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Fascinating First Pets

Fascinating First Pets

In honor of inauguration weekend, we visit some of the most notable, unusual and not so well-known First Pets of the United States.  White House pets have become a much loved tradition as most US Presidents have had one, two or two dozen.  Harry Truman said "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."  He wasn't kidding.

Old Nelson 

Painting: John Ward Dunsmore

Painting: John Ward Dunsmore

Our first President, General George Washington was known to be an excellent horseman.  It's no wonder that his favorite animals were horses.  And Old Nelson was the first "First Pet".  Nelson was an excellent charger and handled himself well on the battlefield.   General Washington rode Nelson throughout the Revolutionary War.   Nelson carried his master during the battle of Yorktown and was among the first to witnesses the surrender of the British under General Cornwallis.   George Washington had such great affection for Nelson that after the Revolutionary War he allowed the horse to live out his remaining days as a pampered pet at Mount Vernon.  

Theodore Roosevelt's White House Menagerie

Photo: Pach Brothers

Photo: Pach Brothers

The Roosevelt family had not just one pet but many during their time at the White House.  Their twenty-three pets, more than any other first family,  included a bear cub named Jonathan Edwards, a lizard, a couple of guinea pigs, Josiah the badger, hyena and a barn owl.  The Roosevelt children were quite fond of animals.  The President and his wife felt having pets would encourage the children to learn empathy and understanding for other creatures.  

Millie Bush, Foreign Policy Expert 

Photo Courtesy of the GHW Bush Presidential Library

Photo Courtesy of the GHW Bush Presidential Library

Millie was an English Springer Spaniel belonging to First Lady Barbara Bush.  Millie became tied to US foreign policy when President George Bush said "My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos", referring to Bill Clinton and Al Gore.  It is not known how much more Millie knew but it is assumed quite a lot, as she often greeted foreign dignitaries at the White House and sat in on important meetings in the Oval Office.  

Thomas Jefferson's Mockingbird

Painting by Forrest C. Greenslade

Painting by Forrest C. Greenslade

One of the more unusual First Pets was Dick the Mockingbird.  Thomas Jefferson was a lover of song birds and had several during his lifetime.  But Dick was his favorite.  He was treasured for not only his extensive song library but also the companionship he gave the President in his study at Monticello.  Jefferson kept Dick in a cage near a window but often let him out to hop around the house.  When Jefferson left his study, Dick would ride on his shoulder as the President moved around the house. 

Due to Jefferson's bird collection, over time Mockingbirds became abundant on the Monticello estate.  Today, over two hundred years later, visitors to Monticello can thank Dick and other Jefferson pet songbirds for populating the grounds with their gifted singing progeny.

Ford's Lady Liberty

Photo: David Hume Kennerly

Photo: David Hume Kennerly

Gerald and Betty Ford's dog Liberty was a fixture in the Oval Office.  Whenever President Ford wanted to end a meeting he would summon Liberty, who would turn on the charm and provide a natural distraction, encouraging the guest to pet her.  Liberty was an AKC registered dog from a renowned Golden Retriever breeder in Mount Vernon.  While Liberty served in the White House, she birthed a litter of pups, one of which was kept by the President and First Lady.

The Reagan's Rex

Photo:  Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Photo:  Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Rex was a gift from President Reagan to his wife, First Lady Nancy Reagan.  Rex was considered one of the most well behaved pets ever to live in the White House according to long term employees.  It is also believed that Rex was one of the few White House residents to have seen Abraham Lincoln's ghost.  Rex refused to enter the Lincoln bedroom and would stand at the doorway barking at something or someone only he could see across the threshold.  

Yuki, The Famous Singing Dog

Former President Lyndon Baines Johnson sings a duet with his dog, Yuki.

President Lyndon Johnson's dog Yuki was quite a character.  Yuki was known for his incredible singing voice.  President Johnson thought Yuki was a former circus dog because he was so talented.  LBJ would frequently bring him to the Oval Office to entertain visiting dignitaries with his howling.  

Yuki was a rescue found abandoned on the Texas highway by LBJ's daughter, Luci.  She was so enamoured of the little dog that she gave him to her father as a birthday gift.  Johnson and Yuki were rarely apart.  In fact, President Johnson insisted on dancing with Yuki at his daughter's wedding.   In the video above, LBJ explains why Yuki was his favorite of all of his dogs.

Sox Clinton - Banished For Fighting

Photo: Marcy Nighswander

Photo: Marcy Nighswander

Sox was a stray found by Chelsea Clinton in Little Rock, Arkansas.  When Bill Clinton became US President, Sox moved to the White House with the Clintons.  Sox was the only White House animal resident during the Clinton years until the arrival of Buddy in 1997.  Sox found sharing the title of First Pet with Buddy unacceptable and let it be known in no uncertain terms.  President Clinton once said that dealing with the Israelis and Palestinians was much easier than brokering a peace agreement between Sox and Buddy.  Because of political spats between the two, Sox lost his post as First Pet and went to live with Betty Currie, Bill Clinton's White House secretary. 

Bo Obama, The Eavesdropper

Bo waits and listens....

Bo waits and listens....

Bo joined the Obama family in 2009 after being rejected by his adoptive four legged sister.  Bo was intended to be a brother to another family's dog but the dog-sister wanted nothing to do with him.  

Most visitors to the White House report Bo is a sweet, happy dog with a loving disposition.  But there is another side to Bo, Troublemaker in Chief.  Many a White House reporter has set up the perfect live shot on the South Lawn only to have it ruined by a bouncing Bo running in front of the camera.  Bo is also known to be a little competitive with sisters Melia and Sasha for mom Michele's affections.  And he's secretly eavesdropped on more than few Oval Office discussions between the President and his staff.  

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