First lady Jill Biden with Champ and Major

Presidential pets: From Joe Biden’s dogs in disgrace for biting to Larry the Downing Street cat

Champ and Major may have been sent back to Delaware but animals can by ideal stress-relieving companions for world leaders dealing with the pressures of high office

Joe Sommerlad@JoeSommerlad
Tuesday 09 March 2021 20:50
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It’s been a busy week for animals in the media spotlight, with Prince Harry taking time out from his explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey to feed the chickens and US president Joe Biden forced to banish his two German shepherds Champ and Major home to Delaware following a “biting incident” at the White House.

For six weeks at least, Mr Biden’s dogs have brought a fresh lease of life to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, tearing around its lawns in pursuit of squirrels after four joyless, pet-free years under Donald Trump, a man who does not like animals – a red flag if ever there was one.

But, Mr Trump aside, the White House actually has a rich history as a home to beasts of all kinds, as do many other presidential residences around the world, whose occupants have often taken refuge from the stresses of high office by spending time with a beloved pet.

“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” Harry Truman famously said through a world-weary grin, and the advice still stands.

Prior to Champ and Major’s brief residency – during which time they have already been unfairly smeared as “dirty” by one right-wing Newsmax commentatorBarack Obama was the last president to keep canines at the White House.

He owned two Portuguese water dogs, Bo and Sunny, the former a gift from his mentor, the late Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy.

Bill Clinton’s cat, Socks, was known to walk around the South Lawn on a leash, Barbara Bush’s English springer spaniel Millie once published a book (!) while a number of Republican presidents have patrolled the grounds in the company of dogs with typically macho names, from Ronald Reagan’s King Charles spaniel Rex to Gerald Ford’s golden retriever Liberty.

The laziest American president at naming his pets was surely Lyndon Baines Johnson, who just christened his beagle puppies Him and Her.

Much more inventive on this score was Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter, who named her pet pony Macaroni.

John F Kennedy and his children, John and Caroline, play with Macaroni the pony in 1962

Among the most interesting presidential pets including Dwight D Eisenhower’s parakeet Gabby, Woodrow Wilson’s flock of sheep, William Howard Taft’s dairy cow Pauline Wayne and Calvin Coolidge’s menagerie, which, according to Town and Country, saw him “turn the White House into something of a zoo” and included “dogs and birds, cats and raccoons, a hippo, a bear, and lion cubs”.

Teddy Roosevelt reportedly also owned “a small bear, a pig, a barn owl, a rooster and hen, a hyena, a lizard, snakes, guinea pigs, a pony, and multiple dogs and horses”.

Back in Britain, Larry the cat, resident at 10 Downing Street since the heady pre-Brexit David Cameron days of 2011, is the current chief mouser to the Cabinet Office, a post with roots all the way back to Henry VIII and the Tudor epoch.

In between, Westminster cats with notably more inventive names have included Ramsay MacDonald’s Rufus of England (AKA “Treasury Bill”), Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Mouser and the stolidly heroic Nelson and Wilberforce, who served under Winston Churchill and from Ted Heath to Margaret Thatcher respectively.

Overseas, two dogs that have made notable political contributions of late include French president Emmanuel Macron’s black Labrador-griffon Nemo and Brazilian firebrand Jair Bolsonaro’s loyal hound Nestor.

The former appeared in a video appeal over Christmas to urge families to think carefully before adopting a new pet while the latter helped his disciplinarian master sign a bill into law in October introducing stiffer penalties against those who abuse animals.

Russia’s authoritarian president Vladimir Putin, naturally, is an animal lover and has four shepherd dogs at present, all of which were gifted to him by subservient foreign leaders.

Pasha, the newest addition to the pack, was given to him by Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia in 2019, while Verni came from Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, Turkmenistan’s leader, in 2017 while Yume was a present from Japan as a thank you for Russia’s help following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, his name translating as “Dream”.

The last, Buffy, was named by a five-year-old competition winner in 2010.

The quartet were preceded by Konni, who passed away in 2014, gave Mr Putin “good advice” and who frightened Angela Merkel when the duo met in Sochi in 2007, the German chancellor having been scared of dogs since being bitten by one in 1995, a fact she believes Mr Putin knew at the time.

Angela Merkel looking uncomfortable throughout her meeting with Putin as his large black labrador wandered around the meeting room

“I understand why he has to do this – to prove he’s a man,” she told reporters after Konni had roamed around their meeting room, making her nervous.

Also offering a political explanation for the Russian premier’s love of dogs was Jan Kubik of Rutgers University, who speculated to The Washington Post that Mr Putin intends to project the message, “I love animals. So, I am not such a heartless dictator, as the Westerners tend to think”, while also implying: “I have a heart, but my love is tough, manly”.

It should not go unsaid, however, that the Kremlin leader’s love of animals doesn’t appear to extend to strays, and he ordered the execution of the entire stray dog population of Sochi ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The winner though when it comes to presidential dogs is surely Boston terrier Lennu, owned by Finland’s president Sauli Niinisto, or Irish president Michael D Higgins’s Bernese mountain dogs Brod and Misneach.

Very good boys indeed.

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