Flying squirrels. A wallaby. A pair of tigers, a pair of alligators, a pygmy hippo, a flock of sheep, a set of elephants meant to populate the Midwest, two tiger cubs, and a mockingbird named Dick who ate out of a president’s mouth.1 Yes, the Oval Office has seen its fair share of animal oddities. And why not? Some 60% of Americans own pets—although most don’t graze them on the White House lawn.2
Several presidential pets may be surprised (or not, if they’re cats) to find that they have achieved super-star status. LBJ’s beagles, Him and Her, landed on the front cover of Life magazine in 1964. Nixon’s dog, Checkers, got airtime in a campaign speech that some think tipped the polls in Nixon’s favor. Arguably the most famous was Franklin Roosevelt’s dog, Fala. Fala, a spoiled, but adorable Scottish terrier who supposedly made a taxpayer-funded junket on an aircraft carrier, grew to such fame that the White House had to appoint a secretary to handle all of his fan mail.3 Originally named “Big Boy,” FDR changed the dog’s name to Fala, after the outlaw John Murray of Falahill, a Roosevelt ancestor. This dog’s eponym grew to nefarious fame when he commandeered a forested parcel of land in Scotland. Murray demanded that he and his descendants be made sheriffs perpetually or else continue to live their lives on the other side of the law. But alas, Outlaw Murray was killed where later Covenanters would rout the royalist army during the Scottish Civil wars.4 Perhaps this history proves two things: that pets are more like their owners than many would care to admit and that pitiful hound dog eyes have long had a heritage of extortion.
Not surprisingly, Teddy Roosevelt had one of the most impressive collections of presidential pets. “A fairly appalling number of animals” were sent to Roosevelt during the course of his presidency.5 As frequently happened in the Roosevelt household, the children christened the animals. Among the collection (which boasted a lizard, a hyena, a pony, a one-legged rooster, and a badger named Josiah) were five guinea pigs, including a Father Grady, a Bishop Doane, and a Dr. Johnson—named after their Dutch Reformed pastor. The children, it seemed, were quite ecumenical. The Roosevelt menagerie also admitted a small black bear, hailing from West Virginia which Roosevelt’s children “of their own accord christened ‘Jonathan Edwards’” in honor of their maternal ancestor and because the bear displayed “Calvinistic tendencies.”6
Roosevelt later donated the bear to the Bronx Zoo, explaining to a friend that, “it was a great relief to see him go.”7 What exactly makes a bear a Calvinist may be open to debate. One account notes that Jonathan Edwards was a very naughty bear with a cranky disposition who terrorized the zoo’s younger cubs.8 We do know that as he grew older he sired a prodigious number of offspring which were shipped to zoos across the country.
1 Lucia Stanton, “Mockingbirds,” The Jefferson Foundation, https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/mockingbirds.
2 Woodrow Wilson kept sheep as a way to identify with the American people during WWI—and keep the grass short. “Have You Ever Wondered,” White House Historical Association, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/questions/why-did-president-woodrow-wilson-keep-a-flock-of-sheep-on-the-white-house-lawn.
3 “FDR’s Famous Scottish Terrier, Fala,” Presidential Pet Museum, July 22, 2013, http://presidentialpetmuseum.com/pets/fala/
4 “Murray Family of Philiphaugh Selkirk and Falahill Midlothian Scotland,” Murray Family of Philiphaugh and Falahill, May 13, 2010. http://philiphaugh.blogspot.com
5 Theodore Roosevelt, Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter (New York: Scribner and Sons, 1905).
7 Joseph Bucklin Bishop, ed., Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children (New York: Scribner & Sons, 1919), 19.
8 Peter Jensen Brown, “Teddy Roosevelt and his Bears—A Grizzly History and Etymology of ‘Teddy Bears,’” Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog, February 4, 2016,