The Kennedy family had birds, many dogs, a cat, several ponies – and two hamsters named Debbie and Billie.
The hamsters came with the Kennedys in January 1961 when they moved into the White House, unlike many of the other Kennedy pets (such as the ponies Tex and Leprechaun, who arrived as gifts after JFK assumed office).
Debbie and Billie were a birthday gift to Caroline from a boy who lived in Manhattan.
Nothing but Trouble
These hamsters were mischievous. On their second night in the White House, they figured out how to escape from their cage. President Kennedy found them in his bathroom. The next night, Debbie and Billie were at it again — this time, the president found the pair hiding under his bed. (Maybe they just really liked to be near him.)
Naturally, reporters found this to be highly entertaining, and questioned Press Secretary Pierre Salinger about it.
“Our security is very tight, but these were extremely intelligent hamsters,” Salinger replied dryly.
“Something Out of a Greek Tragedy”
Despite their antics together, it seems that Debbie and Billie weren’t the best of friends.
Debbie gave birth to a litter of hamsters, whom Billie cannibalized — except one who drowned in the president’s bathtub. Kennedy “animal wrangler” Traphes Bryant described the situation in his book Dog Days at the White House: The Outrageous Memoirs of the Presidential Kennel Keeper:
There was a family of hamsters, like something out of a Greek tragedy. First, one hamster drowned itself in the president’s tub. Then the others were eaten by their father. But the final act beat all — the mother hamster killed the father and then died herself, probably of indigestion.”
When the first hamster died, Salinger received a call from journalist Helen Thomas saying she’d heard a report that one of Caroline’s hamsters had died, and asking the press secretary to check it out. To which Salinger — clearly feeling that this was not newsworthy enough to be awoken at 3 a.m. — “Who would you like me to call, Helen? Caroline? Mrs. Kennedy? The president himself?”
More Hamsters to Come
JFK wasn’t the last president to have hamsters as pets in the White House. His successor after his assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson, also kept hamsters.