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A Brief History of Cats in the White House

The Bidens' new cat Willow will be the first feline in the White House since the George W. Bush years, but is part of a long tradition.

Willow will be the first cat in the White House in more than a decade, since India the black cat’s tenure during the George W. Bush years, but will be part of a long tradition. Abraham Lincoln is considered to be the first President to have cats as family pets in the White House. In the modern era, the Fords and Carters had cats too. The Clintons’ cat Socks was a rescue, having come from Chelsea’s piano teacher, who found two stray kittens under her home.

(In 1998, the Associated Press captured footage of a tense encounter between Socks and the Clintons’ Labrador Buddy, during a time of heightened political polarization and culture wars. Press secretary Mike McCurry joked that Middle East special envoy Dennis Ross might need to be called in to keep the peace.)

And we may never know exactly how many cats have lived on White House grounds, as historically cats have served as working animals used for rodent control, points out historian Katherine C. Grier, author of Pets in America: A History.

But cats are just the tip of the iceberg.

During President Taft’s administration, cows named Paulie Wayne and Mooly Wooly provided milk and cream for the White House kitchen. And Teddy Roosevelt’s White House was practically a zoo, where first cats Tom Quartz and Slippers lived alongside a one-legged rooster, a lizard named Bill, a small bear named Jonathan Edwards, and five guinea pigs with names like Father O’Grady and Fighting Bob Evans. The Bidens’ rehoming of Major the German Shepherd in December—after a few biting incidents—echoed the exile of Teddy Roosevelt’s Boston bull terrier Pete, who repeatedly bit and ripped staffers’ and visitors’ pants, including those of the French Ambassador.

Presidential pets can help Americans relate to presidents and are “a way to see them as someone closer to you,” says Andrew Hager, who writes for the Presidential Pet Museum website (started by Claire McLean, who trained Reagan’s dog Lucky) and is writing a book on presidential dogs.

Time will tell how much influence the Bidens’ cat will have. Warren G. Harding’s dog Laddie Boy, by some measures the first celebrity presidential pet, attended cabinet meetings and was hounded by newspaper reporters who regularly covered his whereabouts. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt’s dog Fala was the face of a PSA encouraging Americans to donate their dog toys to scrap-rubber collections. Fala received letters, too—enough to fill five document boxes.