President Bill Clinton's cat Socks "answering questions" from reporters in the White House Briefing Room - March 19, 1994.

President Bill Clinton's cat Socks "answering questions" from reporters in the White House Briefing Room - March 19, 1994.

Having pets in the White House is a time-honored tradition, but this tradition has been broken by the current president. In fact, President Trump was the first president in more than a century not to have a pet of any kind wandering the halls of the People’s House.

Prior to Trump, the last President to break this tradition was President Chester Arthur who served one term from 1881-1885. Prior to that it was President James Polk who served one term from 1845-1849. President Trump will also be serving just one term, which leads to this question: can a pet-less President win a second term?

If there’s any validity to this pet-less President one term theory we’ve conjured up, President-Elect Joe Biden is taking no chances. Mr. Biden will be bringing his two German Shepherds, Champ and Major, to the White House (and possibly a cat). While Joe Biden is bringing back the tradition of having pets in the White House, he may be starting a new tradition by bringing the first rescue dog to the Executive Mansion.

So let’s talk about presidential pets with Andrew Hager, the Historian-In-Residence at The Presidential Pet Museum and Lisa LaFontaine, the President and CEO at the D.C. Humane Rescue Alliance.

Produced by Kurt Gardinier


  • Andrew Hager Historian-In-Residence, The Presidential Pet Museum; @PotusPet
  • Lisa LaFontaine President and Chief Executive Officer, Humane Rescue Alliance; @HumaneRescue


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll be speaking with best-selling children's Author Gregory Mone on this week's Kojo For Kids. But first, having pets in the White House is a time honored tradition, but there hasn't been one since President Obama and his Portuguese Water Dogs Bo and Sunny left the White House in January of 2017. But that all changes next month when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in and moves into the People's House with his German Shepherds Champ and Major, Major becoming the first rescue dog to live in the White House, and there's even talk about getting a cat too. Joining us now is Andrew Hager, Historian-in-Residence at The Presidential Pet Museum. Andrew Hager, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:49

    ANDREW HAGERThank you for having me. I'm so glad to be here.

  • 12:00:52

    NNAMDIFull confession, I never knew there was a Presidential Pet Museum. So please tell us all about it.

  • 12:00:58

    HAGERWell, you're not alone. When I first heard about this job opportunity, I didn't know about it either. So The Presidential Pet Museum actually was started by a woman named Claire McLean about 30 years ago. She had been one of Reagan's dog groomers. She had groomed his Bouvier Lucky and she started keeping some of the dog hair to use in mixed media artwork that she and her mother were making. And over time the grooming and the art led to a deeper fascination with presidential pets and she started this museum out of her home, and eventually that became unwieldy when tour buses started showing up.

  • 12:01:35

    HAGERSo the museum has had a variety of locations and Ms. McLean has retired. A new director, Bill Helman has taken over about four years. And right now we're an online museum, but we're hoping after the pandemic to find a permanent home and, you know, just really get the message out there about the history of America as told through the history of presidential pets.

  • 12:01:58

    NNAMDIAndrew, President Trump and his family did not bring a pet to the White House when they moved in. How rare is it for a president not to have any pets while in office?

  • 12:02:08

    HAGERIt's extremely rare. You have to go back to the 19th century. You could maybe say Chester Alan Arthur or James K. Polk, but even those guys had horses. The difference being of course that in those days a lot of the animals that were at the White House were working animals like horses or cows that would be in on the property so that the president could have milk. And then once the 20th century rolls around and we start having a more modern view of the human animal relationship, we start to see more the typical domestic animals, cats and dogs, at least over the last 60 years or so.

  • 12:02:46

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Lisa LaFontaine, President and CEO of the D.C. Humane Rescue Alliance. Lisa LaFontaine, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:02:55

    LISA LAFONTAINEThank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:02:57

    NNAMDILisa, as mentioned at the top, Biden's dog, Major, will become the first dog adopted from a shelter to live at the White House. How big a deal is that?

  • 12:03:07

    LAFONTAINEIt's a huge deal for two reasons. One is that people who have adopted an animal will see their family represented in the White House. And people who are thinking about getting a pet may consider rescuing or adopting rather than going to a pet store or a breeder. So I think that president and Mrs. Biden have really started a conversation that maybe they had no idea they were going to start. And I think one of the outcomes is going to be a lot of shelter animal lives saved, because people do make that choice.

  • 12:03:42

    NNAMDITalk about how the Bidens rescued Major.

  • 12:03:47

    LAFONTAINEWell, the Bidens actually started by fostering Major and that's something that many of your listeners can probably relate to because we have thousands of foster families in the D.C. region for our shelter. And so the Delaware Humane Association, who we work with all the time had a young German Shepard puppy come in and they reached out to the Bidens. They fostered Major as a puppy and fell in love with him and decided to keep him and President-elect Biden himself went to the shelter to fill out the adoption paperwork.

  • 12:04:22

    NNAMDIChris in Woodbridge, Virginia called but couldn't stay on the line. He says, "Dogs are fine. Cats are great anxiety animals as long as there's no deer on the White House lawn. We have a deer problem here. They eat the food meant for smaller animals." No, I don't think there are going to be any deer on the White House lawn any time soon, Chris. At least, I haven't heard so from President-elect Biden. Liz tweets, "I think Joe Biden should get a hamster. Do you agree?" Andrew Hager, has anyone had a hamster before?

  • 12:04:52

    HAGERI believe the Kennedy children had a hamster or a gerbil, but it's pretty rare. I mean, it's mostly been cats and dogs and the occasional bird or pony in the last century.

  • 12:05:06

    NNAMDIWell, Andrew, Biden's dog, Major, will become the first rescue dog to call the White House home, but have some other rescued animals lived at the White House?

  • 12:05:17

    HAGERYes. Lyndon Johnson had a dog named Yuki who had been found as a stray at a gas station in Texas and had been given to LBJ by his daughter. And you also -- I would also consider Rebeca the Raccoon, who belonged to Calvin Coolidge as a rescue. She was actually intended to be the Coolidge's Thanksgiving dinner. He had been sent a raccoon by a supporter in Mississippi. And when he opened the package and saw this raccoon, he decided, you know, "I love animals. I can't kill this animal. We're going to keep her as a pet." And they even got her a collar and took her to the White House Easter egg roll. So a very successful rescue in that sense.

  • 12:05:55

    NNAMDISo he chose not to have a raccoon dinner. Did he also have to pardon the raccoon in question?

  • 12:06:04

    HAGERI don't know that he made it formal, but I think -- I think just not eating her was pardon enough for the raccoon.

  • 12:06:12

    NNAMDIHere now is Diana in Falls Church, Virginia. Diana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:06:19

    DIANAOh, thank you, Kojo, for taking my call and I love animals. And my grandparents were ranchers so I grew up with all sorts of animals, cows, horses, pigs, goats. And, of course, I always had my dogs and cats. So I think it's awesome that we're going to have that in the White House especially a rescued animal. And hopefully they're going to get a cat. I have two shiatzus myself and I called the other day in the other show. I think it's very important. I believe that whoever loves animals -- animals make us much more human, because they give us unconditional love. And I think it's just so awesome. It's a great message for the country. I love that.

  • 12:07:15

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Diana. I'm glad you mentioned a cat, because the Bidens are considering getting a cat. Lisa LaFontaine, last month we did a segment about the increase in pet adoptions during the pandemic. Has the Humane Rescue Alliance seen an increase in adoptions since this all began?

  • 12:07:32

    LAFONTAINEWe have seen our adoptions stay steady. And what we have really seen an explosion of is people fostering animals for us in their homes. When the pandemic was heading our way our first instinct was to empty our shelters here in D.C., because we were concerned that people who got the virus would get sick might have to give their pet up and we wanted to have space to care for those animals when their people were recovering. But what ended up happening is that while many people did come to adopt literally thousands came to foster. We had 1800 D.C. residents reach out to us wanting to take a shelter animal into their home and raise them there and help us find homes for them. And so we had to quickly pivot and create a whole virtual Zoom based adoption process to place all of those animals from the homes of community members.

  • 12:08:32

    LAFONTAINEAnd, you know, those animals that we thought would come in because of COVID, they never came. Throughout this whole pandemic we've only seen 17 animals come to us, because an owner was sick. And all of those all but one were reclaimed when their owner got better. So that's been the amazing thing.

  • 12:08:51

    NNAMDIWell, also amazing is how this foster community has sprung up out of all of this. It's my understanding that there are social media groups so the foster parents can stay connected and help one another. Is that correct?

  • 12:09:03

    LAFONTAINEThat's absolutely true. There's multiple ways that they're supporting each other. They have created lists, Facebook groups, Instagram pages. We have senior level foster providers mentoring new people. And I think that everybody is so starved for community right now. We're so isolated from our normal circles of friends, and so all of these people have met new friends who've become really close friends. It's been a joyful thing in some really dark days for people to meet like-minded folks and help find animals and help talk about the Humane Rescue Alliance and really share joy.

  • 12:09:44

    NNAMDIHere now is Alex in Salisbury, Maryland. Alex, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:09:49

    ALEXHey, Kojo. I love your show. It's wonderful to relax listening to it during my lunch break. I just wanted to say like forget about pedigree. It's nice that we're going to have a rescue animal in the White House. Rescue is the best breed, and I also feel like it's a sign that humanity is being restored in the White House. That's all I really wanted to say.

  • 12:10:13

    NNAMDIWell, thank you very much for your call. Max tweets that, "America needs a pet bird in the White House. No more dogs." Andrew Hager, has there been a pet bird in the White House before?

  • 12:10:24

    HAGERThere have been pet birds going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson had a mockingbird, who was a trained bird and could do opera. He was really fond of mockingbirds and he used to give them as pets. So, you know, we've got a long history of that. There's also famously Andrew Jackson had a parrot that learned to swear presumably from Jackson himself. And somebody took the parrot to Jackson's funeral. Parrot had to be removed, because it started cursing in the middle of the funeral, which is never a good look.

  • 12:10:58

    NNAMDI"Who brought me to this so and so funeral?" What are some of the more well-known presidential pets over the past 100 years?

  • 12:11:08

    HAGERYou know, you've got Macaroni the Pony that belonged to Caroline Kennedy. You have Barney Bush was extremely famous early internet influencer, because the Bush administration used him for their holiday videos every year. And then that was like an early sensation before YouTube. And I think you also, yeah, you have to look at Bo and Sunny, because they were such media darlings during their time in the White House. And, you know, the Obamas did a good job of kind of using that as a way to keep the news cycle favorable. So we've had a lot of celebrity pets.

  • 12:11:47

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break, but when we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation All The Presidents' Pets. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:14

    NNAMDIWelcome back to this conversation about White House and presidential pets. We're talking with Lisa LaFontaine, President and CEO of the D.C. Humane Rescue Alliance. And Andrew Hager the Historian-in-Residence at The Presidential Pet Museum. Andrew Hager, many of us recall the photos of the Kennedy ponies. And I hear someone in the District was not a fan of them being naked on the White House lawn. Please tell us about that.

  • 12:12:43

    HAGERYes. At one point there was a resident of D.C., who complained about the Kennedys having a naked horse on their lawn. And I really don't know -- I guess, this person had not been brought up on a farm or had never seen a male horse before. I don't know what they expected President Kennedy to do like if there was supposed to be pants. You know, but the Kennedys solved the problem in a way by -- they had a home in Northern Virginia where they kept most of their horses. And I think they just removed the horses for good to the Northern Virginia home where Mrs. Kennedy could ride them freely with no one worrying about the horses' clothing.

  • 12:13:22

    NNAMDISomewhere where they could be naked in peace. Here is Glenda in Alexandria. Glenda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:13:32

    GLENDAOh, thank you for taking my call, Kojo. I love listening to your show. My comment or suggestion is if the President-elect and the First Lady want to get a cat to get two kittens, because then they have a pal to play around with and less destructive on everything else with one cat. We just recently rescued two kittens from the Alexandria rescue place. And they are just a delight. But like kittens they're very playful and get into mischief and what have you, but they're a lot of fun.

  • 12:14:04

    NNAMDILisa LaFontaine, what do you say?

  • 12:14:06

    LAFONTAINEWell, we could help with that. Yes, we would be delighted to help with that, because we have right now three adorable little three week old kittens who are currently in foster care. And they have been named after the Delaware beaches. So it's Little Rehoboth, Bethanie and Louis. And we think that they would be perfect for the Bidens. And actually Glenda is right. Two cats are better than one.

  • 12:14:28

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for you call, Glenda. Here is Shelly in Ocean City, Maryland. Shelly, it's your turn.

  • 12:14:36

    SHELLYHi, thank you. So not long ago, my husband and I were looking up the animals that have lived in the White House and the names. And one of my favorites was Emily Spinach. She was a snake in the Teddy Roosevelt's White House. Mr. Hager, might know more about it, but I know that there are a lot of animals that Teddy Roosevelt had.

  • 12:14:58

    NNAMDIWhat led you and your husband to start looking this up?

  • 12:15:01

    SHELLYWell, we were just talking about how -- we were talking about this, because there were finally going to be animals in the White House again. We rescue. We have French Bulldogs and English Bulldogs and they've all been rescued. And we're just huge animal lovers. And so we just decided to Google it and it was one of the best things to look up, because the names are amazing. I mean, Macaroni, but Emily Spinach was by far my favorite.

  • 12:15:25

    NNAMDIWell, Andrew Hager. Tell us about some of the more exotic pets that presidents have had over the years. I hear that John Quincy Adams had a pet grizzle bear.

  • 12:15:34

    HAGERWell, actually, Thomas Jefferson had a grizzly bear that was brought to the White House at the time of the Lewis and Clarke expedition, because no one on the East Coast had seen grizzlies before. And Jefferson being very scientific wanted to get a look at one. But, obviously, you can't keep a grizzly bear at the White House for very long and it was eventually moved to a zoo. John Quincy Adams had silkworms that his wife supposedly used -- she used their silk for some, I don't know, sewing or something.

  • 12:16:04

    HAGERBut I'm glad that your caller brought up Emily Spinach and Teddy Roosevelt, because the Roosevelts had around 40 animals including several snakes like Emily Spinach, a badger named Josiah and a one-legged rooster. But your caller also mentioned great names and I have to tell you, my favorite name belonged to a dog of John Adams. We don't know very much about the dog. He was mix breed dog, but his name was Satan. And I can only imagine what the controversy would be like if Joe Biden adopted a dog and named it Satan. You know, like the war on Christmas would be, you know, elevated that year. I don't know.

  • 12:16:42

    NNAMDIShelly, thank you very much for your call. Will of Adelphi emailed us, "The Bidens would be wise to get a cat since leading the Democratic Party is very much like herding cats. The Republican Party operates more like a dog pack with alpha males fighting it out for dominance and then the rest of the pack falling into line." Fascinating comparison, Will in Adelphi, Maryland. Here now is Jeffrey on Maryland's Lower Eastern Shore. Jeffrey, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:17:13

    JEFFREYI just wanted to say that Albert Switzer had once said and I'm paraphrasing, not a direct quote, but if you can't care for God's small creatures, he probably won't be able to forgive you for the way you treat the big ones. Now we have a cat rescue and currently we do have about 70 cats that are needing homes. We do not usually foster kittens, however, a pair of kittens did come to us. And they were given to me. I get all the broken animals, the ones with diabetes and busted up faces. And I've named them Ozzy and Harriet. And I agree with your previous caller that said, two kitties are better than one because they have someone that they can tussle with. And Ozzy and Harriet are exactly that pair.

  • 12:18:02

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. And here now is Joel in Arlington, Virginia. Joel, your turn.

  • 12:18:12

    JOELThanks, Kojo. Good afternoon, everyone.

  • 12:18:14

    NNAMDIGood afternoon.

  • 12:18:15

    JOELI was just reflecting on the president has a lot of opportunities to surround himself or hopefully someday herself with the trappings of military and political power, rows flags, service members in uniform. But having a pet brings out our tenderness and the gentle parts of our nature. And it's going to be really nice to see those qualities on display from a position of leadership and power again.

  • 12:18:39

    NNAMDISo you're pushing for cats, huh?

  • 12:18:43

    JOELMy rescue dog would disagree.

  • 12:18:48

    NNAMDIWell, hopefully your rescue dog is not listening at this point. Andrew Hager, one of my producers researched the presidents who did not have pets at the White House and discovered that none of them nary a one went on to serve a second term. We have coined this the pet less president one term theory. Is this theory correct? Is this hypothesis correct? Can it be a theory?

  • 12:19:13

    HAGERWell, we don't have a lot of data points yet. But if you're talking about the three presidents who didn't have pets and they were all single term, you know, you're starting to see a pattern. So hopefully we don't get more pet less presidents to fill the theory out, but we'll have to keep track of that moving forward.

  • 12:19:36

    NNAMDIWell, I guess this bodes well for President-elect Biden. I hear he and his wife are thinking as we said earlier about getting a cat, which I assume -- would that increase their chances of winning a second term, Andrew?

  • 12:19:48

    HAGERWell, if you can bring dog people and cat people together, you know, Biden has been talking about uniting the country and being a president for all. So maybe that's a way to do it.

  • 12:19:59

    NNAMDIOkay. Now here is Heidi in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Heidi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:20:05

    HEIDIHi, good morning everybody. So I just wanted to kind of direct this to Lisa LaFontaine. I got a little kitty from your rescue group and her name was Big Bertha. And she was abandoned and, you know, I don't know like an apartment or something. And she is just a dream and she's just been such a lovely addition to our family. So I love the names of the cats -- of the kittens that you guys are fostering and I think the Bidens should get all three of them since they're from Delaware.

  • 12:20:43

    LAFONTAINEI think you're right. Well, thank you.

  • 12:20:47

    NNAMDIA little kitty appropriately named Big Bertha. Lisa, it is my understanding that you have some puppies with you. Do they have names yet?

  • 12:20:55

    LAFONTAINEI have three puppies that I'm actually fostering right now. And they have a North mythology theme going on. It's Oden, Thor and Freia.

  • 12:21:06

    NNAMDIIt's my understanding that they join you for this broadcast, right?

  • 12:21:11

    LAFONTAINEThey're downstairs sleeping. I was worried -- this is learn to play week and they're pretty noisy. So I didn't want them to disrupt me.

  • 12:21:19

    NNAMDIIn the last 40 seconds, Andrew, how does someone become the Historian-in-Residence at The Presidential Pet Museum?

  • 12:21:27

    HAGERSheer dumb luck. You know somebody who knows the new director and is looking for someone who has some free time. So that's how I ended up here.

  • 12:21:40

    NNAMDIAndrew Hager is the Historian-in-Residence at The Presidential Pet Museum. Andrew Hager, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:21:45

    HAGERThank you for having me.

  • 12:21:47

    NNAMDILisa LaFontaine is President and CEO of the D.C. Humane Rescue Alliance. Lisa, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:21:52

    LAFONTAINEThank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:21:54

    NNAMDIWhen we come back, we'll be speaking with best-selling children's Author Gregory Mone in this week's Kojo For Kids. Remember adults can listen, but only kids can call. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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