There has been a long history of pets in the White House, from Andrew Jackson’s profane parrot to the Clinton’s Socks the Cat. But there is hardly any that come close to the unlikely pet of our 30th President, Calvin Coolidge.
It was late November 1926, when a live animal that was sent by Vinnie Joyce of Nitta Yuma, Mississippi arrived at the White House to be slaughtered and served up for that year’s Thanksgiving Dinner. President Coolidge however, became attached to the critter and instead, granted it a pardon. The lucky animal was not a turkey though, but instead it was a raccoon.
While it may seem like a very strange menu choice for the White House’s Thanksgiving Dinner table, the Washington Evening Star thought the strange part of the story at the time was that the president refused to eat the creature. Raccoon meat is less fatty than possum, and the newspaper added in that the fat, fluffy woodland creature actually tasted like….chicken of course.
President Coolidge was not known to be the adventurous type, he was a very cautious man and since he had never tried Raccoon as a culinary treat, then he wasn’t about to start experimenting now, especially since the Raccoon was sent in by an outside source. When he was asked if the raccoon was edible, the president smiled and said it might be for some people, but not for him.
What the president decided to do next with his pardoned critter is probably the most bizarre part of the story. He ended up adopting the raccoon as a presidential pet, the good thing was at the time, there were far fewer cases of raccoons contracting rabies as there are today. The news was hardly surprising to the American public in 1926, however as the president and First Lady Grace Coolidge were known to be lovers of animals, people would often send them unsolicited pets on a regular basis.
Coolidge wrote in his biography that “We always had more dogs than we could take care of,” as he reflected on his years in the White House. While the dogs, cats and canaries that were sent to the president and the first lady may have been on the more conventional side, Coolidge was also known to receive a black-haired bear from Mexico, an African pygmy hippopotamus from rubber magnate Harvey Firestone, and even a pair of live lion cubs, which the fiscally conservative president gave less-than-adorable names “Tax Reduction” and “Budget Bureau.”
The raccoon was just another addition to what the press called the “Pennsylvania Avenue Zoo,” But the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the raccoon “Proved the most obstreperous of all the recent White House pets” as she ripped up clothing and clawed on the upholstery. The staff at the White House thought the raccoon was a “regular Houdini” since she had the ability to wriggle free from harnesses and break out of the makeshift cages that were provided to her as she gnawed away at the wooden bars, leading to wild chases around the president’s home
Things started to calm down after the Coolidges built a small wooden house for the raccoon on the White House’s South Lawn just outside the window of the president’s house. The pet received a great gift that Christmas, she was given the name Rebecca and a collar that was engraved with the words “Rebecca the Raccoon of the White House.”
President Coolidge was very fond of his new pet and Rebecca became the president’s companion as he would take her on daily walks and she would crawl up on his lap in front of the fireplace. After moving into the Dupont Circle mansion in March 1927 when the White House underwent renovation, the president missed Rebecca so much that he brought her back with him in the presidential limo to his temporary quarters.
The following morning, the president was seen with his wrist bandaged and news reports stated that Rebecca had been banished to the national zoo in Rock Creek Park. The press speculated that Rebecca may have bitten her owner, but Silent Cal stayed true to his moniker. Less than a week later, Rebecca had returned from the zoo and was in good standing with the White House.
Rebecca was the star of the annual Easter Egg Roll in 1927, but she was stressed out by all the children shrieking and photographs flashing. The Washington Evening Star reported that Rebecca “plainly evidenced her dislike for the whole doings.”
The following summer she joined the Coolidge’s five canaries and two white collies on the 1.800-mile railroad journey to South Dakota’s Black Hills for the president’s three-month vacation. Rebecca wanted to run while in the forest surroundings and gave the Secret Service a hard time as she broke out of her cage continuously.
By early 1928, Rebecca had a new companion, another raccoon named Reuben. But unfortunately, the pair didn’t get along very well. Rebecca would skip out of the White House grounds to roam the capital city looking for adventure, and garbage cans to rummage through. After many escapes, the Coolidges finally donated her to the national zoo. Today, it is now illegal to keep a raccoon as a pet in our nation’s capital.