The Presidential Pet Museum

The Presidential Pet Museum

Lucky — Inspiration for a Museum

Animals in the White House

Did you ever think about the animals that have lived in the White House?  Ever wonder about the eclectic mix of alligators, tigers, bears, cows, badgers, and even mice that were the Presidents’ gifts or “pets”?  Which President had the most dogs?  Which one had a parrot?  Did you know that one President actually left food for the mice?

There have been over 400 animals in the White House since 1901!  115 years!  Yes, and over that time, even wild animals have lived in or on the grounds of the White House. 

Through the years, we’ve heard about the “First Dog” or the “First Cat” (the canine or feline belonging to the current President of the United States), but can you even guess where to find that information?  Ever wonder who kept it?  Where does one go to find out about the Presidents’ animals? 

The Presidential Pet Museum 

The Presidential Pet Museum, that’s where! 

For almost 20 years, there was a “brick and mortar” place you could go to get answers to these questions, and actually see some presidential pet memorabilia! 

In 1985, Claire McLean, was an expert in and a breeder of Bouvier des Flandres, a herding dog breed that originated in Flanders, Belgium. 

A Bouvier des Flandres -- like Lucky, the dog that inspired the Presidential Pet Museum.
A Bouvier des Flandres.

Seemingly “out of the blue,” to her great surprise, Ms. McLean was called to service in the White House as the groomer for Lucky, the Bouvier des Flandres puppy given to President and Mrs. Reagan in 1984.  They needed a groomer to prepare Lucky for her Official Portrait. 

After the grooming session, McLean found out she had cut too much hair off the pooch, and she heard Mrs. Reagan wasn’t too pleased. 

Fortunately, the Reagans asked her to come back, and, for the next eight months, Ms. McLean was Lucky’s official groomer.  

Save the Pieces

During this period (for some reason) Ms. McLean kept all of the trimmings of Lucky’s hair.  One day, her mom, Dorothy De Silva, an artist, decided to paint a portrait of Lucky.  The result?  Ms. McLean said it wasn’t the greatest piece of art, but it was unique because they used Lucky’s trimmings in the portrait. 

Although her mom wanted to give the portrait to the Reagans, Ms. McLean decided to keep the work.  It was a piece of art, and if it wasn’t historical at the time, it would be one day. 

The idea of a Presidential Pet Museum was born.  After that, Ms. McLean and her mother began to collect pieces of presidential pet history.  Lucky Reagan had inspired a museum. 

If you want to see Lucky’s portrait, you can see a photo of it – their first artifact – at www.presidentialpetmuseum.com.  Even online, you can actually see wisps of her real fur. 

Here’s a “clip” from the Huffington Post: 

“Nancy Redd:  So, you find out that you did a bad haircut on President Reagan’s dog, Lucky.  How did you find out – did you get a letter?  Did the CIA, the Secret Service come to your house? 

“Claire McLean:  No [laughing], but my mother wanted to send the portrait that she made of Lucky using his hair to Nancy Reagan, and I wouldn’t let her.  I said, ‘No, I’m going to start a collection,’ and from there it grew and grew, until finally I opened the doors and I had the Presidential Pet Museum.  It was exciting.” 

Huffington Post, “The Pet Show,” April 13, 2015

1999 – The Start of the Presidential Pet Museum.

“I just started collecting.  Anything and everything I could find,” she says.  “There were all kinds of animals that came through the White House, and each one brought a story with it.”  (Claire McLean, from a 2016 article in Alta Obscura)  (https://www.altaobscura.com)  

The Museum was founded to preserve information, artifacts and items related to presidential pets, from George Washington to the present. 

Ms. McLean populated her Museum with purchases from Internet auctions, flea markets throughout the country – and sometimes she even borrowed them from other presidential museums. 

The eclectic collection includes newspaper clippings about the pets, fur tufts, official thank-you letters from White House staffers and First Ladies, and portraits of the pets, as well as a nose-ring from a cow that once grazed the lawn of the White House. 

In a 2004 article called “Famous White House Pets,” the Washington Times said the Presidential Pet Museum has been a labor of love for its creator, Claire McLean.  (Washington Times, “Famous White House Pets,” Feb. 21, 2004)

In 2007, McLean’s homage to Presidential animal history was physically located in the historic district of Annapolis, MD, where photographs of First Families and their pets were on display.  There, little-known facts were shared about the creatures that have called the White House home.  In fact, there were around 35 oil and acrylic paintings of U.S. Presidents and their favorite pets in that structure.  

Some Treasures 

After over 15 years of curating, among the Treasures are:  a large bronze statue of Barney Bush (George W.’s terrier); a photo of sheep grazing on the White House Lawn (gold-plated history from the Wilson administration); photos of the Coolidges playing with their pet raccoon and opossum; over 50 oil paintings of presidents’ pets and owners in various settings, including one of FDR and Fala, and a cow bell from Pauline Wayne (William Howard Taft’s cow) and so much more. 

Pauline Wayne, William Howard Taft's Cow. 1909, in front of the State, War and Navy Building, Washington, D.C.
Pauline Wayne, William Howard Taft’s Cow. 1909

She Hasn’t Given Up 

Even as recently as 2016, Ms. McLean was using her own apartment to host a rotating exhibit.  She lives in a District of Columbia retirement community.  She said, “I’ve basically made one of the rooms into the Presidential Pet Museum,” and her neighbors visit the exhibits and listen to Ms. McLean’s stories. 

Check It Out

The Presidential Pet Museum (www.presidentialpetmuseum.com) is a great source of information.  There are images, articles, news “clippings,” all providing everything related to pets of U.S. presidents.

A Near 20-Year Struggle 

By 2017 – nearly 20 years after the start of the Museum – despite the difficulty involved, Ms. McLean has fought to keep the Museum open and functioning, moving it from one location to another, all around the Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. areas.  

Ms. McLean passed the baton to Bill Helman in 2017, a man with a passion for history and animals, who fit Ms. McLean’s vision for the museum and its growth. 

Nowadays, the museum is open by appointment for media and other interested parties. 

All the Memorabilia Is in Storage 

Despite all her effort and enthusiasm, many of Ms. McLean’s beloved treasures are now deteriorating in storage.  Perhaps someone will one day be dedicated to giving it a second chance.

So, Who Was The First First Dog?

“That honor goes to Laddie Boy, an Airedale terrier who was the pet of President Warren G. Harding and his wife, Florence. 

Brown and black Airedale looking toward us.  Looks like pictures of Laddie Boy, the first First Dog, of Warren G. Harding.
Airedale

Though there were many presidential pets before him, Laddie Boy was the first to receive regular coverage from newspaper reporters.”  (https://www.smithsonianmag.com)

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Please have a glance at this month’s posts, as they are all about Presidential Pets (see https://wetnosecentral.com/canines-in-the-white-house/, https://wetnosecentral.com/other-white-house-critters/ and https://wetnosecentral.com/no-pets/.

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Resources:  www.atlasobscura.com, Animal Planet (www.animalplanet.com), The Presidential Pet Museum (www.presidentialpetmuseum.com), Huffington Post, “The Pet Show,” April 13, 2015, Haaretz, All The Presidents’ Pets, November 16, 2007  (https://www.haaretz.com/1.4956750), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/, Washington Times, “Famous White House Pets,” Feb. 21, 2004

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