Our commanders-in-chief have had some pretty weird pets over the nation’s near 250-year history: from an alligator to a herd of elephants to even (heaven forbid) a cat. To help you sort through the chaos, we’ve put together a list of our favorite pets to inhabit the Oval Office.
Without further ado: the Mind Bounce awards for Best Presidential Pets.
The Strangest Presidential Pet: John Quincy Adams’ Regifted Alligator
President from 1825 to 1829, John Quincy Adams wins the award for having the strangest presidential pet as well as the award for being the worst presidential pet owner in history. The good news about this story? It might all be an urban legend.
As this tall tale goes, Quincy Adams received an alligator from the Marquis de Lafayette (you know, the French general who led troops alongside George Washington during the Revolutionary War). The alligator was a regift, as it were: the Marquis had been given it himself in exchange for his military leadership.
Now, why the Marquis decided to give Quincy Adams an alligator has never quite been sussed out. But regardless of the reason behind the gift, it wasn’t a good one, because Quincy Adams didn’t want the alligator. He hadn’t, it seems, been asking for it for Christmas every year since he was five like I did for a dog. So, when the Marquis (re)gifted Quincy Adams the gator, POTUS didn’t have a space prepared for it.
Instead of setting the reptile loose on the White House grounds, Quincy Adams decided to lock it into the White House’s East Room bathroom, where it terrified unwitting guests and political enemies for two months before it moved to “another home.” History records are also spotty on where this “other home” was, but, to me, it sounds an awful lot like that gator was just set loose in a swamp somewhere.
So, any would-be D.C. swamp drainers beware: you just might find the offspring of John Quincy Adams’ regifted alligator waiting for you.
The Most Symbolic Presidential Pet: James Buchanan’s Eagle(s)
Ah, the eagle.
Bold. Majestic. Powerful.
A bald eagle is a fitting pet for any U.S. president, but it became an especially apt symbol for the besieged James Buchanan, who served from 1857 to 1861.
A career politician, James Buchanan first took public office in 1814 as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Formerly a member of the Federalist Party, Buchanan realigned himself with Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party when the Federalists disbanded. A storied political career followed. Buchanan was, in succession:
- Andrew Jackson’s Minister to Russia
- Senator for the state of Pennsylvania
- Secretary of State for President Polk
Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, Polk was a major contender for the presidential nomination throughout the 1840s and 1850s before finally receiving top billing in 1856.
Taking office in March 1857, James Buchanan went on to become one of the worst presidents in United States history. A supporter of the Dred Scott decision, Buchanan angered both Democrats and Republicans by pushing to admit Kansas to the Union as a slave state. By the time his term ended in 1860, states were at each other’s throats: the Civil War broke out two months after Buchanan left office.
So, how does Buchanan’s political history relate to the eagle?
While in office, Buchanan received the eagles from a friend who lived in San Francisco. Unsurprisingly, the eagles didn’t enjoy Washington D.C., so Buchanan had them sent back to his home in Pennsylvania.
More importantly, though, the eagle became of symbol of Buchanan’s failed presidency.
In a political cartoon by Buchanan’s contemporary, Michael Woolf, the iconic national bird is shown healthy and strong at the beginning of Buchanan’s presidency. By the time Buchanan leaves office, however, the bird is shown chained and emaciated: a metaphor for the fractured national unity that occurred under Buchanan’s controversial leadership.
The Most Dangerous Presidential Pet: All the Bears
You can debate whether alligators or bears are more dangerous, but we’re going with bears. And a shocking three United States presidents have had bears as pets while in office.
The first was Thomas Jefferson, who received two bear cubs from explorer Zebulon Pike that Pike found on his expedition throughout the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson’s cubs lived the first part of their lives in cages but turned to roaming the White House lawn when they outgrew their first homes.
Twentieth-century presidents Calvin Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt had bears at the White House, too, in their own menageries. Coolidge’s bear was named Bruno and came from a trip to Mexico. Records are a bit spotty on how many bears Roosevelt had, exactly, but some sources say up to five.
Honorable Mention: The Most Influential Pet
Abraham Lincoln had several pets, including a dog named Fido. When Lincoln became president, he brought Fido to Washington. Unfortunately, Fido didn’t love crowds, so he returned to Illinois while Lincoln continued to serve.
Sadly and strangely, Fido met the same fate as his owner: he was murdered by a trespasser. While very sad, Fido’s story had far-reaching consequences. Historians suspect that it was Lincoln’s Fido that led to the long-term popularity of Fido as a dog’s name.
When it comes to presidential pets, the furry (and not-so-furry) occupants of the White House have been as varied as their owners. The pets listed here are the ones that got our vote, but differing opinions are what makes democracy so beautiful. Tell us your favorite presidential pet stories in the comments.