After four long years, we finally have a new president and, more importantly, new presidential pets. Usually the thrill of pets arriving at the White House is tempered by the sting of old presidential pets leaving the White House, but this year is different: Donald Trump is the first president in more than 100 years not to have a pet of any kind, so we can say goodbye to his rotten administration without stray sympathy for any blameless dogs, cats, or possums getting evicted alongside their captors.
This also means that the incoming presidential pets—the Bidens have two German shepherds and a cat, the former two of which arrived to the White House this week to great fanfare—won’t be able to rely on the outgoing presidential pets for advice or support during the transfer of power. So to help the new national mascots find their footing, Slate has decided to break what many regard as the most important commandment in journalism (“all presidential pets are equally good and any journalist who says otherwise should be summarily killed”) and firmly grip Washington’s most dangerous third rail, ranking the presidents’ pets from worst to best. As you’ll see, some of them were terrible. Except in cases where particular pets were double acts (e.g., Benjamin Harrison’s possums, Mr. Protection and Mr. Reciprocity), we’re only ranking one pet per administration, with preference given to animals that made enough of an impression that there are contemporary accounts of their exploits.
44. A Bunch of Unnamed Silkworms Belonging to Louisa Adams
John Quincy Adams didn’t seem to have any pets in the White House—unless you believe the probably apocryphal story that he briefly kept a pair of alligators in the East Room—but his wife kept silkworms. According to one of Adams’ diary entries, she had several hundred that she raised herself for their silk. Silk is nice, but let’s face it: Silkworms make terrible, terrible pets. They are, after all, worms. Worms! WORMS! (Technically, they’re caterpillars. Caterpillars! CATERPILLARS!) These are the worst presidential pets in the history of the United States of America.
43. James K. Polk’s Absence of Pets
James K. Polk didn’t have any pets, which kind of sucks, but at least he didn’t bring a bunch of goddamned worms with him.
42. Donald Trump’s Metaphorical Dog
Donald Trump had no time for anyone but Donald Trump, but if he had a dog, that dog would rank very highly on this list simply because of the sympathy vote. Trump’s tweets are no longer with us, but when he was still on Twitter, he was always tweeting things like this:
Robert Pattinson should not take back Kristen Stewart. She cheated on him like a dog & will do it again—just watch. He can do much better!
Mitt Romney had his chance to beat a failed president but he choked like a dog. Now he calls me racist—but I am least racist person there is.
Ted Cruz lifts the Bible high into the air and then lies like a dog—over and over again! The Evangelicals in S.C. figured him out & said no!
Wow, great news! I hear @EWErickson of Red State was fired like a dog. If you read his tweets, you’ll understand why. Just doesn’t have IT!
Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book. He used Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job. Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone. Too bad!
Lyin’ Brian Williams of MSDNC, a Concast Scam Company, wouldn’t know the truth if it was nailed to his wooden forehead. Remember when he lied about his bravery in a helicopter? Totally made up story. He’s a true dummy who was thrown off Network News like a dog. Stay tuned!
Dogs, according to the former president, are known for cheating, choking, and lying, which is why they deserve to be fired, dumped, and even thrown off network news. If Trump’s dog actually existed, it would doubtless deserve our sympathy and probably an anonymous call to the ASPCA. But since it’s only a metaphor, 42nd place.
41. Sukey, William Henry Harrison’s Cow
William Henry Harrison only lasted a month in office before dying, which didn’t leave a lot of time for his pets to make an impression. But where presidents fail, apocryphal storytellers succeed, and over the years, two pets have become associated with Harrison: a goat named either Old Whiskers or His Whiskers, and a Durham cow named Sukey. William Henry Harrison may have had a pet goat, but if so, I couldn’t find it in contemporary sources, and it’s well documented that his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, who was also a president, had a pet goat named Old Whiskers. As for “Sukey,” she appears in print for the first time in the Washington Evening Star on March 4, 1889, nearly 50 years after Harrison’s death, in a story credited to “a native and old resident of Washington.” The story is not really about the cow; it’s about Harrison buying a cow from a Maryland drover who was unaware he was talking to the president. So how did this sketchily sourced cow outrank Louisa Adams’ silkworms, who have the advantage of definitely existing, and James K. Polk’s absence of pets or Donald Trump’s metaphorical dog, who have the advantage of definitely not existing? Simple: Although William Henry Harrison, the president of the United States, has no verifiable connection to any pet cows, a different William Henry Harrison, an unrelated British author, published a satirical poem in 1831 entitled “The Cow Doctor,” which included this engraving of a sick cow.
That is a very silly engraving that would never have resurfaced in 2021 without Harrison’s apocryphal cow, and it’s inspiring to see two William Henry Harrisons working together. That’s enough to move Sukey up to 41st place.
40. Loretta, William McKinley’s Parrot
Like presidents themselves, presidential pets have had some of their rough edges sanded off in the interests of national mythmaking, and no pet benefited more from this than Loretta, William McKinley’s parrot. Modern accounts say that McKinley’s bird, a Mexican double yellow-headed parrot, was named “Washington Post,” could whistle “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and had a habit of saying “Look at all the pretty girls!” when women neared his cage. Catcalling aside, this “Washington Post” seems like a reasonably charming parrot who deserves to be at least a footnote in American history.
Looking back at contemporary references to McKinley’s parrot, however, reveals no signs of a bird named “Washington Post,” and several accounts of a different Mexican double yellow-headed parrot named Loretta, who lived at the White House during the McKinley administration. This bird could also reportedly whistle “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but her signature trick was much less charming, per a 1904 report from the Boston Globe:
Whenever any of the colored help came into the room, the parrot would sing out, “All C‑‑ns Look Alike to Me,” and this tickled Mr. McKinley immensely.
It would be quite a coincidence if McKinley had two Mexican double yellow-headed parrots, both of whom could whistle “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” only one of whom was a virulent racist. Occam’s razor says that Loretta and Washington Post were the same bird, which would mean that subsequent efforts to transform Loretta from a minstrelsy enthusiast into a lovable pet—going so far as to change her name!—are part of a cynical public relations maneuver known as the “Reverse Milkshake Parrot.”
39. Vulcan, George Washington’s Dog
George Washington had several dogs with memorable names—Sweetlips, Drunkard, Tippler, and Tipsy, to name a few—but only one dog who stole an entire ham, making Vulcan the obvious leader of the pack. An account of Vulcan’s heist is found in the memoirs of George Washington’s son George Washington Parke Custis.
It happened that upon a large company sitting down to dinner at Mount Vernon one day, the lady of the mansion (my grandmother) discovered that the ham, the pride of every Virginia housewife’s table, was missing from its accustomed post of honor. Upon questioning Frank, the butler, this portly, and at the same time most polite and accomplished of all butlers, observed that a ham, yes, a very fine ham, had been prepared agreeably to the Madam’s orders, but lo and behold! who should come into the kitchen, while the savory ham was smoking in its dish, but old Vulcan, the hound, and without more ado fastened his fangs into it; and although they of the kitchen had stood to such arms as they could get, and had fought the old spoiler desperately, yet Vulcan had finally triumphed, and bore off the prize, ay, “cleanly, under the keeper’s nose.” The lady by no means relished the loss of a dish which formed the pride of her table, and uttered some remarks by no means favorable to old Vulcan, or indeed to dogs in general, while the chief, having heard the story, communicated it to his guests, and, with them, laughed heartily at the exploit of the stag-hound.
So why is Vulcan, by all accounts an excellent ham thief, in the cellars of the presidential pet rankings? First, technically Vulcan did not steal this ham while George Washington was president. More importantly, Washington himself was a real bastard about other people’s dogs, writing in a 1792 letter to his overseer at Mount Vernon that “if any negro presumes under any pretence whatsoever to preserve, or bring one into the family, that he shall be severely punished, and the dog hanged,” then going on to opine that “it is not for any good purpose Negroes raise, or keep dogs; but to aid them in their night robberies.” It’s not fair to punish Vulcan in the official presidential pet rankings because of Washington’s bigotry, but it also isn’t fair to hang a dog because it belongs to a person you have enslaved. So shed no tears for Vulcan, who at least got to eat an entire ham.
38. Andrew Johnson’s Mice
Andrew Johnson did not arrive at the White House with any pets, nor did he officially acquire any while he stayed there. However, his private secretary, W. G. Moore, kept a diary in which he recorded a petlike incident: One weekend afternoon during Johnson’s impeachment, he found the president marveling over a basket of flour he’d shipped from a mill his family owned. Moore observed that some of the mice infesting the White House at that time had gotten into the flour; Johnson told him that he was planning to leave flour and water out for them going forward. Johnson scholars will not be surprised to hear that these were white mice.
37. Rex, Ronald Reagan’s Dog
Rex, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel belonging to Ronald Reagan, was famously badly behaved, constantly barking and pulling Nancy Reagan all over the White House lawn. You can see him in action at 6:10 in this video—and you can also see why people joked that the Reagans preferred not to train Rex, because he was always dragging them away from reporters before they could face any questions.
Rex apparently ended up at the White House because Nancy Reagan liked William F. Buckley’s dog and Ronald tracked down one of its siblings and gave it to her as a present. Rex lived in a custom-built doghouse designed by Theo Hayes—the wife of Rutherford B. Hayes’ great-great-grandson—which was decked out with parquet floors, curtains, and a framed photograph of the Reagans on the wall. Perfectly ghastly.
36. Chester A. Arthur’s Pet Rabbit
Chester A. Arthur is rumored to have had a pet rabbit, but I couldn’t find a source for this story and suspect it’s yet another example of pro-rabbit disinformation from Big Rabbit. 36th place.
35. Mason and Dixon, Millard Fillmore’s Ponies
Millard Fillmore reportedly had two ponies named Mason and Dixon. Unfortunately, those two ponies appear to have vanished from history without leaving much of an impression, except for their names. A clever name will only get you so far, and this is exactly how far a clever name will get two ponies in a ranking of the presidents’ pets: 35th place.
34. Mr. Protection and Mr. Reciprocity, Benjamin Harrison’s Possums
A clever name will only get you so far, but if you combine that clever name with being a dang possum, you can get a little further. In 1892, Benjamin Harrison expressed a desire for some “possums as soon as frost sets in,” and soon thereafter, a box was delivered to the White House containing two live possums, with a note reading: “To the president. Two citizens of Maryland—Mr. Protection and Mr. Reciprocity—with the compliments of John R. [Howlett], 1411 N Street, Northwest.” Sending someone a box containing two live possums is not necessarily a friendly gesture, but Protection and Reciprocity were campaign slogans of the Harrison-Reid ticket, so Howlett probably meant well.
Although they show up on most lists of presidential pets, occasionally accompanied by a story about Harrison giving them to his grandkids, Mr. Protection and Mr. Reciprocity probably didn’t fare very well at the White House: One story about their arrival was headlined “’Possums for Harrison’s Sunday Dinner.” As the Library of Congress has noted, a newspaper in Kentucky wrote an “Obama’s Hip-Hop BBQ Didn’t Create Jobs”–type article arguing that Harrison was pandering to Black voters—possum was then a staple in Black southern cuisine—writing that “when the president orders ’possum and sweet potatoes, every negro voter is expected to forget all grounds of disaffection and come cheerfully to the support of the ticket.” Even so, while Mr. Protection and Mr. Reciprocity most likely received neither protection nor reciprocity from Harrison, they had very clever names; plus, they were possums. Eat their dust, Mason and Dixon!
33. Franklin Pierce’s Teacup Dogs
The teacup dogs belonging to Franklin Pierce are a real cursed frogurt-type situation. Brought to the United States from Japan by the Perry Expedition, they were probably Japanese Chins. There’s a detailed account of one of them, named Bonin, who was “a little creature with a head like a bird with a blunt beak, eyes large and popped, and a body like a new-born puppy of the smallest kind … prettily marked with a band of white about his otherwise jet-black body.” (That’s good!) The description was written by Jefferson Davis’ second wife, Varina; Pierce gave the dog to his friend, the future president of the Confederacy, as a gift. (That’s bad!) Bonin became, in Varina’s words, “the scourge of the servants and of the family” for being always underfoot. (That’s good!) Over the years, however, he reportedly became less annoying. (That’s bad!) In 1861, Davis left the dog in Washington in order to found a new nation built on slavery (that’s really bad, but maybe OK for the dog), and sometime shortly thereafter, he was “fed … with so many dainties that he died of indigestion.” (Can I go now?) It’s unclear what became of the other dogs, but if the most notable thing any of them achieved was “being given as a gift to Jefferson Fucking Davis,” how great could they have been, really?
32. Millie, George H.W. Bush’s Dog
Millie, an English springer spaniel belonging to the Bushes, was one of the few presidential pets to write a bestselling memoir about her time in the White House. What’s more, she was one of the only vice presidential pets to write a bestselling memoir about her time at Number One Observatory Circle: She joined the Bushes on Feb. 13, 1987. That means she was with the Bushes when Reagan gave his Oval Office address about the Iran-Contra affair in May. She was with them during the congressional hearings that spring and summer. She was with them when Bush gave his notorious interview to the Washington Post claiming he was “not in the loop.” This dog was literally in the room where it happened. But anyone who bought Millie’s Book expecting juicy details about the debacle was disappointed. Although Millie admitted that she was usually present at Bush’s morning briefings, she declined to provide the American public with the full accounting of their government’s perfidy that they were owed, and instead wrote about chasing squirrels, bragged about her friendship with Henry Kissinger, and recounted in loving detail the story of the time she met Benji. We deserve better from our presidential pets.
31. Barney and Miss Beazley, George W. Bush’s Dogs
Barney and Miss Beazley, Scottish terriers belonging to George W. Bush, were more interested in show business than politics, starring in a series of short films. The highlight was A Very Beazley Christmas, a canine riff on All About Eve with a holiday theme:
Barney and Miss Beazley’s dedication to the craft of acting was unparalleled in the history of presidential pets, but their love of Italian neorealism led them to work primarily with nonprofessional actors from the Bush administration. That dull backdrop made their own performances stand out, but it also kept them from growing as artists over time, and as a result, modern critical reevaluations of their oeuvre have not been kind. What heights might these dogs have soared to if they’d collaborated with artists worthy of their talents—an Uggie, say, or even a Cosmo—instead of their comfortable clique of pasty war criminals? Sadly, we’ll never know.
30. Gabby, Dwight Eisenhower’s Parakeet
Gabby, a blue parakeet kept by the Eisenhowers, was chiefly notable for two things: not talking—the joke was he’d only communicate through White House spokespeople—and being buried under an adorable minigravestone on the White House lawn. Mediocre!
29. Dick, Thomas Jefferson’s Mockingbird
Thomas Jefferson was the first president to declare his independence from the tyranny of cats and dogs, choosing instead to keep mockingbirds. His favorite lived in a cage in his cabinet and had apparently been trained to take food from Jefferson’s lips, which is one of the grossest things you can do with a bird and speaks well of Dick’s quality as a pet. Margaret Bayard Smith, who knew Jefferson socially, gave the following account of Dick’s exploits in an 1843 article for Godey’s Lady’s Book:
On Mr. Jefferson’s return from his daily ride, it was his habit to take an hour’s repose on a couch in his chamber—before he did so, he would go into his cabinet, open the cage, call his bird, who would follow, hopping up the stairs after him, and then placing itself on the head or feet of his couch, would regale and soothe him with its sweetest and most varied strains. How he loved this bird!
How he loved that bird!
28. Johnny Ty, Julia Tyler’s Canary
John Tyler was the first president to lose a wife while in office and also the first president to remarry in office. His new bride, Julia Gardiner Tyler, was 30 years his junior and brought a pet canary named “Johnny Ty” with her to the White House. The canary had a slightly scandalous pedigree: Julia acquired it during an 1841 trip to Europe, where she’d been shipped off by her parents after causing a high-society scandal at 19 by appearing in an ad for a department store. Fast living and fast canaries: That was Julia Tyler, apparently. Johnny Ty’s most notable adventure came after the Tyler presidency, when Julia attempted to find the bird a mate. She apparently misjudged the sex of either Johnny Ty or his mate; the two birds wanted nothing to do with each other, and Johnny Ty died of a heart attack shortly thereafter.
27. Juno, John Adams’ Dog
John Adams was not only the first president to live in the White House and the first president to bring pets to the White House, but he went on to become the first president to be portrayed by Paul Giamatti in an HBO miniseries. Wow! A presidency that exceptional naturally included some exceptional pets, most notably a mixed-breed dog named Juno. Abigail Adams, in an 1811 letter to her granddaughter, gave the following account of Juno in her old age:
As if you love me, proverbially, you must love my dog, you will be glad to learn that Juno yet lives, although like her mistress she is gray with age. She appears to enjoy life and to be grateful for the attention paid her. She wags her tail and announces a visitor whenever one appears.
There’s less record of the life of the Adams’ other dog, Satan, who also accompanied the couple to the White House, but his name suggests he was not known for his good behavior. Isn’t that always the way?
26. Pauline Wayne, William Howard Taft’s Cow
Taft’s daughter had a dog named Caruso, a gift from Enrico Caruso, who was apparently concerned that cows didn’t make good pets. That’s nonsense. Pauline Wayne, who arrived at the White House in 1910 after a previous cow, Mooly Wooly, unexpectedly died, was not only a beloved pet but produced 7.5 gallons of milk daily. Unfortunately, the anti-cow forces of Enrico Caruso ultimately triumphed: Pauline Wayne was the last cow to live at the White House.
25. Sebastian, James Monroe’s Dog
A mysterious figure in American history, “Sebastian,” if that was indeed his real name, was a Siberian husky said to belong to James Monroe. According to the Presidential Pet Museum, however, “sources are scarce and most of the sources that do reference the animal also list Maria Monroe as James Monroe’s wife, not his daughter, and thus are likely untrustworthy.” In other words, Sebastian was almost certainly a Russian spy, much like the dogs in the 2001 movie Cats & Dogs, except with old-timey technology, plus Russian. Молодец, Sebastian!
24. Rob Roy, Calvin Coolidge’s Dog
The Coolidges had a lot of pets, although not all of them stuck around for very long. At various points during his administration, they owned: 12 different dogs, two raccoons, a donkey, seven different birds (one of whom was a goose), a pigmy hippo, a bear, a bobcat, two house cats, two lion cubs named Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau, and 13 ducklings. (Most of the exotic pets ended up in zoos pretty quickly.) The most famous resident of the Coolidge menagerie was Rob Roy, a white collie who ended up immortalized in Howard Chandler Christy’s portrait of Grace Coolidge.
Coolidge described Rob Roy in his autobiography as “a stately gentleman of great courage and fidelity,” a fine tribute to a good dog, but his attempt to describe his grief at Rob Roy’s death was less successful:
His especial delight was to ride with me in the boats when I went fishing. So although I knew he would bark with joy as the grim boatman ferried him across the Styx, yet his going left me lonely on the hither shore.
Just say you miss your dog, Calvin Coolidge! Jeez!
23. Poll, Andrew Jackson’s Parrot
Andrew Jackson distinguished himself as one of the United States’ most genocidal presidents, despite stiff competition, which makes him one of history’s greatest villains. His pet parrot, Poll however, outlived him, then made a decent effort to ruin his funeral, which makes her one of history’s greatest heroes. The Rev. William Menefee Norment, who at the age of 15 attended Jackson’s funeral, gave the following account of Poll’s exploits in a 1921 letter: “Before the sermon and while the crowd was gathering, a wicked parrot that was a household pet got excited and commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people and had to be carried from the house.” The only thing more American than swearing at Andrew Jackson’s funeral would be dancing at his funeral, but the golden age of dancing cockatoos was still years off, and as the saying goes, you ruin Andrew Jackson’s funeral with the parrots you have, not the parrots you want. Still, the historical record is ambiguous enough that it’s possible Poll was cursing because Jackson was dead, rather than cursing Jackson, so until further evidence surfaces, Poll is in the middle of the pack.
22. Liberty, Gerald Ford’s Dog
Gerald Ford had a golden retriever named Liberty (full name: Honor’s Foxfire Liberty Hume) who was a charming and friendly White House dog throughout Ford’s presidency. In 1975, she was bred with a high-class golden retriever from Oregon and gave birth to nine puppies in the White House. Here, ladies and gentlemen, are those puppies:
Adorable! In her post-presidency life, however, Liberty broke bad: The Fords tried to breed her in Oregon again, but Liberty wanted nothing more to do with the uptight high-society dogs she’d been surrounded by in the White House. Ford’s chief of staff, Robert Barrett, had the idea of introducing Liberty to a dog from the wrong side of the tracks: Bart, a pedigreed golden retriever who belonged to Packy Walker, an eccentric hotelier in Vail, Colorado, whom the local newspaper referred to as “the Clown Prince of Vail” when he retired in 2015. Bart was plenty eccentric in his own right: He was known for drinking beer, so much so that there’s still a bar named after him. Probably not first dog material, but Barrett made an irresistible pitch on behalf of this alcoholic canine ski bum to Mrs. Ford:
When Liberty first sees Bart, Bart will be wearing a maroon satin robe with a white ascot, with a monogrammed “B” on the pocket. Bart will enter carrying two glasses of champagne in his left paw and have a cigaret holder in his right. The cigaret should have a dangling tip.
In fairness to Bart, Liberty should be wearing a sheer negligee and have a right paw draped demurely over her chest.
There’s no record of whether Bart actually put on the robe and ascot, but he and Liberty hit it off immediately and had puppies together, scandalizing upper-crust pet society.
21. Veto, James Garfield’s Dog
Veto was one of the first presidential pets to become a celebrity during his own lifetime, getting favorable national press before Garfield took office for what turned out to be an extremely brief presidency. There are a lot of stories about Veto, an enormous Newfoundland, who was unusually smart and very uneasy about the strangers visiting Garfield’s farm during the presidential campaign, but the best is this account of Veto ruining a letter of apology Garfield was writing one late night during the campaign, as recounted in the Chicago Tribune:
… he took his pen, weary as he was, and began to write her a letter of explanation. He had written nearly the whole of the first page, when “Veto,” who had been standing by wagging his tail for some time, and trying to get some attention from his master, at length became impatient, and placed his big, dirty paw upon the page still wet with the ink, and made an unreadable and unsightly scrawl of the whole. “O you good-for-nothing old fellow!” said the General, patting the dog’s head, “you have made me a good deal of trouble and labor by your over-familiarity.” He then quietly tore up the sheet, and began his letter again.
When it comes to dogs, “you have made me a good deal of trouble and labor by your over-familiarity” is pretty much a best-case scenario. Veto did not accompany Garfield to the White House, so he never got the chance to veto any actual legislation, but given the mess he made of that letter, he would have been a natural.
20. Hector, Frances Cleveland’s Dog
Grover Cleveland was the only president to get married at the White House, and also the only president who bought his future bride a baby carriage when he was 27 and she was an infant. Frances Folsom married Cleveland at the age of 21, and the press could not get enough of the youthful, charming first lady and her creepy marriage. The new bride brought a full-on menagerie to the White House, per the Chattanooga Daily Times, including a “big St. Bernard dog, five canaries, four cats, the fawn, the Jersey heifer, Gracie, presented by George W. Childs; a dozen white mice, two peacocks, two guinea pigs, two alligators, a large assortment of blooded fowls, and the tender recollection of the dead monkey, which was Mrs. Cleveland’s chief source of consolation and enjoyment while it lived, and whose untimely taking off by a severe cold was a great blow to the charming lady of the White House.”
With all due respect to the dead monkey, Hector, a French poodle, gets pride of place here, for two reasons. First, he seems like he might have been the basis for Disney’s Tramp; the newspaper described him as “a great reprobate” who “wanders all over town at all sorts of hours of the night, disturbing the choice canine circles of society of Washington.” Second, he had a tragic life, for a dog: According to a profile of Mrs. Cleveland in the Epoch, the Saint Bernard eclipsed Hector in his owner’s affections, as she had more interest in “the newly arrived and nobler dog.” Was this what led Hector to prowl all over Washington, drowning his sorrows in canine revelry, or did Hector’s Falstaffian excesses force Mrs. Cleveland’s hand? Either way, not cool, Frances.
19. Miss Pussy, Rutherford B. Hayes’ Cat
Miss Pussy was a gift to first lady Lucy Webb Hayes from David B. Sickels, a diplomat at the Bangkok consulate, and possibly the first Siamese cat in America. As Sickels explained in a letter to Mrs. Hayes, he had seen in an American newspaper that Mrs. Hayes liked cats and took it upon himself to ship her a Siamese, who he referred to as “Miss Pussy.” (Other sources suggest this cat was renamed “Siam,” but we’re going with “Miss Pussy” because why on Earth wouldn’t we?) Miss Pussy traveled to Hong Kong, crossed the Pacific on an Occidental and Oriental steamship (in the care of the purser, according to Sickels), took a train to Washington, and spent about a year roaming the White House before falling ill and dying in the fall of 1879. Supposedly, the cat’s body was preserved by the secretary of agriculture, but it’s never turned up. So if you have the taxidermized corpse of a Siamese cat that looks like it died about 141 years ago, contact the Smithsonian Institution at (202) 633-1000, and they’ll immediately dispatch the Rutherford B. Hayes’ Cat Verification Squad to your home or place of business.
18. Polly, Dolley Madison’s Macaw
Polly presided over what can only be called a reign of terror at the White House during the James Madison administration. A gift from a South American diplomat, Polly roamed the White House freely and, not to put too fine a point on it, routinely attacked visitors. Archivist Hilarie M. Hicks has collected some first-person accounts of Polly’s exploits for the website of Madison’s residence, Montpelier, from the time she chased the secretary of the navy’s daughter around the White House to the time she bit one of President Madison’s fingers to the bone, and there’s only one conclusion to be drawn: This bird was a revolutionary. We’ve all dreamed about biting one or all of the president’s fingers off, but only Polly was brave enough to actually make the attempt. Polly was rescued from the burning White House during the War of 1812 and returned to private life with the Madisons but met a tragic end when she was left outside on a porch overnight and a hawk killed her.
17. Apollo, Zachary Taylor’s Trick Pony
Americans love a good rags-to-riches story, and Apollo, a trick pony belonging to Zachary Taylor, has a great one. According to his onetime owner Simon Pollak, he was purchased “at a sheriff’s sale of a wrecked circus company” sometime before 1840. Apparently owning a circus pony, even from a bankrupt circus, was the 1840s equivalent of owning a flashy sports car; Pollak wrote that Apollo was responsible for his social success, because the horse was “in constant demand by the young ladies.” When a flood wiped out Pollak’s Louisiana farm in 1844, he sold his horses and mules, and although he had not planned to sell Apollo, he was convinced to give her as a present to Betty Taylor, Zachary Taylor’s daughter. And that’s how Apollo went from the wreckage of a failed circus all the way to “a triumphal entry into Washington” as part of Taylor’s inaugural parade. Of course, Taylor’s presidency only lasted 16 months, but hey! Trick pony!
16. Bo and Sunny, Barack Obama’s Dogs
Like Barney and Miss Beazley before them, Bo and Sunny, the Portuguese water dogs belonging to the Obama family, dabbled in show business. Unlike the Bush dogs, whose single-minded pursuit of cinematic excellence blinded them to their administration’s excesses, Bo and Sunny at least gave the public the impression of civic-mindedness, appearing in public service announcements like this short film about disaster planning for pets:
Look a little closer, though, and it’s clear that Bo and Sunny were just as self-obsessed as any Hollywood superdog. Bo in particular was notorious for using the holiday season as an excuse to festoon the White House with statues of himself, a trend that reached its sad apotheosis in 2012, when Bo made a holiday film that primarily depicted him inspecting his own statue with self-satisfied pride:
Melania Trump would later take inappropriate Christmas celebrations to new and much more grotesque and terrifying places, but she was standing on the shoulders of the Portuguese water dogs who came before her.
15. Misty Malarky Ying Yang, Amy Carter’s Cat
“Miss Pussy” is a pretty good name for a cat, but it’s got nothing on “Misty Malarky Ying Yang,” a Siamese cat belonging to Amy Carter. In sharp contrast to the modern Democratic Party’s strong stance against malarky, Democrats of the 1970s were thrilled by Misty Malarky Ying Yang’s malarky, particularly an incident in which journalists waited for President Jimmy Carter and Mexican President José López Portillo to descend the grand staircase at a state dinner, only to have Misty Malarky Ying Yang descend instead. The name alone would be enough for Misty Malarky Ying Yang to edge out Miss Pussy, but there’s more: Hungarian jazz guitarist Gábor Szabó released a song titled “Misty Malarky Ying Yang” on his 1977 LP Faces. (So far, no one seems to have recorded a song called “Miss Pussy,” but it’ll probably happen sooner or later.) Check out Misty Malarky Ying Yang’s signature tune, but be prepared for an extremely smooth groove:
A suave, sophisticated reminder of the golden age of White House malarky … misty malarky.
14. Pushinka, John F. Kennedy’s Dog
Pushinka, a gift for the Kennedy children from Nikita Khrushchev, was undeniably of Soviet origin, but unlike James Monroe’s mysterious Siberian husky, she was not a spy. Pushinka’s parents, Pushok and Strelka, were both highly decorated veterans of the Soviet space dog program—Strelka was one of the first animals to go into orbit and survive—and almost certainly hard-line communists. Despite her upbringing, however, once she’d gotten a taste of American life, Pushinka adapted the decadent Western ways of the Kennedy family and eventually settled down to raise puppies with Charlie Kennedy, a local dog. Did this canine romance bring about the end of the Cold War? No, it did not, but that’s hardly Pushinka’s fault.
13. Martin Van Buren’s Tiger Cubs
Many lists of presidential pets include the amusing tale of Martin Van Buren’s pet tiger cubs, a gift from the sultan of Oman. Van Buren supposedly wanted to keep them in the White House—and in some accounts, briefly did—but was rebuffed by Congress, who forced him to give them to a zoo instead. That story does not seem to be true, but the real events were even weirder. The sultan of Oman did give Van Buren a gift that caused a debate in Congress: On Christmas Day 1839, the sultan sent Van Buren a letter announcing that he would be sending along a few “trifles,” including two Arabian horses, a carpet, a string of pearls, and four cashmere shawls, but no tiger cubs. When the sultan’s gifts arrived, Van Buren asked Congress what was to be done with them; eventually the horses were sold and the other items were given to the National Institute gallery, a precursor to the Smithsonian.
So where do tigers enter the story? Probably from a similar incident from around the same time, involving a gift from the emperor of Morocco and an extremely bad day at the office for the staff of the American Consulate in Tangier. Thomas N. Carr, the consul, had attempted to explain to Moroccan officials that neither he nor his government could accept gifts, but the message apparently didn’t get through. As he relayed to the State Department in one of the all-time great “I screwed up at work” letters, the nephew of a local official unexpectedly arrived at the consulate one day with “an enormous magnificent lion and lioness” from the emperor and convinced Carr to accept them:
I told him that I would not receive them—that my mind was fairly made up. Then, said he, my determination is as strong as yours—I am ordered to deliver them to you—it will cost me my head if I disobey—I shall leave them in the street. The street upon which is the American consulate is a narrow short cul-de-sac. … Preparations were made for placing the guard at the open end, and turning the lions loose in the street. Seeing further resistance hopeless … I was compelled to surrender to this novel form of attack, and to open one of my rooms to the reception of the animals, where they now are.
The next time you’re having a bad day at work, remember: If you’ve never had to ask your boss what to do with the fully grown lions you’ve accidentally agreed to keep in the office, you’re a better employee than Thomas N. Carr, and that guy was a high-ranking diplomat. (The lions were eventually shipped to the United States and sold.) So it turns out Martin Van Buren’s pet tiger cubs were not tigers, nor cubs, nor pets, nor Martin Van Buren’s, which would ordinarily hurt them in these rankings. But the story of the hapless Moroccan consul and the two fully grown lions that were his guests at the consulate is hilarious enough to push these entirely fictional presidential pets into the top tier.
12. Laddie Boy, Warren G. Harding’s Dog
Laddie Boy, an Airedale terrier belonging to Warren G. Harding, was the first presidential pet to get wall-to-wall press coverage, leaving earlier celebrity pets like James Garfield’s dog in the dustbin of history. Newspapers loved this dog, devoting thousands and thousands of words to his antics under headlines like “Laddie Boy Makes Self Indispensable to Administration,” “First Dog of Land Is Real Humanizer,” and “Laddie Boy, White House Pet, Interviewed,” an imagined interview from the New York Herald in which Laddie Boy complained about the paparazzi:
I’ve posed for that gang in every conceivable attitude except standing on my head. And there hasn’t been a picture published yet that does me justice. Had they let me stay in Toledo, where I belonged, my pictures wouldn’t be in a single newspaper—and yet I’m just the same dog as I was in Toledo, except that I’m more disgusted.
In the most baroque and bizarre example of Laddie Boy’s press blitz, the Washington Evening Star gave about half a page to a story about Laddie Boy hosting a GamemasterAnthony-style reception for the stars of the Washington Evening Star’s comics pages, hanging out with everyone from long-forgotten characters like Radio Ralf to heavyweights like Krazy Kat and Mutt and Jeff. Of course there’s an illustration:
After Harding’s death, Laddie Boy stepped back from the spotlight and moved to Boston, where he lived out his days in the care of a Secret Service agent named, and this is true, “Harry Barker.” He died in 1929, a very good boy.
11. King Timahoe, Richard Nixon’s Dog
Checkers was Richard Nixon’s most famous dog but died before Nixon reached the White House, making him ineligible for inclusion in these extremely official rankings. Checkers’ claim to fame was saving Nixon’s political career, a controversial legacy to say the least. King Timahoe, an Irish setter who was a gift to the president from his staff, was famous for not liking Richard Nixon very much on a personal level, which is the kind of thing all Americans should be able to agree on. Traphes Bryant, who kept the White House kennels, describes Nixon and King Timahoe’s relationship in his memoir:
At first the President was even shy with King Timahoe, and didn’t know how to handle him. I could see he wanted very much for the dog to love him best, and be a real companion, but when the presidential chopper would arrive and King Tim would be there to greet the President, Tim would go to everyone else first, and finally come up to the President. The President would look a bit sheepish.
Even with more time together at Camp David, King Timahoe didn’t warm up to Nixon; Bryant writes that he “was always running away from Nixon.” Truly, a king among dogs.
10. Punch, James Buchanan’s Dog
James Buchanan’s pets included a menagerie of animals, including a pair of bald eagles, that were sent to him by citizens worried that, as the nation’s first bachelor president, he’d be lonely. Buchanan’s loneliness was hypothetical and does not seem to have been allayed by the eagles, which didn’t make the news at the time and are never mentioned in correspondence from his presidency. The loneliness of his dog, Punch, however, was very real. In a letter to his niece Harriet Lane, who’d served as a sort of substitute first lady during his term, sent on Oct. 21, 1865, Buchanan answered Lane’s inquiries about his dog like this:
Among your numerous friends you ask only for Punch, & this in the Postscript, which is said to contain the essence of a lady’s letter. He is a companion which I shun as much as possible, not being at all to my liking. I believe, however, his health is in a satisfactory condition.
Well, la-dee-dah, James Buchanan, first you fail to prevent the Civil War and then you decide you don’t like your dog. Absent some evidence of doggy perfidy, it seems like Punch is blameless here and should probably have lived out his post-presidential dog life with Harriet Lane. Ranking Punch near the top of the presidential pets seems like a small step toward righting this historical injustice. You were probably a good boy, Punch.
9. Socks, Bill Clinton’s Cat
Cats are always aloof, but no cat has guarded his private life as zealously as Socks, the black-and-white tuxedo-coated cat who accompanied the Clintons to Washington. Earlier presidential pets protected their privacy by avoiding the public, but Socks took the opposite approach. A master of propaganda and misinformation, Socks used the mass media to construct a glittering Citizen Kane–style hall of mirrors, creating so many different personae that it quickly became impossible to separate cat from fiction. There was Socks the tour guide, an animated cat that guided children through the White House website. There was Socks the memoirist, author of Socks Goes to Washington: The Diary of America’s First Cat. There was Socks the Clinton spokescat, a puppet cat that Kermit the Frog interviewed that time he hosted Larry King Live. There was Socks the other memoirist, author of Socks Goes to the White House: A Cat’s-Eye View of the President’s House. There was Socks the TV star, sharing the screen with Candice Bergen in the classic Murphy Brown episode “Sox and the Single Girl.” There was Socks the commando, who singlehandedly saved Washington from terrorists in the canceled Super Nintendo game Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill:
There was even Socks the other puppet cat, who was assassinated by Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes in a music video for “Blister in the Sun” made when the song was featured in Grosse Pointe Blank:
Was there ever a “real” Socks at the center of this maelstrom of contradictory public images? By the end, even Socks didn’t know.
8. Feller, Harry Truman’s Dog
Punch got a raw deal, but Harry Truman’s dog, Feller, had it worse. Presidential pets can be a useful public relations tool, but only if the president genuinely likes pets. Truman did not, so when a supporter sent him a cocker spaniel puppy for Christmas of 1947, it turned into a public relations disaster. Not right away: Newspapers initially fawned over the puppy, predicting that, although Truman was not known as “a lover of dogs,” “the individual who does not fall for the appeal of a canine is rare.”
Things didn’t work out that way. Feller arrived in D.C. with great fanfare and got a round of adoring press coverage, but by January, the Washington Post noted that he had “been seen but briefly about the White House, and usually on occasions when he is being photographed by the press.” Margaret Truman, Harry’s daughter, told the press the first lady didn’t want to raise the dog. Then a March of Dimes poster boy asked to see Feller while visiting the White House and was told he was at the vet. It eventually came out that Truman, who’d never wanted a dog to begin with, had given Feller to his personal physician, enraging the nation’s dog lovers. By April, when a reporter asked the president, “What happened to Feller?” Truman’s initial answer was “To what?” before claiming Feller was “still around.” Feller, an innocent dog, eventually left the cruelty of politics behind him and retired to Ohio.
7. Jonathan Edwards, Theodore Roosevelt’s Bear
Theodore Roosevelt and his family essentially bought a zoo: They brought a badger, guinea pigs, actual pigs, a macaw, a rabbit, a hyena, several dogs, and a pony with them to the White House. But none of Roosevelt’s pets were quite as notable as Jonathan Edwards the bear, whom he wrote about in his memoir Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter:
… a queer-tempered young black bear, which the children named Jonathan Edwards, partly because of certain well-marked Calvinistic tendencies of his disposition, partly out of compliment to their mother, whose ancestors included that Puritan Divine. … The bear added zest to life in more ways than one. When we took him to walk, it was always with a chain and club, and when at last he went to the Zoo, the entire household breathed a sigh of relief, although I think the dogs missed him, as he had occasionally yielded them the pleasure of the chase in its strongest form.
Jonathan Edwards the bear, like Jonathan Edwards the Puritan, seems to have carefully weighed humanity’s worth and found us lacking. Unfortunately, Roosevelt donated the bear to the Bronx Zoo before the ursine preacher could mete out his harsh, cleansing justice.
6. Him and Her, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Dogs
Several presidential pets have moved up in the official presidential pet rankings because of the difficult circumstances of their lives, but no presidential pets deserve the sympathy vote as much as Him and Her, Lyndon B. Johnson’s beagles. Him and Her were pretty run-of-the-mill dogs, and if they’d been owned by a different president would probably have landed right in the middle of the presidential pet rankings. They were catapulted into fame in 1964, when LBJ inexplicably picked them up by their ears while posing for photos on the White House lawn. Everyone was baffled by this strange turn of events and even more so by Johnson’s explanation:
He said he did it “to make him bark.” “It’s good for him,” Johnson said, “and if you’ve ever followed dogs, you like to hear them bark.”
A Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals spokesperson rejoined that picking up dogs by the ears was not good for them, adding, “If somebody picked you up by the ears, you’d yelp too.” Columnist Ralph McGill did his best to make the incident a referendum on American masculinity, railing against the “effete dog set, which keeps the animals perfumed and sprayed, and even sends them to canine psychiatrists” for criticizing Johnson, but at the end of the day, it was just too difficult to convince the public that dogs enjoyed being picked up by their ears. Sadly, neither Him nor Her made it out of the Johnson White House alive: Her choked to death on a stone she’d swallowed the day after Thanksgiving, 1964; Him was run over by a car on the White House lawn in the summer of 1966. But they’ll live on forever in our hearts, as the sixth best presidential pets in history.
5. Butcher Boy, Ulysses S. Grant’s Horse
Ulysses S. Grant was an excellent horseman, a certified speed demon, and the only president to be arrested while in office. (His crime was careening recklessly around Washington in his horse and buggy, and he was taken into custody by the same policeman who’d let him off with a warning the day before.) Butcher Boy was a horse after the president’s heart. In some accounts, Grant purchased the horse after losing a street race to the butcher’s cart it pulled, but in this account from A Personal History of Ulysses S. Grant, an 1885 biography by Albert Deane Richardson and R.H. Fletcher, Grant was just impressed with the horse’s speed:
One day, riding from his office to dinner, he noticed a homely little white steed in a cart, pacing so fast that it was quickly out of sight. All he observed was, that it was driven by a boy without a coat. The diminutive animal so captivated him, that he talked of it continually, until some friends ascertained that it was the property of a butcher, who had bought it for seventy-five dollars. The man of blood, learning who wanted it, resisted all pecuniary blandishments until they reached three hundred dollars. The General purchased the white pacer, named it “Butcher-boy,” and for many a day might be seen whirling along behind it on the way to the office.
If they ever introduce time travel to the Fast and the Furious franchise, they’ve gotta get this man behind the wheel of a Bugatti Veyron. Better yet, let the horse drive.
4. Fido, Abraham Lincoln’s Dog
Fido wasn’t technically a White House dog, but only because Abraham Lincoln didn’t want to subject him to the hustle and bustle of Washington. After Lincoln’s election, Fido was frightened by the increase in visitors, attention, and noise around the family’s home in Springfield, Illinois, and spent election night cowering under his favorite sofa. Despite protests from Lincoln’s sons Tad and Willy, Fido didn’t accompany the family east, staying instead with the Roll family in Springfield. (The Rolls also bought the sofa, so that Fido would have a familiar hiding place at his new home.) Sadly, Fido’s story, like Lincoln’s, ends in tragedy. In the 1950s, Dorothy Kunhardt tracked down John Roll, one of the surviving Roll children, and he gave the following account of Fido’s 1866 death to Time magazine:
… the dog, in a playful manner put his dirty paws upon a drunken man sitting in the street curbing [who] in his drunken rage, thrust a knife into the body of poor old Fido. So Fido, just a poor yellow dog, met the fate of his illustrious master—Assassination.
Just when you thought the story of Abraham Lincoln couldn’t get any more tragic, whammo!, some drunk comes along and stabs his dog.
3. Old Ike, Woodrow Wilson’s Ram
Woodrow Wilson purchased a flock of 12 sheep in 1918 and set them loose on the White House lawn, where they trimmed the grass for free. Wilson donated their wool to the Red Cross, which local chapters auctioned off to raise funds. An ill-tempered ram named “Old Ike” led the herd, which had grown to more than 40 by the time Wilson gave the sheep away and returned to more conventional landscaping methods in 1920. Here are two facts about Old Ike: He loved chewing on tobacco and would eat any cigar butts he could get his hooves on, and—according to Robert E. Long, a D.C. theater manager hired to project movies for Wilson at the White House—he “would butt anybody he could reach, and he once knocked a policeman so cold that other policemen had to rescue him.” For his incomparable achievements in the fields of cigar chomping and aggravated assault, we’re pleased to name Old Ike the third best presidential pet.
2. Fala, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Dog
Fala, a Scottish terrier who was given to Franklin D. Roosevelt as a gift by his distant cousin Margaret Suckley in 1940, was one of the most famous presidential pets in history. People knew about previous presidential pets, and Laddie Boy had become a celebrity, but Fala was a star: MGM put him in two short films, Fala: The President’s Dog in 1943 and Fala at Hyde Park in 1946. That’s right: Fala commanded enough star power to land a lead role at MGM even after FDR’s death. Fala’s Hollywood work isn’t available online, but you can get a sense of his charm and charisma from the footage in this brief British Pathé newsreel:
Fala was so well-known that American soldiers used him as a shibboleth during World War II, asking the name of the president’s dog in an attempt to identify German infiltrators. In 1944, Fala set another presidential pet milestone when a Republican representative gave a speech on the House floor alleging that Roosevelt had left Fala behind while visiting the Aleutian Islands and dispatched a destroyer, at taxpayer expense, to pick the dog up. The story was QAnon-level nonsense, but it got a lot of press. A few weeks later, FDR addressed the accusations in a speech to the teamsters, using some jokes that had been written for him by Orson Welles:
That was probably the first time a presidential pet was enlisted in this kind of defensive political maneuver, but Nixon must have studied it closely. After FDR’s death, Fala retired to Hyde Park, dying in 1952. He’s buried next to Franklin and Eleanor, and is the only presidential pet to date to have a statue on the National Mall. Also, his full name was “Murray the Outlaw of Falahill,” after a 15th-century bandit, which is a wonderful name for a dog. Great work, Fala!
1. Billy Possum, Herbert Hoover’s Possum
No pet in presidential history embodies America in all its disgusting glory quite like Billy Possum, Herbert Hoover’s possum. A few years before Hoover’s arrival in D.C., pet superfan Grace Coolidge saved a raccoon on its way to the Thanksgiving table, named it Rebecca, and built it a treehouse, where it happily lived out the Coolidge administration. When the Coolidges left the White House, so did their pet raccoon, leaving an empty raccoon-sized treehouse on the White House lawn.
Enter Billy Possum. In some accounts, he was caught by White House staff on the grounds and then deliberately allowed to live in Rebecca’s treehouse; in others, he just asserted squatter’s rights, possum style. Here’s a dramatized recreation of the moment Billy met President Hoover:
Billy’s name came from another storied American tradition: the knockoff cash grab. In 1908, during the early years of the Teddy Bear craze, some ill-fated toymakers in Georgia decided that the next big thing would be stuffed possums. Teddy Bears were inspired by a story about Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear; Billy Possums were inspired by a story about William Howard Taft requesting and eating an enormous meal of roast possum and potatoes at a Republican function in Atlanta, which wasn’t quite as endearing. Here’s an ad showing Billy Possums for sale at Kann’s in D.C.:
Billy Possum the toy was a complete flop, to approximately no one’s surprise. As for Billy Possum the possum, he kept himself busy during Hoover’s presidency. When news broke that a possum had taken up residency at the White House, students at nearby Hyattsville High School asked if it was by any chance their school mascot, a possum who had recently escaped. It wasn’t, but Hoover sent Billy Possum on a mission of mercy to serve as an emergency replacement mascot. Here’s Billy hanging out with his disreputable-looking high school friends:
To sum up, Billy Possum was a screeching trash monster with ties to a dubious and poorly conceived get-rich-quick scheme who moved into someone else’s home uninvited and refused to leave—the very spirit of America manifested in one ghastly marsupial. So congratulations, Billy Possum, you are the greatest presidential pet in the history of the United States of America!