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This Place is a Zoo!

By Rebecca Price Janney, Jan 19 2018 03:41PM

What was your favorite all-time pet? Is this special friend from your childhood, or maybe later in your life? What made this pet so special to you?

This past week I recorded a show about Presidential Pets with my radio host friend, Cynthia L. Simmons. Although the interview will run on Presidents Day, here’s a sneak preview, as well as an item or two I didn’t have time to talk about.

A famous quote has been attributed to Harry Truman: “If you want to have a friend in Washington, get a dog,” and certainly dogs have been the favored pets of our Presidents. In fact, there’s a Presidential Pet Museum, which was inspired by Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s dog, Lucky. When the Reagans first moved into the White House, they didn’t have a dog. In December 1984, the poster child for the March of Dimes gave the President and First Lady a Bouvier puppy that grew to the size of a small pony. There’s a famous picture of the dog taking the President for a walk on the White House Lawn with him with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher laughing in the background.

Lucky’s groomer, Claire McClean, once saved some of Lucky’s hair, and her mother incorporated the hair into a portrait of the dog. Mrs. McClean began collecting other pet-related White House artifacts and decided there needed to be a place for them. That’s when she came up with the idea of a museum dedicated to Presidential pets.

The Reagans ended up sending the dog to their California Ranch the next year after the dog failed to adjust to life at the White House. That Christmas, William F. Buckley, Jr. gave them a much more manageable pet, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel whom they named Rex. (I think all of you know how partial I am to Cavaliers!)

Other pet stories touched me, including one about beleaguered President Andrew Johnson who, during his impeachment trials, would put flour out at night in his room for a family of white mice.

Then there’s the account of President Calvin Coolidge, whose image was austere and aloof—his nickname was “silent Cal.” In fact, when he died someone asked, “How can you tell?”

Surprisingly, his love for pets showed a dramatically different side of his personality. During Coolidge’s tenure, many people referred to the White House as “The Pennsylvania Avenue Zoo.” The Coolidges had twelve dogs, two cats, four birds, a goose, a donkey, and a bobcat. The President’s most famous pet, however, was a raccoon named Rebecca, who loved to play in the tub with a bar of soap. Mrs. Coolidge used to cradle the animal in her arms like a baby, and the President often walked the raccoon on a leash!

While most of our Presidents have had pets, Harry Truman angered many Americans after an admirer sent him a Cocker Spaniel puppy, and the President promptly gave the dog away. Thousands of angry letters poured into the White House, but Truman told a reporter, “I didn’t ask for him, and I don’t need him.”

Another controversy erupted after Lyndon Johnson was showing off one of his beagles, whose name was Him, and he pulled the dog up by its long ears (the dog was still on his hind legs). He was widely criticized. The President apologized, but he explained he’d been doing this since the dog was a puppy, and Him seemed to enjoy the experience.

I’d love to know a story or two about your favorite pet.

Rex, the Reagans' Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
Rex, the Reagans' Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
LBJ with Him
LBJ with Him
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