First Paws: A History of Presidential Pets

Bo the Obama dog
Bo, the Obama family's Portuguese Water Dog, plays in front of the White House in 2010. (Image credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney toured swing states in the final days of the presidential campaign to emphasize their differences. But the two candidates have at least one thing in common: A history of doggie controversy.

Obama, who famously promised his daughters a dog if he won the White House, came under fire from animal welfare organizations in 2008 after he and his family adopted purebred Portuguese Water Dog "Bo" from the Kennedy family as opposed to getting a shelter dog as Obama had said the family would do. (Bo might be generously considered a "rescue dog," as he was first given to another family. That placement didn't work out, so the Kennedys took him back and gifted him to the Obamas instead.)

Romney's canine controversy goes further back. In 2007, the Boston Globe opened a profile of Romney with an anecdote about a 1983 Romney family vacation. With the family station wagon packed to the gills, Romney strapped the family's Irish setter "Seamus" to the top of the station wagon in a dog carrier with a homemade windshield for the 12-hour drive. Both Democrats and Romney's Republican challengers in the presidential primaries attacked him over the incident.

It's not the first time our furry friends have played a role in presidential politics. Read on for the ways that pets both humanize and reveal some quirks of our leaders. [Quiz Yourself: Presidential Pets]

1. The first First Pets

Almost every U.S. president has had a pet of some sort, but George Washington had a virtual menagerie. As befitting a Revolutionary War hero, Washington had a stable of horses, including stallions named Samson, Steady, Leonidas and Magnolia, according to the Presidential Pet Museum in Virginia. Washington further demonstrated his abilities in pet naming with his herd of hounds: Drunkard, Taster, Tipsy, Tipler (are we sensing a theme?), Mopsey, Cloe, Forester, Captain, Lady, Rover, Vulcan, Searcher and ... Sweetlips.

Not to be outdone, Martha Washington owned a pet parrot.

2. Early exotics

Thomas Jefferson, the nation's third president, kept two Briards, shaggy herding dogs originally bred in France. The dogs, a gift from France's General Marquis de Lafayette, reveal Jefferson's close ties with that country: He was minister to France between 1785 and 1789.

Jefferson also kept a mockingbird, but perhaps the most unusual animals to come into his possession were the members of a small menagerie sent to him by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark spent that winter at Fort Mandan, in what is now North Dakota. Before they continued their expedition toward the Pacific, they sent Jefferson a shipment containing a grouse, four magpies and a prairie dog — all alive. It's not clear what happened to the grouse, but according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the president sent the prairie dog and at least one magpie to the Peale Museum, a gallery of natural history and art in Philadelphia.

3. Roosevelt's zoo

With the possible exception of George Washington, nobody named pets like Teddy Roosevelt did. The 26th president came to the White House with more animals than the place had ever seen, including a pony named Algonquin that reportedly once took a ride on the White House elevator. [America's Favorite Pets]

Among the Roosevelt family's furry friends were a herd of creatively named guinea pigs, including Fighting Bob Evans, Bishop Doane, Dr. Johnson, Father O'Grady and Admiral Dewey. The family also kept a small black bear named Jonathan Edwards, a badger named Josiah, a blue macaw named Eli Yale, a hen named Baron Spreckle and a lizard named Bill. First daughter Alice Roosevelt kept a garter snake named Emily Spinach, so dubbed because the snake was as green as spinach and as thin as Alice's aunt Emily.

4. The last cow

Before the 1900s, it wasn't unusual for farm animals to roam the White House grounds. Sheep were used to keep grass trimmed during the Madison presidency, and William Henry Harrison kept a goat and a Durham cow. Rutherford B. Hayes kept pedigreed Jersey cows, and horses were also common.

But the honor of the last cow in the White House goes to Pauline Wayne, a Holstein that grazed the White House lawn and provided milk for William Howard Taft and his family. When Taft left office in 1913, Pauline Wayne retired to Wisconsin.

5. The Checkers controversy

Days after Dwight D. Eisenhower chose Richard Nixon as his running mate in 1952, the New York Post threatened to bring Nixon's political career to a close with accusations that he had made more than $18,000 through a secret political slush fund. Republicans urged Eisenhower to drop Nixon from the ticket, but Nixon went on the offensive, staging a televised speech that would become known as the "Checkers" speech.

Checkers was the family dog, a gift from a Texas businessman. In an emotional appeal, Nixon made his case to the American people for keeping the gift. "And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it," he said.

The vision of Nixon as a family man and dog-lover — not to mention his frank talk about his personal finances in the rest of the speech — won the public's heart. Nixon went on to become VP, and would win the presidency in 1968, bringing with him to the White House a poodle named Vicky, a terrier named Pasha and an Irish setter named King Timahoe. Checkers died in 1964 and is buried in Long Island's Bide-a-Wee Pet Cemetery.

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.