Find out more about America’s presidents and their pets, including the chief executive who gave his pooches such colorful names as Sweet Lips and Madame Moose; the president who was accused of mistakenly leaving his pup behind on a remote island then sending a warship for him; and the commander in chief who took his pet raccoon for walks around the White House.
Franklin Roosevelt and Fala
In 1940, FDR was given a Scottish terrier puppy he named Murray the Outlaw of Falahill, after one of his Scottish ancestors. Known as Fala, the pooch frequently traveled with the president, attended important meetings with him and slept by his bed He even was made an honorary Army private as part of a fundraising effort during World War II. When Roosevelt campaigned for re-election in 1944, Republicans accused him of accidentally leaving the First Dog in the Aleutian Islands then sending a naval destroyer to pick him up, at great expense to U.S. taxpayers. The story was false, and the president responded in a campaign address: “These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. …they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course I don’t resent attacks…but Fala does resent them…his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since.” In the midst of a close race against Governor Thomas Dewey of New York, the so-called Fala speech helped revive Roosevelt’s campaign and he went on to win an unprecedented fourth term in the White House. Fala died in 1952, seven years after his owner, and was buried near the president at his estate in Hyde Park, New York.
Lyndon Johnson and Him and Her
LBJ had a series of dogs while in the Oval Office, the most famous of whom were a pair of beagles called Him and Her. In 1964, while greeting a group of visitors on the White House lawn, the president called the pair of pups over, played with them for a moment then lifted each one by its floppy ears. When someone asked Johnson why he’d done that, he said, “To make them bark. It’s good for them. And if you’ve ever followed dogs, you like to hear them yelp.” The scene, which was witnessed by reporters and photographers, drew protests from animal lovers across the country. Later that same year, Her swallowed a rock while playing at the White House and died during surgery to remove it. Him passed away in 1966, after being hit by a car while chasing a squirrel on the White House grounds.
Thomas Jefferson and Dick
In the early 1770s, Jefferson purchased a mockingbird from one of his father-in-law’s slaves. From that point onward, the Founding Father kept mockingbirds as pets. While president, from 1801 to 1809, he had a favorite bird named Dick who was “the constant companion of his solitary and studious hours,” according to Jefferson’s friend Margaret Bayard Smith, as quoted on the website for Monticello, Jefferson’s family home. The bird would eat from the president’s lips and “often when [Jefferson] retired to his chamber it would hop up the stairs after him and while he took his siesta, would sit on his couch and pour forth its melodious strains,” according to Smith.
John Kennedy and Pushinka
Kennedy had a menagerie in the White House that included dogs, birds, hamsters, a rabbit, cat and pony. In 1961, during the Cold War, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave Kennedy Pushinka, a canine whose mother, Strelka, was one of the first dogs to be shot into space and come back alive. The gift was seen by Americans as a reminder the Soviet Union was ahead in the space race, having launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. The Secret Service had to check Pushinka (“fluffy” in Russian) for electronic bugs before she was allowed into the White House. Pushinka hit it off with Caroline Kennedy’s Welsh terrier Charlie and in 1963 gave birth to a litter of puppies that the president called “pupniks.”
Calvin Coolidge and Rebecca
While serving in office from 1923 to 1929, Coolidge had an assortment of cats and dogs, along with a raccoon named Rebecca. A gift from a constituent who intended the animal to be eaten for Thanksgiving dinner, Coolidge and his wife instead kept the raccoon for a pet. Silent Cal, as the president was nicknamed for his terseness, reportedly used to walk Rebecca on a leash around the White House grounds and drape her around his neck. The Coolidges also received a variety of exotic animals as presents from Americans and foreign leaders, including a pygmy hippo, a wallaby, a pair of lion cubs and a group of Pekin ducks, which Mrs. Coolidge attempted to raise in a bathroom at the executive mansion; many of these creatures were donated to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
George Washington and Sweet Lips
The country’s first commander in chief was a dog lover who owned a wide range of breeds and gave his pooches colorful names, including Sweet Lips, Madame Moose, Drunkard, Cornwallis, Vulcan, Truelove, and Ragman. An avid fox hunter, Washington kept a numbers of hunting dogs at his Virginia estate, Mount Vernon, and is credited with assisting in the development of the American Foxhound breed.
Bill Clinton and Socks
First Feline Socks was adopted as a stray in Arkansas by Chelsea Clinton in 1991, when her father was the state’s governor. When the Clintons moved to Pennsylvania Avenue in 1993, Socks joined them and became a celebrity, making public appearances and receiving fan mail. The cat had to share the presidential pet spotlight starting in 1997, when the Clinton family adopted a Labrador retriever named Buddy. The two animals didn’t get along, prompting the president to remark, “I did better with the Arabs –the Palestinians and the Israelis–than I have done with Socks and Buddy.” When Clinton left office, Socks went to live with the president’s secretary, Betty Currie, at her request. Socks died in 2009 after battling cancer but had more lives than Buddy, who was run over by a car in 2002.
Richard Nixon and Checkers
As president from 1969 to 1974, Nixon had three dogs—Vicky the poodle, Pasha the terrier and King Timahoe the Irish Setter. However, his most well-known pet was Checkers the cocker spaniel, who gained fame in 1952 when Nixon was the Republican vice-presidential candidate. During the campaign, Nixon was accused of misusing a political expense fund, prompting Dwight Eisenhower, his running mate, to consider dropping him from the ticket. That September, Nixon defended himself before a live TV and radio audience of 60 million people, saying he’d done nothing wrong with the money and attacking his opponents. At one point during the 30-minute address, he mentioned his family had received one gift from a supporter in Texas, a puppy Nixon’s daughter named Checkers, and “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 gonna keep it.” The so-called “Checkers speech” (which came eight years to the day after Roosevelt’s Fala speech) garnered Nixon public support and saved his career; he remained on the ticket and was elected vice president. Checkers died in 1964.
Theodore Roosevelt and a menagerie
Roosevelt was a hunter and naturalist whose family had numerous pets in the White House, including a bear, badger, pony, hyena, guinea pigs and birds. As president, Roosevelt created the country’s first federal bird sanctuary, in 1903, on Florida’s Pelican Island (he established more than 50 bird reservations while in office) along with America’s first four national game preserves.