You only thought D.C. was a zoo now …

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, March 23, 2016

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A visit to a former home of a U.S. president last week, and a subsequent visit with a friend about said president resulted in my googling of dog ears this week.

And that led to the discovery of a rather unique presidential “museum.”

Brian Knox

Brian Knox

During a tour of Lyndon B. Johnson’s former home, dubbed the “Texas White House,” near Stonewall, the tour guide pointed out that LBJ didn’t get too fancy when naming his pets, pointing to his two beagles: a male, named “Him” and a female, named, you guessed it, “Her.”

As I was relaying the story to a friend who recalled the LBJ presidency, she pointed out that he got in trouble by some of the national media for picking those dogs up by their ears.

That was a picture I had to see, and thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I was able to see our 36th president picking up his beagles by their ears.

But I also stumbled upon something that captured my attention even more: the Presidential Pet Museum.

The website, presidentialpetmuseum.com, contains fairly detailed information about pretty much every “first pet” ever.

And since we have a Wise County native nearing the end of his own term as “first pet” – Bo Obama, who was born in Boyd – it seemed like a pretty good time waste, er, I mean valuable use of investigative reporting time to look into this.

While most of the presidents from the last 50 years or so have been mainly dog owners, with a few cats thrown in, the White House must have resembled more of a petting zoo in older days.

For instance, Calvin Coolidge’s pets included 13 dogs, three canaries, a thrush, a goose, a mockingbird, two cats, two raccoons, a donkey and a bobcat, not to mention the animals that were given to him by dignitaries from other countries, including two lion cubs, a wallaby, a pygmy hippo and a black bear.

Similarly, Teddy Roosevelt’s more exotic pets included five bears, two kangaroo rats, a badger, flying squirrel, lion, hyena, wildcat, coyote, zebra, barn owl and raccoon.

Woodrow Wilson had a flock of sheep graze the White House lawn to cut grounds keeping costs during World War I. He also auctioned off the flock’s fleece to help with the war effort.

That flock included a ram named “Old Ike” who apparently took pleasure in charging White House staff and was known to chew on discarded cigar butts. The museum says that in Ike’s obituary (oh yes, there’s one!), his caretaker gave him one final chew of tobacco, “and he dropped off peacefully munching it.”

During a tour of the United States in 1824 and 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette of France was given an alligator as a gift. During his visit to the White House, the Marquis decided to re-gift it to President John Quincy Adams.

Adams took the alligator and kept it in the White House’s unfinished East Room and its nearby bathtub. For several months, the website states, Adams “enjoyed showing the scary-looking animal off to disbelieving White House visitors” before it was moved to a different home.

Herbert Hoover would also later have two pet alligators that could often be seen on the White House grounds.

The first Siamese cat to come to the United States was Siam, a gift for President Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife, Lucy, in 1879, by the American consul in Bangkok, David B. Sickels.

And before the fairly recent tradition of pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving, President Abraham Lincoln penned an “order of reprieve” for a turkey that had been destined for dinner before his son, Tad, convinced his father to let him keep it as a pet.

He named him Jack.

The Presidential Pet Museum has apparently been an actual place since 1999, although it is currently closed while supporters try to raise money for a move to The Dude Ranch Pet Resort in Glen Allen, Va.

Hopefully they find the funds to reopen. It definitely sounds like a place I’d stop in to visit on a future road trip.

Brian Knox is special projects manager for the Messenger.

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