turkey, slated to be the Christmas Day feast, however son Ted had other plans, and he adopted the turkey, naming him Jack, even teaching him to follow him around the White House grounds. On Christmas Eve Lincoln told Ted that Jack was sent for the purpose of being eaten, but Ted argued his case, and Lincoln wrote a reprieve for the turkey. The true tradition of pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey formally started with President George H.W. Bush. In 2005 the presidentially pardoned turkeys went to live at Disneyland, a tradition that lasted until 2009, and I was thankful to see them when my dad and I went for Thanksgiving that year.

A Cast Member pets a white turkey inside an enclosure at Big Thunder Ranch. A sign on the fence reads "The Happiest Turkeys on Earth"

Cats are nothing new to the White House, and of course a very standard pet, however in 1879 the United States was introduced to a new breed of cat, the siamese, when one was gifted to First Lady Lucy Hayes, the wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes. The cat was a gift from David B. Sickles, an American diplomat at the consulate in Bangkok.

Due to his love of fresh milk President William Howard Taft brought his very own cow with him to the White House, named Mooly Wooly. When Mooly Wooly passed away, Pauline Wayne (pictured below at the Executive Mansion) arrived, a gift from a Wisconsin senator, and the public was so enamored with her that she was displayed at the International Dairymen’s Exposition in Milwaukee. There adoring fans could buy milk from the very heifer who was labeled “provider-in-chief [of] the finest milk and butter.” From 1910 to 1912 The Washington Post wrote about her over 20 times, with one reporter who was either capable of understanding cow or simply made up quotes. Pauline left the White House went Taft did, living the rest of her life on a farm.

Pauline the cow standing in front of the Executive Mansion.

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It should be no surprise that President Theodore Roosevelt had many animals while he was in office, the long list included standard pets, as well as guinea pigs, snakes, a lizard, barn owl, rat, pig, a one legged rooster, and a laughing hyena, which was a gift from Emperor Menelikll of Ethiopia. The hyena was eventually sent to a zoo. There was also Josiah the badger, pictured below, who was known to bite ankles, but never the face despite being carried around like a giant sack of flour.

Collage of three black and white images of Roosevelt's son holding a badger.

Collage made by me with images from Theodore Roosevelt Center

Horses are known working animals, but so are sheep, and under President Woodrow Wilson’s watchful eye upwards of 48 sheep worked to maintain the grass on the White House lawn, and when sheered, their wool was sold at auction to benefit the Red Cross. Wilson also kept a ram named Old Ike.

Sheep graze on the lawn of the White House

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Out of all of the presidential pets, perhaps the variety kept by the Coolidge family is my favorite. Among the more average animals of dogs and birds, they kept not one, but two raccoons. Living the dream if you ask me! The first raccoon arrived similarly to the Lincoln turkey mentioned earlier, as a gift meant to be eaten. Yes, raccoon was a staple of many diets, and so common that Mark Twain lamented about missing it while he was in Europe. In November of 1926 Vinnie Joyce of Nitta Yuma, Mississippi sent a live raccoon to the White House to be the Thanksgiving meal for the First Family. Smitten by the fluffy gal, she was named Rebecca and became a beloved White House pet. She was said to have torn up furnishings and thus received a small tree house and eventually a companion in 1928, named Reuben. Ever mischievous, Reuben once escaped the White House grounds and held up traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue for a half hour. They also very briefly had a wallaby, a pygmy hippo, bear, and bobcat, as well as two lion cubs who were dubbed Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau. Many of these more exotic animals found their ways to zoos.

Collage of three black and white photos of First Lady Grace Coolidge holding Rebecca the raccoon.

Collage made by me with images from the Library of Congress

President Herbert Hoover had several dogs while in the White House, but they also adopted an opossum that wandered onto the White House grounds and took up residence in Rebecca’s old home, he was given the name Billy Possum and was once loaned out to be a mascot for a high school.

Two men in suits stand on the lawn of the White House, one holds an opossum.

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The Kennedy Family had a wide range of average pets, and while feathered friends are considered a relatively normal pet to have, ducks, much like turkeys, are not generally considered pets outside of a working farm, however some very lucky ducks did call the White House home for a period time, until regular fights with the dogs had them sent to Rock Creek Park.

Black and white photo of a group of white ducks walking across the White House grounds.

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The Kennedy ducks were the last of the bizarre pets to call the White House home, since then things have calmed down to just dogs and cats, although while George W. Bush was president did have a longhorn cow named Ofelia, however she called the Bush Ranch home and did not dine on White House grass.

It will be wonderful to see pets once again in the White House, and it’s even better that one is a rescue from a shelter, a reminder to us all that we should adopt if we want a furry companion.

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The First Family’s Pets.Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. Accessed 9 November 2020.
Grizzly Bears.” Monticello. Accessed 9 November 2020.
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Royal Gift (Donkey)George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Accessed 9 November 2020.
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