My mind fogged over as the docent continued her non-stop description of the presidents and their pets. No pause for questions. No chance of absorbing all that was being said. It was a tidal wave of information washing over me.
I was attending the opening of an exhibit at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential House: Presidential Pets. I was intrigued. I wondered if it had any connections to the Presidential Pet Museum. (It didn’t. Or if it did, there was no mention of the connection.)
The group I found myself with was the first group to be led to the exhibit. A guy with a video camera, the kind that TV stations use on location, accompanied us. What had I gotten myself into? I looked around me at the crowd of clearly upper middle class retired folk. They had all special nametags on. One asked another if his contribution was on display. Clearly, I had gotten folded in with the donor group. I felt like an imposter among the older and more financially well off visitors.
I attempted to pay close attention to all that the docent was saying. After a while my mind shut off. I wondered if I would have the opportunity to actually look at the exhibit. Not an unrealistic wondering. I recalled being rushed through the exhibition space on the third floor when I first toured the house.
The non-stop lecture continued as I meandered through the exhibit. I have this inability to read when others around me are talking. So actually comprehending the exhibits I was looking at was a challenge. The information, like the information from the docent, was almost too much with too many people milling about. (Perhaps in hindsight, seeing it on opening night wasn’t a good idea.)
I did come away with a few interesting tidbits. Every presidential family had some pets, though it did seem like what was a “pet” was debatable. (Was a cow on the White House lawn really a pet or a source of milk? How about the goats that grazed on the lawn as “biological lawnmowers”? Or the mice in the White House that one president left flour for?)
Of course, Harrison’s goat Old Whiskers was center stage with blown up photo cutouts of the goat and the grandchildren on a sled that the goat pulled. To my surprise, I learned that Harrison also had two pet possums, Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection.
There were alligators in the White House. (Yes, really.) And a badger that eventually was given to the zoo. (It liked to bite people. Imagine that.) Birds galore, including a swearing parrot. (Gosh, guess which President owned that!) To my delight, someone had hamsters. (Or more accurately, the president’s offspring had hamsters.) And of course, there were oodles of dogs and cats.
Although this would likely irk my dad, the ever intrepid trapper and releaser of squirrels (releaser of them far, far away from home), President Harding had a pet squirrel. Named Pete. I wonder about that backstory—as well as the backstory about Harrison’s possums.
The Presidential Pet Museum contains a list of all pets owned by the presidents (which may be the same or not to the list at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential House).
Although his presidency is young, Trump has no pets. (He doesn’t really seem like an animal lover to me.) Only one other president didn’t own pets while in the White House: President Polk (1845-1849). And currently, discussion is swirling about exhuming and reburying President Polk for a third time. No rest for the petless it seems.