In late November 1926, a live animal sent by one Vinnie Joyce of Nitta Yuma, Mississippi, arrived at the White House to be slaughtered and served up for that year’s Thanksgiving dinner. President Calvin Coolidge, however, became smitten by the beast and instead granted it a pardon. The lucky creature was no turkey, though, but a raccoon.
While raccoon might seem an odd menu choice to grace the White House dinner table these days, the Washington Evening Star thought the strange part of the story was that the president didn’t want to chow down on the woodland critter. Declaring raccoon meat less fatty than a possum, the newspaper then invoked the culinary cliché that the ring-tailed animal tasted like chicken, albeit one crossed with a suckling pig.
Never known as the adventurous type, the cautious Coolidge had never tasted raccoon meat—and he wasn’t about to start experimenting with the gift from Mississippi. When asked if the raccoon was edible, the president smiled and said it might be for some people, but not for him.
What the commander in chief did next with the intended Thanksgiving entree, however, may be the most bizarre part of the story for the strait-laced Coolidge adopted the raccoon as a presidential pet—albeit at a time when far fewer of the furry creatures contracted rabies. The news was hardly surprising to the American public in 1926, however, as the president and First Lady Grace Coolidge were known to be such lovers of animals that people sent them unsolicited pets on a regular basis.
“We always had more dogs than we could take care of,” Coolidge wrote in his autobiography as he reflected on his White House years. While the canines, cats and canaries that were sent to the president may have been on the conventional side, Coolidge also received a black-haired bear from Mexico, an African pygmy hippopotamus from rubber magnate Harvey Firestone and even a pair of live lion cubs, which the fiscally conservative president gave the less-than-fuzzy names “Tax Reduction” and “Budget Bureau.”
The raccoon was just the latest addition to a menagerie that the press called the “Pennsylvania Avenue Zoo,” but the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the masked animal “proved the most obstreperous of all the recent White House pets” as she ripped up clothing and clawed on the upholstery. The White House staff thought the raccoon was a “regular Houdini” given her abilities to wriggle free from harnesses and break out of makeshift cages by gnawing away at the wooden bars, leading to wild chases through the president’s home.
Things began to calm down after the Coolidges built a wooden house for their new pet in the boughs of a tree on the White House’s South Lawn outside the window of the president’s office. For Christmas, the raccoon received a special Yuletide gift—the name Rebecca—along with a collar sporting a shiny plate engraved with the words “Rebecca Raccoon of the White House.” How Rebecca felt about the trendy $500 raccoon coat that the president and First Lady gave to their elder son, John, that Christmas was never recorded.
President Coolidge quickly grew attached to his new pet. Rebecca became the president’s companion walking around the White House grounds on a leash during the day, and at night she would crawl up into her master’s lap in front of the fireplace. After moving into a Dupont Circle mansion in March 1927 while the White House underwent renovation, the chief executive missed Rebecca so much that he brought her back with him in the presidential limousine to his temporary quarters.
The next morning, however, the president emerged with his wrist bandaged, and Rebecca was banished to the national zoo in Rock Creek Park. The press speculated that the raccoon might have bitten the hand that fed her, but Rebecca wasn’t saying anything and “Silent Cal” remained true to his moniker. Less than a week later, however, newspapers reported that Rebecca was back from the zoo and again “in good standing at the White House.”
Rebecca was the star of the annual Easter Egg Roll in 1927, but she was hardly at ease around 30,000 shrieking children and the incessant clicking of swarming photographers. The Washington Evening Star reported that Rebecca “plainly evidenced her dislike for the whole doings” by clawing at the First Lady and the children before she was returned to the solitude of the White House quarters for everyone’s safety.
That summer Rebecca joined the Coolidge’s five canaries and two white collies, Rob Roy and Prudence Prim, on the 1,800-mile railroad journey to South Dakota’s Black Hills for the president’s three-month vacation. Like a spring breaker, Rebecca went wild—or tried to at least—among the forested surroundings. She gave the Secret Service fits by breaking out of her cage, scaling the tallest pine tree behind the summer White House and spending hours playing keep-away from the agents who tried to coax her down.
By early 1928, Rebecca had a new raccoon companion, dubbed Reuben by the president, but the two got along about as well as Republicans and Democrats. Rebecca increasingly skipped out of the White House grounds to roam the capital city looking for adventure—and undoubtedly garbage cans to rummage through. After the periodic escapes became more of a pattern, the Coolidges finally donated her to the national zoo. Don’t expect any raccoons to follow Rebecca’s lead into the White House anytime soon, however, as it is now illegal to keep a raccoon as a pet in the District of Columbia.