A Menagerie in the White House: The Unusual and the Beloved

By Larissa C February 12, 2024

The White House, a symbol of political power and national history, has also played host to a fascinating array of animal inhabitants, ranging from the conventional to the downright exotic. This tradition of presidential pets not only adds a touch of domesticity to the executive mansion but also reveals the personal tastes and eccentricities of the nation’s leaders. From Calvin Coolidge’s veritable zoo to the more recent canine companions of the Bush and Biden families, the White House has seen an intriguing mix of four-legged (and sometimes no-legged) residents that have captured the public’s imagination.

image credit: Wikimedia Commons/ public domain

Coolidge’s Exotic Household

Perhaps no president has taken the concept of White House pets as far as Calvin Coolidge. His collection included a menagerie worthy of a small zoo, featuring a black bear, a wallaby, and even a pygmy hippo named Billy, a gift that underscored the era’s fascination with exoticism. Billy, significantly contributing to the pygmy hippo population in American zoos, leaves a legacy far beyond his original novelty. Meanwhile, Rebecca, a raccoon intended for Thanksgiving dinner who instead became a pet, highlights the Coolidges’ unconventional approach to presidential pets.

Roosevelt’s Rambunctious Menagerie

Theodore Roosevelt, a president known for his robust personality and adventurous spirit, unsurprisingly kept a diverse and lively collection of animals. His household boasted not just dogs and horses but also creatures as varied as a badger, a zebra, and even a lion. Roosevelt’s affinity for animals reflects his larger-than-life persona and passion for nature and conservation.

Kennedy’s Varied Companions

John F. Kennedy’s tenure brought a somewhat more conventional but no less cherished assortment of animals to the White House. His pets included dogs, ponies, and a rabbit named Zsa Zsa, who reportedly had the unique talent of playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a toy trumpet. These animals provided a sense of normalcy and joy to the First Family, contributing to the Kennedy White House’s image of youthful vigor and family-oriented charm.

The Bush Family’s Furry Friends

The Bush family brought their own flair to the tradition of White House pets with Barney, Miss Beazley, and India, showcasing the enduring popularity of dogs and cats as presidential companions. Barney and Miss Beazley, both Scottish terriers, became well-known figures in their own right, starring in White House-produced videos that delighted the public.

Modern Presidential Pets

More recently, Joe and Jill Biden have continued the tradition with their pets Willow and Commander, underscoring the timeless nature of this presidential practice. Pets like these not only offer comfort and companionship to their owners but also serve to humanize the presidency, providing a relatable connection between the nation’s leader and the public.

image credit: Wikimedia Commons / The White House, Public domain

The history of White House pets is a tapestry of the whimsical, the wild, and the warmly familiar, reflecting the personal lives of the presidents beyond the solemn duties of their office. These animals, from the exotic to the domestic, have not only provided companionship to the First Families but have also left an indelible mark on the cultural history of the presidency, illustrating the diverse personalities and preferences of America’s leaders.