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A great human interest subject that has helped Americans feel close to their Presidents is the lives of their White House pets. From President Lincoln’s turkey to President George W. Bush’s variety of dogs, the White House pets have sparked interest in the public since the early days of the nation. Some people take comfort in knowing that their leader has pets as they do, and may even feel more connected to the lives of the Commander in Chief and his family.
One of the first White House pets, and the most famous, was a turkey kept by President Lincoln. Originally intended for Thanksgiving dinner, Lincoln’s son begged his father to spare Jack the Turkey from his delicious fate. Lincoln relented, Jack was spared, and the tradition of pardoning a turkey each year continues to this day in the White House.
The relatively obscure President Benjamin Harrison kept a goat named Old Whiskers parked on the lawn in front of the White House. For the amusement of his grandchildren, Harrison would have the goat hitched to a small carriage for the children to ride in. Most of high society Washington DC was rather surprised and amused the day Old Whiskers ducked through the fence and was chased down Pennsylvania Avenue by the top-hat clad President.
During the term of President Kennedy, the White House the family pets might have been better termed a menagerie. In addition to an assortment of dogs, cats and their offspring, the Kennedy family kept several ponies, a canary, two parakeets, several hamsters, and a rabbit named Zsa Zsa. Caroline Kennedy’s pony, Macaroni, was so popular it frequently received fan mail from adoring children around the country.
Teddy Roosevelt was a great animal lover, and despite his fondness for hunting is often hailed by the conservationist lobby for his work in creating the first national parties. As his train passed through Kansas, a young girl gave him a baby badger named Josiah. Despite the badger’s tendency to bite whoever was nearby once it reached adulthood, Roosevelt was devoted to the creature.
Possibly the most decadently outfitted of all the White House pets was Ronald Reagan’s cocker spaniel, Rex. The dog lived his White House days in a specially designed doghouse, complete with large portraits of the President and Nancy Reagan and lush red curtains. However the dog made himself useful to the President, frequently dragging Reagan away from clamoring groups of reporters by constantly pulling at his leash and barking.
White House pets can give insight into the character and quirks of the person running the nation. They can help judge the character and individuality of the First Family, and can be an indication of their own values. For as the philosopher Mahatma Ghandi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Teddy Roosevelt was such an animal lover that the Rat Terrier Club of America named the short legged version of that breed the Teddy Roosevelt Terrier. The story goes that Roosevelt had a short legged rat terrier named Skip that rid the White House of vermin. Whether Skip actually did that task on his own is disputed, but the legend remains and the dog is generally recognized as the "model" for the Teddy Roosevelt Terrier.