Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Rebecca The Raccoon, President Calvin Coolidge's Pet Raccoon

Raccoons are the grimy trash pandas of the west. They roam the streets at night searching for a meal, and as cute as they are, it's obvious that they've got something devious going on in their little brains. Until the middle of the 20th century, raccoons were a staple of the Appalachian diet, but one of these little fellas managed to avoid becoming dinner and instead became an object of national interest. Rebecca the Raccoon was meant to be a meal, but she became a favorite pet of President Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace. After receiving the raccoon as a Thanksgiving gift in 1926, the little sweetie became an integral part of the family and a curious presence in the White House.

President Coolidge loved animals

Source: Presidential Pet Museum
Coolidge grew up loving animals. His family farm employed several cats to keep its rodent population under control, so he saw animals as his friends. When he received the gift of a raccoon from Peru, Mississippi, he was shocked, for reasons other than the normal ones. The raccoon was presented as a potential addition to the White House Thanksgiving meal, but he felt that the animal was far too friendly to be eaten. He named her Rebecca, although he insisted on referring to her as "he" for unknown reasons, and held a press conference to announce her arrival. When he was asked if the raccoon was edible, he responded:
That depends on your taste. I haven't much of a taste for raccoon meat. Some people like it very much. But I have established him here in the south lot in suitable housing and he seems to be enjoying himself very much ... I don't think he is quite grown yet. He is very playful, very interesting, and seems very well-trained and well-behaved.

Rebecca became a part of daily life at the White House

Source: Library of Congress
Rebecca the Raccoon wasn't just some forest animal that was trotted out for press junkets. She became a valued part of the Coolidge family. On Christmas, she was given an embroidered collar designating her the official "White House Raccoon," and she even helped out at the annual White House Easter egg roll. She was such an important member of the household that when the White House had to be renovated in 1927, Rebecca went with the family to DuPont Circle for a while before she was temporarily moved to a zoo. Even there, the Coolidge family often picked her up to accompany them to their official obligations.

Rebecca was allowed to roam free in the White House

Source: South Dakota Magazine
Aside from her duties as beloved family pet, Rebecca the Raccoon was also an integral part of the Coolidge administration. Okay, she didn't make any decisions, but she spent more time at the White House than many key advisers. Every day, she roamed its halls with zero restriction, unscrewing lightbulbs and dumping plants out of their pots. But as much as President Coolidge loved Rebecca (he was known to walk around the White House with her draped around his neck), First Lady Grace Coolidge took even more pleasure in pampering the raccoon. She wrote:
She was a mischievous, inquisitive party, and we had to keep watch of her when she was in the house. She enjoyed nothing better than being placed in a bathtub with a little water in it and given a cake of soap with which to play. In this fashion, she would amuse herself for an hour or more.
When Rebecca wasn't bathing, she was eating green shrimp, persimmons, eggs, and vegetables off the tile floor of the First Lady's bathroom. There are White House interns who don't eat half as well.

 The Coolidges got a second raccoon

Source: Library of Congress
The Coolidges liked their new friend so much that they decided to pick up a second raccoon, a male named Rueben, to keep Rebecca company. Unfortunately, Rueben was as wily as Rebecca was sweet. He definitely wasn't as well-trained as his garbage bae, and their relationship was doomed from the start. Rueben escaped constantly, scaling trees and running around Pennsylvania Avenue, where traffic had to be stopped until he could be retrieved. While "the President's raccoon escaped" might not be the weirdest reason D.C. commuters have found themselves in gridlock, it has to be in the top 10. It wasn't long before Rueben escaped the grounds forever and disappeared without a trace, leaving Rebecca the one true presidential raccoon.

Rebecca was donated to a zoo at the end of Coolidge's presidency

Source: History Channel
By the end of Coolidge's term in office, it was clear that Rebecca wasn't going to be allowed to stay in the White House or the Executive Mansion. In 1929, she was donated to the zoological quarters of Washington's Rock Creek Park, now known as the National Zoo. It might have not been the cush digs to which she had become accustomed, but she seemed to have adjusted just fine.

Rebecca wasn't the last street critter to make a home in the White House. The following President, Herbert Hoover, brought his own non-pet into the White House after a possum found its way into Rebecca's treehouse. Named "Billy Possum," the animal continued on in Rebecca's adorable, hand-like paw prints.

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