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Animal Tales: White House pets

By ALEX CUKAN, United Press International   |   Dec. 13, 2002 at 12:11 PM   |   Comments

Companion animals always have been popular with U.S. presidents and through the years, about 400 pets have called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home.

This year, Laura Bush chose "All Creatures Great and Small" as the White House holiday theme to celebrate the joy and comfort pets have brought presidents and their families.

"The animals and indeed the fruit displayed (in garlands) symbolizes the majesty of creation and how fortunate we are to get the company of animals and the beautiful Earth we get to live on," the first lady told reporters on a video tour of the holiday decorations. "You'll see on the mantels, papier mache models of animals that have lived or worked in the White House."

There are 25 papier mache first family pets on display throughout the White House, including Nelson, George Washington's favorite horse and current White House pets Barney, Spot and India.

Barney is the Bush's Scottish terrier and was a birthday present from the president to the first lady. Spot is a Springer Spaniel and the daughter of Millie, who also lived in the White House with first lady Barbara Bush. India is a black cat. Ofelia, a longhorn, stays at the Bushes' ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Because the White House has been closed to the public following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the White House Web site -- whitehouse.gov -- is showing pictures and video of the holiday decorations. The site features the "barneycam," video taken from a camera attached to Barney's collar. Viewers of the Web site can watch Barney as he wanders through the rooms of the White House, eyes the Christmas tree ornaments, plays with Spot and romps on the White House lawn.

According to the Gary Walters, the White House chief usher, the main Christmas tree, which is in the Blue Room, is precisely 18-feet, 6-inches high. That is because the tree is secured at the ceiling for both electricity and stability and "because we don't want the pets to pull the tree down," he said.

"Theodore Roosevelt had a menagerie of many animals when living here with his seven children, but every president has lived here with pets or before," the first lady said. "But it was (George) Washington, who did not live in the White House, that started the tradition, with his horse, his (36 American) hounds and Martha had a favorite bird (parrot)."

Mrs. Bush pointed out figures of three sheep to represent the sheep brought to the White House by Woodrow Wilson during World War I. They kept the lawn of the White House neat and trim while the gardeners were serving in the military.

Also gracing a White House mantelpiece is a papier mache pony, Algonquin, which belonged to Theodore Roosevelt's son Quentin.

When his brother Archie was sick, to cheer him up, White House legend has it that Quentin took the calico pony up the White House elevator to his room.

"Almost all presidents had pets, many were given to them and the more exotic ones like the pygmy hippo, the bear, the antelope, the wallaby and some lion cubs given to Calvin Coolidge were kept at the White House for a while and then given to zoos," dog breeder Claire McLean told UPI's Animal Tales. He is creator of the Presidential Pet Museum.

"Grace Coolidge loved animals and ... had pet raccoons, Rebecca and Rueben. Since raccoons are nocturnal, they stayed in a shed during the day, but the president was known to take the raccoons for a walk on a leash."

McLean, a breeder of Bouvier des Flandres dogs, was invited to the White House in 1985 to groom the Reagans' dog Lucky. She scooped the clippings from the Lucky's haircut and smuggled them past the Secret Service. Later her mother made a picture of Lucky using the clippings and the museum grew around that picture. Lucky was a gift to the Reagans and as purebred Bouvier des Flandres was a very intelligent, strong, energetic herding dog.

"Viewers of the nightly television news in the 1980s got to know Lucky lunging Nancy Reagan to the White House helicopter," McLean said. "Lucky went to obedience training school but she was never well leash-trained -- it's often difficult to do with herding dogs -- and even more difficult to do for a presidential dog because people are not prone to correct the president's dog. They are loyal companions but they need a lot of attention and they are not for everyone. Lucky went to live at the Rancho Del Ciel, the Reagan's California ranch.

"Going to the White House, I became interested in other presidential pets and I started collecting memorabilia, books and anything to do with the presidential animals," McLean said. "Eventually, I wrote to all the presidential museums from the last 50 years and each has given me items to include in the collection."

The pet museum is not government affiliated and receives no government funding, but is a labor of love by McLean and her volunteers. It is housed in a building McLean has on her three-acre residence in Lothian, Md., 19 miles from the White House. The museum's Web site, presidentialpetmuseum.com, recently had its one-millionth visitor and offers stories, pictures and books on presidential pets.

"But while almost all presidents genuinely enjoyed animals they also saw them as good photo opportunities and we often see them when their popularity is suffering," McLean said. "We saw a lot of Buddy, the chocolate Labrador retriever, during Clinton's scandal."

However, pets have also hurt the public image of some presidents. According to McLean, Harry Truman was criticized for not keeping a puppy.

"The Clintons were criticized when still in Arkansas because while living in the governor's mansion their dog got loose and was run over," McLean said. "President Lyndon Johnson was called "cruel to animals" for pulling his beagle's ears."

Johnson was conducting a news conference when he suddenly grabbed his pet beagle, Him, and lifted the dog by his ears. The dog "yelped" in front of reporters, television cameramen and photographers and the incident got a lot of media attention. The president tried dodging the issue and then attempted to make it better by pointing out that the dog had not been airborne but had been standing on his hind legs and that a yelp was a sign of joy not pain. Few bought this explanation and Johnson had to apologize.

In the White House, which is designed to serve every presidential whim, presidential pets have a way of being the only ones to say "no" to the president, at least on camera.

That became clear again, during a Barbara Walters interview of the Bushes for ABC's "20/20" program. Barney came bounding into the room as the Bushes were showing Walters the White House holiday decorations and the first dog refused to come when called by the president.

Bush laughed it off and said, "He'll come around when he wants something."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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