For the past four years and for the first time in 100 years, the White House has been a pet-free zone. That stands to change when president-elect Joe Biden moves in. During his campaign, Biden made no bones about wanting to put a pet back in the White House. But now it looks like Champ and Major, the two German Shepherds owned by the Bidens, will be getting some company. During an interview with Fox 5, future first lady Jill Biden announced that she planned on adding a feline dynamic to the family’s menagerie. “I’d love to get a cat,” she said. “I love having animals around the house.” So far, what kind of cat they’ll invite to join them remains a mystery. But whatever it turns out to be, it’ll be the first of its kind to stalk the corridors of the White House since President George W. Bush’s American Shorthair, India.
The History of Cats in the White House
Donald Trump may have preferred to keep the White House off-limits to animals, but most presidents seem to love having a pet around the place. As the New York Times says, the tradition of presidential pets goes back years. Abraham Lincoln was a huge cat-lover, and would regularly feed his two cats, Tabby and Dixie, at the dinner table – much to the consternation of his wife. “At one point, he told a friend that Dixie was ‘smarter than his entire cabinet’ and ‘didn’t talk back, which was a bonus,’” Andrew Hager, historian-in-residence at the Presidential Pet Museum, says. Some of the White House’s other famous felines include Caroline Kennedy’s Tom Kitten (later to be redubbed Tom Terrific when Kitten stopped being quite so appropriate), Susan Ford’s miniature seal-point Siamese cat, Shan Shein, and Amy Carter’s Siamese, Misty Malarky Ying Yang. The Clinton family’s back and white cat, Socks, ended up inspiring the (admittedly unreleased) Super Nintendo game, “Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill,” along with Hilary Clinton’s children book, “Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets.”
Don’t Forget the Presidential Dogs
For every cat that’s roamed the White House, there have been at least 3 dogs. President Theodore Roosevelt’s black and tan mongrel terrier Skip was the pride and joy of the Roosevelt’s extensive menagerie of kangaroo rats, snakes, dogs, birds, and ponies. In 1999, he was posthumously honored when The American Kennel Club recognized the breed as a Teddy Roosevelt Terrier. Warren G. Harding’s Laddie Boy was so beloved he was invited to meetings and given his own Cabinet chair, while Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s terrier Fala slept in a privileged position in her own special chair at the foot of the presidential bed. George H.W. Bush’s English springer spaniel Millie managed to wangle a cameo on the “The Simpsons,” not to mention a starring role in the No 1. bestseller, “Millie’s Book: As dictated to Barbara Bush,” while his son was joined by two Scottish terriers named Barney and Miss Beazley. In 2008, Barack Obama continued the tradition by telling his kids “You have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House,” at the announcement of his 2008 victory. True to his word, a Portuguese water dog called Bo accompanied the family’s move, joined shortly afterward by Sunny.
Raccoons and Rabbits
Some presidents have chosen to go a more unusual route. The Kennedys moved into the White House with enough animals to populate a small farm, including multiple birds, hamsters, and a rabbit named Zsa Zsa. Calvin Coolidge and first lady Grace Coolidge’s choice of pet was a Raccoon named Rebecca. According to legend (or maybe just WIKI) she was presented to the family as a Thanksgiving dinner option. Rather than eat her, the Coolidge’s decided to keep her instead. Shortly after, she was treated to a collar embroidered with the legend “White House Raccoon” and giving a starring role at the White House Easter Egg Roll.
A President’s Best Friend
“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” So said President Harry Truman, and clearly, a lot of presidents have agreed. And those that don’t… well, they get a cat instead. “From a presidential perspective, (pet’s) are great because they’re nonjudgmental. They’re going to give you unqualified love. And they’re not going to criticize what you did or how the economy is doing,” Tom Whalen, a presidential historian at Boston University. “Pets are always there for you. And I think presidents need that kind of reassurance from time to time.” President Bush Sr. clearly concurred, once saying, “There is nothing like the unconditional love of a dog to help you get through the rough spots.” But is there any more to it than that? Is there a reason a move to the White House entails a trip to the shelter first? Possibly.
According to author Jennifer Pickens, a pet can humanize a president, making them more relatable to the electorate than they might be otherwise. “Pets have always played an important role in the White House,” she tells ABC. “It not only provides companionship, but I believe it also humanizes and softens their image.” “When a president is seen with a dog or a cat, there is a bond that they have with their public, whether they’re Republican or Democrat,” Whalen adds.
In an era when people have as much interest in the private lives of their leaders as in their public and political lives, a pet gives us something to focus on, something that connects the president with every Average Joe and Jane on the street. According to Whalen, it’s that unifying power that might be the driving force behind Biden’s newest addition. “Maybe this is symbolic of Biden’s oft-repeated desire to unify the country,” he says. “I know that that’s kind of trite, but I’m very curious to see how this goes.” Whether or not the latest feline to enter the White House will be a unifying force, who knows? Whether Champ and Major will appreciate having a new playmate to romp around with, again, who can say? But the one thing we do know is that after 4 years as a pet-free zone, the White House is going to be a whole lot noisy when the Biden’s move in.