Isn’t “Bob” a grand name? Florence Harding, wife of President Warren G. Harding, chose it for her pet canary. Many presidential pets were named after world leaders and even the presidents’ political adversaries.
Pets change people. Look at the official portraits of some of our past leaders and compare them to photographs of them with their beloved pets. It’s hard to believe they are the same men.
First Pet, subtitled The Presidents and Their Beloved Canines, Felines and Other Four-Legged Creatures Who Made Their Home at the White House, is a photo album of American presidents, their families, and the animals they chose to share the White House. There are lots of dogs, cats, horses, and rodents featured in this collection assembled by the Associated Press. But White House residents were not limited to people and four-legged animals. There were those that flew, and slithered, hopped and swam.
While all of our presidents did not have pets (Andrew Johnson left flour out at night for a family of mice), most of them did. George Washington had at least twelve dogs and eight horses; Martha had a parrot. Among Thomas Jefferson’s menagerie were grizzly bears he received from Zebulon Pike (they didn’t live in the White House, though).
Exotic animals were once popular gifts to presidents; Martin VanBuren had two tigers, and John Quincy Adams hosted an alligator (Mrs. Adams raised silkworms). The Coolidges had raccoons and other wild animals, including a BOBcat. Taft’s cows grazed “on the lawn in front of the State, War and Navy Building.”
First Pet is a fun book; the variety of animals that shared our first families’ affections is surprising. Benjamin Harrison’s opossums were nothing in comparison to the zoo that Teddy Roosevelt assembled (including a kangaroo rat, zebra, coyote, wildcat, lion, badger, pig, snake, hyena, and flying squirrel — along with many others!). Calvin Coolidge also entertained a plethora of pets.
Stories about the presidents and animals — like JFK’s Thanksgiving week pardon of a turkey — abound, and are accompanied by wonderful pictures (LBJ howling along with his dog is priceless).
As First Pet moves into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it stirs memories — some sad — of presidents we knew from archival film footage and those who served in our lifetime. No matter what party you support or your political views, men that you may have regarded with little affection are humanized by their interaction with their furry family members.
For history buffs, animal lovers, and those who enjoy nostalgia, First Pet is a real treat (though not a Milk-Bone). The assorted anecdotes and fantastic photos will surely make you smile.
Bottom Line: Would I buy First Pet? Yes, it’s a lovely memento of times past.