The White House is launching a new diversity initiative: After almost 12 years, a kitty cat will finally stalk the halls of the Executive Mansion once more.
First lady Jill Biden told NBC's "TODAY" show co-anchor Craig Melvin that the yet-to-be-named feline appointment to the White House staff is “waiting in the wings.” (President Joe Biden made clear during the interview that the hire was not his choice, but, well, the things we do for love.) The cat will join the Bidens' dogs, Champ and Major, who’ve been at the White House since January despite some periods of ruff (sorry) adjustment.
Now if the idea of two German shepherds and a cat in one house sounds like a lot, there are two things to keep in mind. First, the White House is a mansion, so there’s plenty of room for that many pets even with all the office space. Second, by historical standards this is nothing in terms of the menageries that have been housed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the past. And if anything, I think the Bidens should lean in and restore the place to the literal zoo it once was.
There have been dogs running around the president’s heels for almost as long as the office has existed, not all of them well suited to the place. Major has made headlines for the occasional nip, but Herbert Hoover had to find new homes for several dogs whose tempers didn’t lend themselves to public life. And while the comparisons between Biden and Franklin D. Roosevelt have been plentiful lately, here’s one that isn’t often mentioned: While his Scottish terrier, Fala, is more widely remembered, Roosevelt also owned a German shepherd named Major.
When the as-of-yet mystery cat arrives, she’ll be the latest in a distinguished line. John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter all had family cats in the White House during their administrations — the latter two were even both Siamese. The Clintons’ black and white cat Socks may have been the most famous first feline in my lifetime. He was succeeded by India, a quiet black cat belonging to George W. Bush’s family.
But previous presidents didn’t limit themselves to dogs and cats — no sir. Many of the early office holders owned horses, as you’d expect of the time. Other farm animals also made their way to the White House grounds. Woodrow Wilson had a flock of sheep that trimmed the White House lawn, and the proceeds from wool they produced was donated to the Red Cross. Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter, owned a small fleet of ducks and an actual real-life pony named Macaroni. And William Howard Taft had Pauline Wayne, a Holstein cow, to provide him with fresh milk.
I was disappointed to learn when writing this that some of the tales of exotic pets living in the White House aren’t exactly true — or at least haven’t been confirmed. For example, the story of John Quincy Adams' receiving a pet alligator from America’s favorite fighting Frenchman, Gen. Marquis de Lafayette, is apocryphal at best. So is the story about Martin Van Buren having to give up a pair of tiger cubs from the sultan of Oman.
But Van Buren did have to accept and then sell two Arabian horses from the sultan to avoid violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution. Same for the full-grown lion and lioness the sultan of Morocco tried to send him — they wound up being auctioned off for roughly $11,000 in today’s money.
Theodore Roosevelt, as might be expected from his reputation as an outdoorsman, had a slew of animals around the Executive Mansion. Mostly for the benefit of his children, Teddy’s White House at one point or another housed “a small bear named Jonathan Edwards; a lizard named Bill; guinea pigs named Admiral Dewey, Dr. Johnson, Bishop Doane, Fighting Bob Evans and Father O'Grady; Maude the pig; Josiah the badger; Eli Yale the blue macaw; Baron Spreckle the hen; a one-legged rooster; a hyena; a barn owl; Peter the rabbit; and Algonquin the pony.”
More surprising is the range of critters the soft-spoken, often forgotten Calvin Coolidge owned. “I have a beautiful black-haired bear that was brought all the way from Mexico in a truck, and a pair of live lion cubs now grown up, and a small species of hippopotamus which came from South Africa,” he wrote in his autobiography. “These and other animals and birds have been placed in the zoological quarters in Rock Creek Park.”
Among the others to make their way to the zoo were a wallaby from Australia and a small flock of 13 Pekin ducks, at least one of which first lady Grace Coolidge tried to raise in a White House bathroom before giving them up. A raccoon named Rebecca stuck around though — she was gifted to the Coolidges as part of a Thanksgiving dinner but wound up getting her own pen in a White House tree.
Honestly, given the sheer number of animals that have called the White House home, if the Bidens should spend the next few years just picking up new pets every few months, more power to them. If anyone tries to call them out on it (I can just see the "Fox and Friends" segment where they accuse the Bidens of not loving all of their pets equally) they also have one more convenient excuse at hand: making up for lost time.
The last four years was the first time since Donald Trump’s fellow impeachee Andrew Johnson occupied the White House that there were no presidential pets around. It was yet another item on the long list of ways that Trump’s term was distinctly ahistorical.
“How would I look walking a dog on the White House lawn?” Trump said in 2019. “I don’t know. … I don’t feel good. It feels a little phony, phony to me.”
He was probably right. It’d be weird if he’d returned back to Mar-a-Lago with a dog he had picked up just for the politics. But if the Bidens eventually go back to Delaware with a whole pack of dogs and a phalanx of kitties, that makes purr-fect sense to me.