In recent years, dogs, cats, fish, and various birds are no longer the only household pets. Skunks, snakes, giant spiders, lizards, and numerous species of rodent are no longer seen as all that “exotic”; they have found their way into people’s homes and hearts around the world. Most U.S. presidents were, like many other people, quite fond of animals. Although the majority of them kept regular “First Pets” on the White House grounds, some shared their presidential residence with some unusual companions.
Thomas Jefferson while president owned a sheep, not an exotic creature but not your everyday pet either, keeping it on the White House lawn. Tragically, the sheep attacked several people and killed a small boy in 1808.
Unorthodox presidential pets were owned by John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, who was in office from 1825 to 1829, and his wife, Louisa Adams. The Adamses kept an alligator that was gifted to the President by the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat who fought in the American Revolutionary War. According to the official records of the Presidential Pet Museum, the alligator, which regularly terrified the presidential couple’s guests, lived in the bathroom of the then-unfinished East Room of the White House. (Interestingly, another two alligators were briefly kept on the White House grounds a little more than 100 years later by president Herbert Hoover’s son, Allan.) Louisa Adams’ personal pets were almost as extravagant as her husband’s alligator. She raised silkworms and regularly spun their silk to use in her sewing.
Adams’ successor, Andrew Jackson, kept a parrot, two roosters, and five horses. Although these were not very unusual pets, the gray parrot, named Polly, had a rather unusual personality: she learned to swear and often threw insults the president and his friends. Polly was Jackson’s favorite pet: she was even brought to his funeral but had to be removed as she immediately started shouting curses at the attendees.
Martin Van Buren, the successor of President Jackson, wanted to continue the tradition of keeping weird pets: the Sultan of Oman once gave him two tiger cubs and they briefly inhabited the White House gardens. However, unfortunately for President Van Buren, Congress soon forced him to donate the tigers to a Washington zoo.
While President Lincoln kept a whole bunch of regular pets like cats, dogs, horses, and rabbits, his troubled successor Andrew Johnson clearly wasn’t very keen on pets because he initially kept none. However, at one point during his presidency, Johnson discovered two white mice in his bedroom. Instead of exterminating them as per the usual protocol, Johnson started feeding them and adopted them as his companions. His daughter Martha brought several cats to the White House in an effort to rid the house of rodent pests. She was completely unaware of the fact that her father actually helped increase the population of mice by feeding “the little fellows,” as he called them, flour and grain.
In the early 1890s, Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president, joined the list of presidents who kept unorthodox companions. President Harrison, who was nicknamed “Little Ben” by the Democrats of the time because of his small stature, kept two opossums. The opossums, which were both males, had names that were quite unique: one was called Mister Reciprocity and the other Mister Protection. Harrison apparently kept the marsupials for the amusement of his grandchildren.
Theodore Roosevelt, who served as the president of the United States from 1901 to 1909, was very fond of animals. Along with a myriad of regular pets, he owned a lizard, a garden snake, two laughing hyenas, a pig, and a barn owl. However, his favorite unusual pet was a badger named Josiah. Roosevelt received Josiah as a gift from a 12-year-old girl named Pearl Gorsuch while touring the American West in 1903. The badger lived a quiet and friendly life for the first two or three years but then became somewhat aggressive and started biting the President’s cats and dogs: this forced Roosevelt to donate Josiah to the Bronx Zoo.
Roosevelt kept a number of animals, but Calvin Coolidge, who was in office from 1923 to 1929, basically turned the White House grounds into a presidential zoo, home to a number of exotic animals.
Coolidge’s most notable companions included a pygmy hippopotamus named Billy, a wallaby from New Guinea, two duikers (which are a type of small antelope), and two lions that arrived from Johannesburg in South Africa and were comically named Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau. Also, Coolidge was once given a black bear. Upon the bear’s arrival to the presidential gardens, Coolidge’s wife immediately made him send the bear to a zoo.