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A Wag of the Tail to the Presidential Pets

Museum Showcases Woman's Collection

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page C04

Among the exhibits at the Presidential Pet Museum are objects that stray a bit far from the theme: portraits of presidents without pets, paintings of pets without presidents and a few items with no obvious relation to either presidents or pets, such as the statue of Mr. Peanut.

But it's hard to understate the public fascination with presidents and their pets, a topic enshrined by Claire McLean at her tiny museum in Southern Maryland farm country.

Claire McLean runs the Presidential Pet Museum in Lothian. Tributes to pets of all parties, including a stuffed animal version of Socks, the Clintons' cat, are on display. (Photos Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

All but a few presidents have kept pets. Abraham Lincoln had a pair of goats, Nanny and Nanko. William McKinley had a Mexican parrot. Theodore Roosevelt kept guinea pigs, turtles, snakes, rabbits, pigs and a bear called Jonathan Edwards. The Kennedys had rabbits and ducks. Woodrow Wilson had a ram named Ike who chewed tobacco. And William Howard Taft kept a milk cow on the White House lawn.

McLean, a 71-year-old dog breeder, opened the museum beside her Lothian home six years ago to showcase the presidential pet memorabilia she and her mother had collected over the years. She typically receives 300 to 400 visitors a year, but calls and visits tend to spike around election time and as Inauguration Day approaches.

"They may not agree with the president, but they love the pets," said McLean, whose collection appears to favor no political party and no particular pet. "It's not controversial; it's not partisan. We don't have red pets and blue pets."

McLean also tries not to favor dogs over cats in her displays, although the presidents themselves seem partial to dogs, and purebred dogs in particular, over the past century. The earliest presidents tended toward birds and horses, although the latter provided transportation as much as companionship; in the Wilson administration during wartime, grazing animals reduced the need for human labor to cut the grass.

The presidents who are believed to have had no household pets -- they include Chester A. Arthur, Millard Fillmore and James K. Polk -- are deservedly forgotten at the pet museum.

As a young woman, McLean's mother, Dorothy, met Franklin D. Roosevelt and, smitten, tirelessly wrote letters to a succession of presidents and first ladies for years afterward. On the museum wall hang framed, signed letters to Dorothy from Richard M. Nixon, Gerald and Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush.

Claire McLean was invited in 1985 to groom Lucky, a bouvier des Flandres owned by the Reagans. McLean is an authority on the breed, having penned a book on bouviers and bred the dog employed in the 1999 film "A Dog of Flanders."

As she ran the shears across the dog, McLean noticed the pile of black hair collecting at her feet.

"I cut all of it and I looked at it, and there it was on the floor, so I swept it up and I put it in a brown paper bag, and I put it in my purse, and I took it home," she recalled.

Dorothy pasted the hair onto a sketch of Lucky. That sketch inspired Claire McLean, who had been planning an exhibit on the bouvier breed, to expand the concept into a collection devoted to presidential pets.

It is the only item at the museum that came from an actual presidential pet. McLean hopes to acquire another: a bag of hair that once belonged to Barney, a Scottish terrier in the Bush White House, promised to her by a groomer. It would form another hair-decorated sketch, like the one of Lucky.

Securing the hair of a presidential dog is "like getting a lock of a Beatle's hair or a button from Elvis," said McLean, who acknowledges that she, like her mother, has become smitten by her brush with the president -- or, at least, the presidential pooch.

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