Historical Landmark of the Month (February, Part III): Presidential Cats

Denise made an interesting comment yesterday about the two latest blog posts. She expressed her surprise that I would blog about two dogs, because we are more of a cat family (I've been hauling Moses all around the country for the better part of a decade!). It's true--I generally do prefer the much more sophisticated and complex cat to the emotionally-immature dog, but you don't really find a lot of information about historically significant cats. For this final post of the month, I had to do some serious research.

I briefly considered telling the story of "Fred the Undercover Kitty", who in 2006 gained fame for his undercover work with the New York Police Department and the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office in the arrest of a suspect posing as a veterinary care provider.

Fred the Undercover Kitty, with his Letter of Citation at the press conference.

Or maybe the story of Mrs. Chippy, the cat who accompanied Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17.

Mrs.Chippy on the shoulder of crew member Perce Blackborow; 1914

But since we are in DC, I thought that I needed something with a DC-orientation. I wound up examining the history of presidential pets in The White House (did you know there is a Presidential Pet Museum?) Specifically, I'm wondering what kind of cat presence has existed in the WH. Has any President ever let his cat loose in the West Wing? Can't you just see President Bill Clinton working at his desk in the Oval Office with "Socks" sitting on the edge of The Resolute Desk? We took Moses to work with us for years, and she loved to nap on the corner of the desk, or even better, to curl up on top of the printer, where it was nice and warm.

I should take a brief detour here to mention that cats have a long and distinguished history of associating with Heads of State. It has long been recorded that cats enjoyed an exalted place of honor in ancient Egypt (it was believed that “Bast”, the goddess of the home & protector of the fields and home from vermin infestations, took the form of a cat.)

Although there are no sacred species in Islam (and Mohammed wasn’t a Head of State), it is said by some writers that Mohammad had a favorite cat named Muezza. It is said Mohammed loved cats so much that "he would do without his cloak rather than disturb one that was sleeping on it".

Britain has Sybil, who serves as "The Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office", the title of the official resident cat of the Prime Minister who lives at 10 Downing Street. The UK has had an offical cat since the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547)!

Sybil, the Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office

The United States has had 44 different Presidents. Not counting President Obama, who has publicly stated that his family is looking for a dog, there has only been ONE President who did not have pets at the White House. Only the 21st President, Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885), did not keep pets while he was in office.

Abraham Lincoln's portrait with Tabby, his son Tad's cat. Tabby may have been the first cat in The White House.

Who had the most bizarre pet while President? There’s some subjectivity here, but I’d like to nominate John Quincy Adams (an American Alligator), Martin Van Buren (two tiger cubs), Calvin Coolidge (a pygmy hippo named “Billy”—you can see his descendants at the Washington Zoo), or Harry Truman (a boa constrictor named “Monster Jungle X-ray”).

A pygmy hippo, probably one of Billy's ancestors.

Who had the most pets while President? John F. Kennedy had 21, Calvin Coolidge had 24, but the President with the most pets in office was Teddy Roosevelt, who had 25 pets, including multiple dogs, cats, snakes, a badger, guinea pigs and a one-legged hen named “Baron Speckle”.

JKF and kids with their pet horse, Macaroni.

Which President had the most unusual named pet? I think you can learn a lot about people based on what they name their pets. George Washington had an American Staghound named “Sweet Lips”; Benjamin Harrison had two opossums named “Mr. Reciprocity” and “Mr. Protection”; Teddy Roosevelt had a garter snake named “Emily Spinach”; and Jimmy Carter had a Siamese cat named “Misty Malarky Ying Yang”.

Amy Carter and Misty Malarky Ying Yang

The award for least creative Presidential Pet Name goes to Lyndon B. Johnson, who had two beagles named “Him” and “Her”.

LBJ gets an enthusiastic welcome to the Oval Office.

And now, a couple of quick Presidential Cat Stories. . .

Calvin Coolidge was a man of few words and even fewer emotions, but he loved his animals. It was previously mentioned that he had 24 pets, but the President’s favorite was his beloved cat Tiger, a striking orange tomcat with black stripes who would drape himself around the president's shoulders as “Silent Cal” wandered through the White House. Tiger would rush to his master's side when called.

In late March 1924, Tiger disappeared from the White House during an ice storm. The president was greatly distressed the next morning when the cat did not respond to his customary greeting. A thorough search of the grounds turned up nothing, and for three days the Coolidge family fretted over the mysterious fate of Tiger. On the evening of March 24, Secret Service agent James Hanley appeared on local radio and appealed to the city to keep an eye out for a cat fitting Tiger's description. Scores of Washingtonians began calling the White House with reports of cat sightings and unhelpful offers to replace the lost cat.

To the nation's delight, on March 25 a Navy captain named Benjamin Fink -- pictured below -- discovered Tiger inside a Federal building, about 500 yards from the White House. Coolidge was overjoyed by Tiger's return and immediately had a collar made for him with his name and address on it.

(Question: Author A. A. Milne introduced the fictional characters Winnie the Pooh in 1926. One of Winnie friends is an energetic, orange cat with black stripes, named Tigger. Coincidence, or not?)

CAPT Benjamin Fink and Tiger; 1924

I did discover this interesting obituary of “Socks”, the Clintons’ cat who just passed away on Feb 20 of this year:http://www.obit-mag.com/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5205. Socks was probably the most high-profile cat who had been in the White House in many years. She spent much of her time on the desk of Betty Currie, President Clinton’s secretary. This desk is located just outside the Oval Office, so I like to imagine that Socks would occasionally wander into the most powerful office in the world to check things out. (Note: there was tension in the Clinton household when the President got a new dog, Buddy. Socks found Buddy's intrusion intolerable; according to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Socks "despised Buddy from first sight, instantly and forever" and Bill Clinton said that "I did better with the Palestinians and the Israelis... than I've done with Socks and Buddy". When the Clintons left the White House in 2001 they took Buddy to their new home, but left Socks under the care of Bill Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie.)

The Bush White House also enjoyed the company of India, a black American shorthair who lived to be 18 years old. While President Bush’s dog enjoyed far more publicity, India had lived in The White House for 8 years, but primarily stayed in the residential East Wing. According to former First Lady Laura Bush, India (or “Willie”, as they called him) liked to sleep on the books in the sunny part of the Presidential library. He enjoyed a quiet life, far from the cameras and attention that Socks enjoyed. (You can draw your own conclusions about the comparative differences between the Clintons and the Bush family.)

First Lady Laura Bush and India in a March 2008 story in Architectural Digest

India "Willie" and Miss Beasley getting to know each other.

Ok…I’ll admit that I didn’t find any great stories of cats roaming the halls of The White House and rubbing up against the legs of foreign diplomats or jumping up on the table during important Cabinet meetings. Still, I like the mental image of the President of the United States, working late in the Oval Office, wrestling with the complex issues of this county, with a cat sitting on the window sill looking out over the Rose Garden, waiting to be stroked and petted during those quiet moments of contemplation and decision making . .


Denise said...

ahh, now moses is happy.

"him" and "her" good names for kids too. until the third comes along, hmmm, "it."

"josie, how would you like it if your name was "it"?"

she saysm "noooooo."

Deborah said...

I can't tell you how much I LOVE the presidential pets post!!