by Hank Pellissier, special to SF Gate Monday, February 16, 2004
The presidents of the United States have all had full schedules, right? This alpha Gang of 43 has amassed 50 states and 1,100 worldwide military bases, they've signed or vetoed approximately 45,000 congressional bills, they've pampered First Ladies from Martha to Laura and they've made mischief with mistresses from Sally Hemings to Monica Lewinsky. Presidents are far, far too busy to coddle furry or feathered companions -- they just can't be pet people. Correct?
Wrong. Way wrong. Interestingly enough, the vast majority of the two score and three men who have presided over our nation have been ardent animal lovers. George Washington, for starters. The Father of Our Country kept 36 hounds and 12 horses available for his favorite Sunday-morning pastime: fox hunting! Some of the stallions were war mounts General George had spurred into Revolutionary War battles, with butch monikers like Samson, Steady and Leonides. His dogs had sillier, often alcoholic names: Tipsey, Drunkard, etc.
Why was big George chasing foxes on Sunday morning, instead of praying at church like his current smaller namesake in the White House? "Washington -- like many original patriots -- was not a believer," says Dr. Philip Schoenberg, a history professor at New York's College of Aeronautics and proprietor of a Web site called "The Presidential Expert." It is ironic that religion has deeply wormed its way into a government largely designed by agnostics. Ironic, also, that animal-friendly President Washington was eventually murdered by slimy, hungry beasts: When old George contracted laryngitis in 1799, physicians attached more than 100 leeches to the great man's torso -- a common healing procedure at the time -- and the vicious little bloodsuckers fatally drained all the life out of him.
Our virile first president was a sporting gentleman who needed hounds and horses for the chase -- but what about Honest Abe Lincoln? Surely this melancholy giant had zero time for pets, what with waging the Civil War, emancipating slaves and enduring his wife's emotional eccentricities and his own manic depression? It must have been far too stressful in the White House for the little pitter-patter of paws, claws and hooves, no?
No. The Great Rail Splitter and Mary Todd Lincoln were "permissive parents" who tolerated their children's menagerie of cats, dogs, goats, ponies, pigs and rabbits. Even a turkey that was intended for Christmas dinner was mercifully spared when 10-year-old Tad successfully pleaded for its life. Turkey compassion is now a White House tradition: Every Thanksgiving, the president grants one gobbler a last-second reprieve from the butcher's block, and the lucky fowl is released into the wild at a national reserve.
The pet pampering of the Lincoln family was often mimicked by later presidential clans. Calvin Coolidge was dog crazy, with a pack that included a terrier, an Airedale, a bulldog, a Shetland sheepdog, a "police dog," a "bird dog," two chow chows and three collies. Quite a pack, but the critter collecting didn't just end with the canines. Coolidge was called "Silent Cal" for his terseness, but his abode was noisy, with canaries, a thrush and a mockingbird among the denizens. Add to that the honking of Enoch the goose, the braying of Ebenezer the donkey, the mewling of two house cats and one pet bobcat and the snurfling of two pet raccoons, and one imagines that at least part of the '20s was definitely roaring in the White House.
Theodore Roosevelt was even more Noah-esque. "Teddy had everything," says the College of Aeronautics' Philip Schoenberg, "even a pet cemetery at Sagamore Hill, his home on Long Island." The Rough Rider's family had 12 horses, five dogs, five guinea pigs, two cats, garter snakes, a horned toad, a pony, two kangaroo rats, a flock of ducks, a flying squirrel, a badger, a pig and a blue macaw named Eli Yale. And, when TR wasn't petting, collecting, hunting or eating animals, he was often scribbling notes about them: The lifelong amateur ornithologist wrote a bird-watching book during his second term in the Oval Office.
A more recent White House resident was also a serious zookeeper. "John Kennedy had a more diversified range of pets than anyone else," Schoenberg explains. Petting Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield apparently wasn't enough for the young commander-in-chief, who sought warm escape from Cold War stress by visiting an animal play yard near the West Wing that was stocked with lambs, ponies, dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, parakeets, a canary, a cat, a rabbit and a horse. The most politically charged pet here was Pushinka, the pup of a Soviet space dog. JFK's daughter, Caroline, accepted this dog from Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschchev as a peace offering after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Presidential pets have appeared in every size and shape, from James Buchanan's elephants (from the king of Siam) to John Quincy Adams's silkworms. Harry Truman cynically stated that "if you want to have a friend in Washington, you should buy a dog," and lonely fellow chief executives have adhered to that advice: More dogs have romped in the White House than members of any other species. Contrary to what you might expect, however, cats are not in second place; evidently, their arrogant aloofness doesn't jibe with the neediness of the world's most powerful men. Songbirds such as parakeets and canaries have been popular, particularly with First Ladies, but they're not the runners-up, either.
OK, so what is it? Horses, of course. Yes. Equines are emphatically the second most popular presidential pet, with a surprising number of presidents excelling in riding ability. "George Washington was the greatest equestrian of his age," remarked Thomas Jefferson. Ulysses S. Grant was equally sure in the saddle and, as president, he stabled 10 horses and ponies, including one triumphantly named Jeff Davis, after the erstwhile president of the Confederacy.
Schoenberg informed me that "Grant was a horse whisperer -- he could tame anything. He often rode wild broncos in circuses because he could remain on frenzied mounts that bucked everyone else off. In a play on his first name, he was once nicknamed 'Useless' because of his [general] ineptness, but his ability with horses gave him confidence. At West Point, he set equestrian records that remained for decades." The list of horse-loving presidents also includes Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Only rarely did presidents choose to not own pets, and that decision evidently doomed them to obscurity, or worse. Chester A. Arthur, for example -- do you know anything about him? No? Well, now you know why -- HE HAD NO PETS. Ditto for the equally insignificant Franklin Pierce. Unlucky President No. 13 Millard Fillmore also had no household animals, even though he was a founding member and president of the Buffalo, N.Y., chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Fillmore, Pierce and Arthur epitomize the very definition of a "one-term president."
Shall I continue? Andrew Johnson, who was impeached and is arguably our most despised president, had only mice. William McKinley had just a parrot, and he was assassinated. James Garfield had a dog snidely named Veto, and he, too, was killed while in office. William Henry Harrison kept one goat and one cow; he got pneumonia on Inauguration Day and died after only one month in office. William H. Taft had only one cow, and he couldn't keep his weight (300 pounds) down.
I'm not saying pets make the man, but Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only president elected to four terms in office, and he had not only polio and at least two mistresses but also seven dogs. Many of them were not even housebroken (the dogs, that is). Now, FDR did die in office, but his stroke probably happened while he was in bed, with one of his mistresses.
What I'm saying is, if you want to be president, history indicates this ambition can be furthered by placing "pet care" on your to-do list. Crucial lessons are learned in attending to animals, right? Perhaps if you can find ticks in your cat's ears, you can eventually locate Osama bin Laden. If you can avoid dogfights, you can negotiate with the French. If you can use a pooper scooper, you can clean up the environment. If you can manage a rat's brain tumor, you can set up a universal health-care system. Maxims are infinite, but this column won't be. I must feed the goldfish.
Speaking of fish, Richard Nixon had fish, too, and he resigned! And so do I -- until next week.
Additional information on presidential pets can be found at White House Pets, Fact Monster and the "Presidential Pets" page of the Pets in the News Web site.
Hank Pellissier -- a.k.a. Hank Hyena -- has been a columnist for Salon.com ("Naked World"), SFGate ("Odd Barkings"), the S.F. Metropolitan ("Frisco Utopia") and the New Mission News ("Civic Stench"). He's also executive director of the Hyena Comedy Institute and co-director of a preschool called The Children's Lab.