2009-10-07 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

by Joanne Anderson

Long Island’s own President- Theodore Roosevelt (1958-1919) - was a visionary conservationist. If you’ve been watching the Ken Burns National Parks series, then you know how instrumental Teddy Roosevelt was in preserving these majestic vistas for future generations. And if you’ve visited his Oyster Bay home, you’ve seen the many hunting trophies which to some seem like the antithesis of present day environmentalism.

However, a peek into J.B.Bishop’s1919 book - Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children - which includes correspondence to his four sons and two daughters spanning a dozen years gives an intimate glimpse at the devotion he had for his family and their many interesting pets. Whenever he was separated from his children either during the Spanish War, on a hunting trip, sailing to inspect the Panama Canal, or when they were away at school, he would write heartfelt messages filled with fun, travel logs and fatherly advice still pertinent to today’s youth. The President had a knack for lacing together report card critiques, football tips, White House news (even about easing tensions between the Japanese and Russians or confessions about trying to be as patient as Lincoln) with amusing anecdotes involving the household menagerie. Often he would bring exotic pets like Josiah, the badger, or Bill, the lizard, back (alive) from his wilderness trips. In 1905 he grabbed a small, talented dog named Skip after a Colorado wolf hunt because he loved the way the dog balanced himself on horseback (as shown in this photo from the Harvard collection). Skip became the best pal of his son Archie in Washington DC and on LI. When the children were too young to read, TR would send them hand drawn picture messages. Many times letters ended with homesick sentiment. As the Pres. wrote to his daughter Ethel in 1906: “fond as I am of the White House…there isn’t any place in the world like home-like Sagamore Hill, where things are our own, with their own associations and where it is real country.” I wonder what Dorothy and Toto would have had to say about this. 

Shown right, “Ragu” Shepherd mix Shown right, “Ragu” Shepherd mix Pets for Adoption Shown left, “Chase” Swiss Mt. Dog mix Pets for Adoption Shown left, “Chase” Swiss Mt. Dog mix Intermission: Actually I had an ulterior motive when I bought the old book; since I hoped one of the letters would connect Theodore Roosevelt to the Babylon Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) property. Max MacLevy was the “physical culturalist” leasing the former Westminster clubhouse as a health retreat when it burned down in 1918. According to Nov. 13, 1934 NY Times obituary for MacLevy, the late President was a client of MacLevy. So far I haven’t found any evidence that TR visited the former clubhouse by Southards Pond for calisthenics or wood chopping exercise. It is more likely that the Pres. attended boxing or swimming lessons at MacLevy’s Madison Square Garden gym. I haven’t descended on the folks at Sagamore Hill yet to explore further, but the TR tie-in is on my WKC “to do” list.

Now Back to TR’s Pet Tales: The President’s letters mention many yet not all of the Roosevelt pets, plus the Pres. adds close encounters with critters that never made it to Sagamore Hill, such as a kitten he saved from two Terriers in 1906 while walking from the White House to church. TR brandished his umbrella like a fencer’s foil, scooped up the kitty, learned from bystanders there was no owner, and promptly handed the cat to a nice dressmaker and her daughter without being late for the service. Meanwhile Tom Quartz seems to have been a feline favorite. This frisky cat liked pouncing on all beings at Sagamore Hill. Some were not game. In a 1903 letter to his son Kermit, TR jokes about Tom Quartz’s staircase ambush of “Speaker of the House, Mr. Cannon, an exceedingly solemn, elderly gentleman with chin whiskers, who certainly does not look to be of a playful nature.” When the cat mistook the Speaker for Kermit’s brothers, “Mr. Cannon eyed him with iron calm and not one particle of surprise.” A constant parade of creatures seemed to arrive and wander freely; each child had personal pets. The guinea pigs such as Bishop Doane and Father G. Grady were named after clergy. In 1900 Republican supporters sent TR a small black bear about whom he pens: “the children of their own accord christened Jonathan Edwards, partly out of compliment to their mother’s ancestor and partly because they thought they detected Calvinistic traits in the bear’s character.” The bear stayed, of course. The dogs were so numerous. Scamp was the White House ratter. Did you hear that, Bo Obama? Jack, the once favorite Terrier, became a bit jealous when Skip, the bareback rider, showed up at the White House. Soon after Jack wandered away, never to be seen again. Ethel’s Bulldog Mike was “disposed of” after attacking one of the horses he mistakenly thought had kicked him. His Bulldog replacement arrived a month later. Throughout the letters, TR delighted in life and his children. He felt honored to be an active participant in their pillow fights and games, even though he realized “it seems rather odd for a stout, elderly President to be bouncing over hayricks” when competing with 9 year olds. While planning this volume shortly before his sudden death, TR told biographer and editor Joseph Bucklin Bishop, “I would rather have this book published than anything that has ever been written about me.”

For Adoption at Hempstead Town Shelter (785-5220) Beltagh Ave. Wantagh: ( Next week “Pets” will return to Oyster Bay Shelter, right near TR’s hometown.) I am thrilled to report that Hempstead Shelter reaches out to breed rescue to help place dogs in experienced homes. I was there for a stray Afghan who will now be in the national breed rescue’s custody. Unfortunately Hempstead Shelter is also full of less fortunate mixed breed dogs that do not have a breed club behind them. “Chase” #2390 appeared in “Pets” once before but under the name “Hofstra”, shortly after he was found at the university. This Swiss Mt. Dog mix about 5 years old was frightened at first but has had training by a top instructor, courtesy of the shelter. “Chase” is now more relaxed. Poor “Ragu” #3853 is a senior in need. This 9 year old Shepherd mix was surrendered by his owner and is reported to be good with kids. Come meet them. These two, plus many more deserving pets are waiting for you.

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