Jan. 16, 1997

After Clinton inauguration, second-term 'Socks' may find ghosts in the White House, suggests Cornell veterinary educator Very first 'first pets' were birds, but cats now rule the roost and polling places, says veterinary dean Franklin Loew

Potential presidential candidates in the year 2000 may want to adopt a cat, suggests one educator who has made an informal study of America's "first pets."

"Cat owners will probably find better success at the polls than dog owners, just as President Clinton defeated George Bush and Senator Dole, both of whom are dog owners," said Franklin M. Loew, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University.

A cat- and dog-owner himself, Loew noted that the very first pets were neither and that the Clintons' Socks was not even the first "first cat."

"In the early days of the republic, presidents had birds," Loew said. "Martha Washington had a pet parrot. George, by the way, is said to have hated the parrot. Jefferson kept mockingbirds during his presidency. Dolly Madison owned a parrot that was rescued from the White House during the War of 1812, when the burning was taking place."

One presidential bird never made it to the White House, but had the last word anyway, the pet scholar recounts: "It is said that before he was inaugurated, Andrew Jackson bought his wife a parrot. The wife died, the parrot lived on and stayed in Tennessee, eventually outliving even the President. There is an apocryphal story that the bird was taken to Jackson's funeral, where it interrupted the ceremony with a string of profanity."

Dogs and cats contended for first-pet status in much of the 20th century, the dean said, mentioning George and Barbara Bush's dog Millie, "who allegedly wrote a book that was on the New York Times best-seller list for months, listed, oddly enough, under nonfiction." One first dog was even impeached and replaced, Loew said.

"Shortly after President Reagan was first elected, he and Mrs. Reagan had a little Bouvier des Flandres puppy, an adorable little thing which, however, grew up very fast," Loew recounted. "There is a famous Associated Press photo of President Reagan being dragged across the White House lawn by this large Bouvier in the presence of visiting head of state Margaret Thatcher. Needless to say, that Bouvier was not going to drag the leader of the free world across the White House lawn anymore and was sent to California where it lived happily. It was replaced in the White House by a little King Charles spaniel."

Loew's research determined that the first White House cat belonged to Abraham Lincoln. Rutherford B. Hayes had a Siamese cat, Loew noted, "and President McKinley had an Angora. See, there are three Republicans who owned cats. Democrat Woodrow Wilson had a cat and so did John Kennedy. There have been cats in and out of the White House, but dogs have usually been construed as the great American presidential animal."

Until five years ago, that is, when cats in the United States exceeded the number of dogs for the first time in history. There are now about 55 or 60 million cats in the United States compared with about 50 or 55 million dogs.

"The reason cats have now gone past dogs has to do with human lifestyles," Loew commented. "Many people now want to be able to decide on a Thursday or Friday to go away for the weekend and a cat is much easier to leave home for a couple of days. More people live in apartments or condominiums, and they don't want a dog that might bark in the middle of the night and disturb their neighbors.

"Also, more people are living to be older and, particularly in the areas where there is snow and ice, taking a dog out every day presents a risk of slipping and injuring the human companion," he continued. "Lifestyle is driving pet ownership."

The Cornell veterinary dean believes that cat-owners' lifestyles will predominate in the political agenda. "It will be interesting to see, as the 21st century goes on, whether this trend continues," Loew said. "Pet ownership in many ways reflects one's attitude toward one's own life and one's role in the environment and nature. I think, for the moment, cat people have the upper hand.

"Or should I say, the upper paw."