A Look At History's Famous Pets

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: Tretyakov Gallery/Wikipedia; Becca/Unsplash

For many of us, pets are part of the family. Whether they have fur, feathers, fins or scales, it seems easy for humans to bond with other species. But you'd be surprised to learn the backstories of pets belonging to some of the most famous people throughout history.

Dogs, cats, elephants, lions and even alligators have gained prominence as animal companions. Read on to learn about the lives of remarkable pets that gained fame thanks to their distinguished owners.

Andrew Jackson's Parrot, Poll

Historians know that President Andrew Jackson was hot-tempered and fearless in his early years but seemed to mellow out later in life. That's why it was a shock to all attending his funeral when the president’s pet parrot, Poll, began spewing obscenities.

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Photo Courtesy: U.S. Senate/Wikipedia; L.Miguel Bugallo Sánchez/Wikipedia

"Before the sermon and while the crowd was gathering, a wicked parrot that was a household pet got excited and commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people and had to be carried from the house," Reverend William Menefee Norment said after presiding over the service.

John Quincy Adams' Pet Alligator

Like all good guests, when the Marquis de Lafayette paid President John Quincy Adams a visit, he came bearing gifts. And while presents are normally a lovely gesture, one of his gifts just happened to be an alligator. The alligator had been one of many generous offerings the Marquis had received while traveling throughout the United States.

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Photo Courtesy: The White House/Wikipedia; Kyaw Tun/Unsplash

A firm believer in re-gifting, the Marquis decided to hand off the toothy pet to Adams, who temporarily housed it in the White House's East Room bathroom to prevent it from eating any family members, visiting dignitaries or political opponents.

Queen Victoria's Pekingese, Looty

Looty was a Pekingese dog presented as a gift to Queen Victoria by Captain John Hart Dunne. The dog was one of five Pekingese discovered by the captain after the British raided the Chinese Old Summer Palace in 1860.

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Photo Courtesy: W. & D. Downey/Wikipedia; The Royal Collection/Wikimedia Commons

The dogs were found near the body of a Chinese royal family member who had committed suicide just before the troops entered the palace. The little dog resided mostly at Buckingham Palace, where she lived a life of luxury as the Queen’s special pet. Looty died at Windsor Palace in 1872.

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Japan's Most Loyal Dog, Hachiko

The most famous dog in Japan is surely Hachiko. Hachiko was an Akita that showed intense loyalty to his owner, Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University. Each day, Hachiko waited at the train station for Ueno to return.

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Photo Courtesy: Momotarou2012/Wikipedia

Sadly, Ueno died at work of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 21, 1925. For the next nine years, Hachiko walked to the train station and patiently waited for his master. After Hachiko died on March 8, 1935, the faithful dog was memorialized across Japan with statues and in artwork as a symbol of enduring fidelity.

Bill Clinton's Cat, Socks

Socks was probably America's most famous presidential pussycat. The stray tuxedo cat was adopted by the Clinton family in 1991 when he jumped into the arms of future First Daughter Chelsea Clinton on her way home from a piano lesson in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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Photo Courtesy: Clinton Presidential Library & Museum/Wikipedia

Socks made appearances at schools and hospitals, was featured on the White House website and was the subject of several books. Socks’ political career came to an end when the Clintons adopted a Labrador retriever named Buddy. When President Clinton left office in 2001, the family kept Buddy but gave Socks to the president’s secretary, Betty Currie.

Richard Nixon's Dog, Checkers

Many dogs are famous for saving lives, but Richard Nixon’s Cocker Spaniel, Checkers, rescued Nixon's political career. In 1952, then-vice presidential hopeful Nixon was accused of using political donations for personal reasons.

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Photo Courtesy: Department of Defense/Wikipedia; Lunc/Unsplash

Nixon defended himself during a televised speech in which he declared that even if all other donations had to be returned, he intended to keep one gift: Checkers. Watched by 60 million viewers, the speech became known as "the Checkers Speech." Nixon later bemoaned that it was "as though the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my political career."

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Caligula's Horse, Incitatus

Incitatus was Roman Emperor Caligula’s favorite horse and possibly his favorite politician. Legend has it that to anger his political enemies, Caligula was set to make Incitatus a consul, the highest political position in the Roman Republic. While Caligula supposedly discussed the threat, historians of his time said the mad emperor never carried out the plan.

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Photo Courtesy: Louis le Grand/Wikipedia; Helena Lopes/Unsplash

The equine, whose name translated to "at full gallop," wore a stone-encrusted collar and had personal caretakers who fed him oats with gold flakes. Caligula sent out dinner invitations from Incitatus requesting that dignitaries dine with the horse in his elaborate stable.

Michael Jackson's Chimpanzee, Bubbles

There’s probably no chimpanzee more famous than Michael Jackson’s pet, Bubbles. Acquired in 1988, Bubbles lived at both the Jackson family home in Encino, California, and Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Treated like an infant, the chimpanzee slept in a crib, used a toilet and ate candy.

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Photo Courtesy: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But as Bubbles matured, the wild animal became increasingly more aggressive and was sent to live with an animal trainer. In 2005, Bubbles was turned over to the Center for Great Apes primate sanctuary in Wauchula, Florida. Although Jackson passed away in 2009, his estate supports the annual cost to care for Bubbles.

Thomas Jefferson's Two Grizzly Cubs

During his second term in office, Thomas Jefferson was gifted two grizzly bears from explorer Captain Zebulon Pike. The male and female pair arrived around the same time as a letter from Pike detailing how the cubs had been purchased in the southern region near the Continental Divide.

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Photo Courtesy: White House/Wikipedia; National Park Service

Realizing that the president’s home was no place for two wild bears, Jefferson asked Charles Wilson Peale if he would take them for his museum in Philadelphia. The cubs were kept in an enclosure in Jefferson’s yard for two months until they were transferred to Peale's museum.

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Pope Leo X's Elephant

Hanno the Asian elephant was the prized pet of Pope Leo X. The animal was a gift from King Manuel I of Portugal at the pope’s coronation. Taken from India, the elephant was presented to the Pope in 1514. Hanno, who knew basic commands and tricks, was a hit with the papal court.

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Photo Courtesy: Giulio Romano (after a lost drawing by Raffael)/Wikipedia

Hanno was approximately four years old when he was sent to Rome, where he lived in a specially constructed enclosure. The formidable animal became ill two years later after being given a laxative containing gold. He died with the Pope by his side.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Starling

There was another musician in the home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: his pet starling. Mozart is believed to have purchased the bird in 1784, and the two were thought to have been quite bonded until the starling passed away three years later.

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Photo Courtesy: Otto Erich Deutsch/Wikipedia; J.M.Garg/Wikipedia

According to Georg Nikolaus von Nissen, the second husband of Mozart’s wife Constanze, the famed musician held an elaborate funeral when the starling passed away. "When a bird died, he arranged a funeral procession, in which everyone who could sing had to join in, heavily veiled — made a sort of requiem, epitaph in verse," he wrote.

Karl Lagerfeld's Cat, Choupette

Famed fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld had a friend who loves catwalks. She's a blue-cream tortie Birman cat named Choupette ("sweetie"). Given to Lagerfeld in 2011, the late German fashion icon was so smitten he once joked that he wanted to marry her.

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Photo Courtesy: Fashion Week/YouTube

The spoiled feline has hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. "Everything is controlled by her. She wakes me up at 7 a.m. because she wants me to bring her fresh croquettes, she won’t touch food from the night before, she gets offers for food commercials but it is out of the question. She is a kept woman," Lagerfeld told The Guardian.

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Salvador Dali's Ocelot, Babou

Artist Salvador Dali had always loved cats, but his favorite was a Colombian ocelot named Babou. Dali acquired Babou in the 1960s, and the two remained nearly inseparable. The spoiled cat had jewel-encrusted collars.

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Photo Courtesy: U.S. Library of Congress/Wikipedia

The wild cat traveled with Dali on an oceanliner, and the two often dined together in upscale restaurants — although Dali's close friend, actor Carlos Lozano, worried that Babou wasn't truly happy being kept as a domesticated pet. To appease one restaurant patron's fears, Dali told the diner that Babou was merely just a housecat "painted over in an op-art design."

Ivan the Terrible's Bears

While some have described Ivan the Terrible’s bears as pets, the animals probably served as executioners for the crazy czar. Ivan delighted in killing prisoners or those who angered him by throwing them to the bears, which were always kept hungry.

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Photo Courtesy: Tretyakov Gallery/Wikimedia Commons; Becca/Unsplash

It’s reported that sometimes he even let the bears loose to kill innocent citizens just for his own amusement. Chances are Ivan had no real emotional attachment to the bears; he had a long-standing reputation for animal cruelty and had delighted in torturing birds, dogs and cats since childhood.

Charles Dickens' Cat, Bob

Author Charles Dickens had many pets, but the one who stole his heart was a cat named Bob. He loved Bob so much that when the cat died in 1862, Dickens decided to memorialize him by turning one of his paws into a letter opener.

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Photo Courtesy: Erica Leong/Unsplash

Pet taxidermy was extremely popular during the Victorian era, but the specimens were typically displayed behind glass. In Bob's case, Dickens decided he needed a more personal memento. Bob’s paw is the letter opener’s handle and is attached to an engraved ivory blade. Using the letter opener meant gripping the taxidermied limb.

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Josephine Baker's Pet Cheetah

Josephine Baker was a star during the Jazz Age, but she also gained fame for owning a pet cheetah that appeared in many of her shows. A big animal lover, Baker was ecstatic when a club owner gave her Chiquita, who became part of the renowned entertainer’s dance routine.

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Photo Courtesy: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Baker was so enamored by Chiquita that she kept the big cat long after their act came to a close. The formidable feline lived at Baker’s home and even slept in her bed. Whether Baker was taking a short trip by car or traveling overseas, Chiquita was always by her side.

Lord Byron's Bear Goes to College

Lord Byron gained fame as one of Britain’s most talented romantic poets, but he also held celebrity status during his student years at Trinity College for owning a pet there. In 1805, Byron was angered that the college’s rules prohibited students from bringing their pet dogs to school, so he protested by buying a bear.

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Photo Courtesy: Newstead Abbey/Wikipedia; Becca/Unsplash

While school officials were naturally upset, Byron pointed out that the college had no rules banning bears. After leaving school in 1808, Byron took the bear back to his London estate, where he eventually kept other exotic pets — including badgers and a monkey.

Josephine Bonaparte's Orangutan, Rose

When an orangutan was gifted to Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine took the animal in and treated it as a child rather than a pet. The orangutan was christened Rose and was known to wear infant-sized dresses. She learned how to eat with silverware and allegedly slept in the couple’s bed.

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Photo Courtesy: Hermitage Museum/Wikipedia; Chris Charles/Unsplash

During her time with the Bonapartes, Rose was a regular guest at the couple's estate. Rose died about a year after she was taken into the Bonaparte home. The ape’s body was donated to French scientist Georges-Frederic Cuvier, who published a detailed work about orangutans based on Rose.

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Ramses II’s Lion, Anhur

Cats were much-admired animals in ancient Egypt, but ruler Ramses II took that love to a different level by keeping a lion as his pet. More than a companion, the lion signified Ramses' royal status, power and strength. The beasts were thought to have been descendants of the Egyptian god Maahes.

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Photo Courtesy: Hajor/Wikipedia; Amar Yashlaha/Unsplash

Ramses aptly named his formidable feline Anhur, or "slayer of foes," and even took the animal into combat during the Battle of Kadesh. It was reported that the loyal lion stood by his master’s side during the deadly conflict.

Nero's Tigress, Phoebe

Emperor Nero may have been known for his cruel and tyrannical behavior, but he had nothing but love when it came to the tigress he called Phoebe. Nero admired Phoebe’s ferocity during a fight in the Coliseum and decided to spare her life.

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Photo Courtesy: Rick L/Unsplash

As his pet, Phoebe was Nero’s constant companion. She lived in a luxurious gold cage and was even allowed to sit by the table to dine with the emperor. And when it came to food, anyone who angered Nero chanced winding up as Phoebe’s main course.

Walter Moore's Beautiful Joe

Beautiful Joe was a Canadian dog whose family may not have been famous, but the sweet pup’s story spawned the modern-day animal-protection movement. Beautiful Joe was rescued by Walter Moore, who took him from a man so cruel, he had even cut off the dog’s ears.

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Photo Courtesy: Jasonanaggie/Wikimedia Commons

When author Margaret Marshall Saunders heard of Moore’s kindness, it inspired her to write the story "Beautiful Joe." In 1893, Saunders’ story won a writing contest, and Beautiful Joe's tale was soon published. The book became a best-seller in Canada and the United States and raised awareness about compassion for animals.

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Marie Antoinette's Dog, Mops

Marie Antoinette was known for excesses, but one she couldn’t live without was Mops. The tawny-colored pug traveled with the 15-year-old archduchess as she made her way from Vienna to her new home in France to marry the king's eldest son, Louis XVI.

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Photo Courtesy: Kunsthistorisches Museum/Wikipedia; Mink Mingle/Unsplash

All of her Austrian possessions were turned away at the border. The act was meant to send a clear message that the youthful archduchess could only have French clothing, servants and pets. The young woman dutifully acquiesced but later retrieved her beloved pet, who lived a luxurious life with the future queen’s many other French dogs.

Mary, Queen of Scots' Maltese

History may remember Mary, Queen of Scots mostly for the turbulent relationship she had with her cousin, England’s Elizabeth I. According to historians, Mary had been raised with dogs from her infancy to her death. Her favorite breed was the Maltese.

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Photo Courtesy: Victoria and Albert Museum; Mpho Mojapelo/Unsplash

When Mary was charged with plotting to overthrow Elizabeth, the only prison companions allowed were her Maltese dogs. She spent hours talking to her canine friends. One dog was so devoted to his royal owner that it’s been said he secretly hid under Mary's gown as she walked to the gallows, and he refused to leave her side after her death.

Nicolas Cage's Octopuses

Over the years, Nicolas Cage has made headlines for making some pretty over-the-top purchases, so it should come as no surprise that the famous actor plunked down his hard-earned cash to purchase octopuses for his elaborate saltwater fish tanks.

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Photo Courtesy: Georges Biard/Wikipedia; Albert Kok/ma photo

It’s rumored that one of the exotic cephalopods cost him approximately $150,000. The problem is that octopuses don’t exactly make the best companions. Cage has reportedly made several attempts to befriend the animals, only to have them repeatedly squirt him with ink.

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Edwin Hubble's Cat, Nicolas Copernicus

The name Edwin Hubble typically brings to mind huge telescopes, but several photos of the famed astronomer show him with his beloved cat, Nicolas Copernicus. After acquiring the black Persian mix as a kitten in 1946, the two became inseparable.

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Photo Courtesy: Johan Hagemeyer/Wikipedia; Marcus Lange/Unsplash

Hubble’s wife enjoyed Nicolas Copernicus’ behavior so much that she often recorded his antics in her diary. It’s said that when Hubble died in 1953, Nicolas Copernicus curled up quietly to sleep next to his body. After Hubble was laid to rest, the loyal cat often waited at the windows for his human friend’s return.

Elvis Presley's Chimpanzee, Scatter

Elvis Presley was known for being a huge animal lover, but few people knew that the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll rescued a chimpanzee named Scatter. Scatter had been the sidekick for Cap’n Bill Killebrew, a children’s television show host. Kids loved watching the pair's antics.

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Photo Courtesy: MGM/Wikipedia; Rishi Ragunathan/Unsplash

But in 1961, Killebrew decided to sell Scatter to Elvis. Initially, the chimp was a Graceland hit, but he soon became hard to handle. Scatter lobbed objects (including his feces) at guests, lifted up women’s skirts and bit Elvis’ stepmother. Scatter was eventually sequestered to his own special room but died soon after.

King Kamehameha's Dog, Evelaina

English mastiff Evelaina was the close companion of Hawaiian King Kamehameha III. Presented to the ruler as a gift, the two were so close that when her owner passed away in 1854, the grief-stricken dog spent several weeks watching over the king’s tomb. She only left briefly to eat before returning to resume her guard.

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Photo Courtesy: Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archives/Wikipedia; Radovan Rohovsky/Wikipedia

When Evelaina died, a special coffin was made at the request of the king’s son. He had her buried under a tree near his father’s grave so the two could remain close throughout eternity.

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Calvin Coolidge's Pygmy Hippopotamus, Billy

In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge was notified that he was receiving an unusual gift from his friend, tire magnate Harvey Firestone: a pygmy hippopotamus. The animal had been captured on one of Firestone’s large Liberian plantations.

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Photo Courtesy: Notman Studio/Wikipedia; Rodw/Wikipedia

After Coolidge eventually decided to donate the creature, named Billy, to the National Zoo, the hippo became something of a Washington celebrity and was described by the New York Times as being "frisky as a dog." In 1939, Billy was sent off to attend the World’s Fair in New York. During his lifetime, the hippo fathered 15 calves before dying in 1955.

Hugh Hefner's Llama, Lambert

Bunnies weren’t the only party animals at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion. The larger-than-life magazine publisher had a menagerie at his estate that featured several exotic animals, including a llama he named Lambert.

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Photo Courtesy: Glenn Francis/Wikipedia; Juan Camilo Guarin P/Unsplash

Hefner fondly reminisced about Lambert when he sent out a 2014 tweet with a photo of the peculiar pair taken in 1974. The caption read, "Just a man and his llama." While little is mentioned about Lambert, it was reported that a llama was found dead at the Playboy mansion the day after an unusually raucous party.

Alexander the Great's Horse, Bucephalus

According to the Greek biographer Plutarch, Alexander the Great’s greatest animal companion was a horse named Bucephalus ("ox head"). A horse trader tried selling the massive animal to Alexander’s father, Philip II, who refused to pay the exorbitant price for the untrainable horse. But Alexander’s gentle demeanor with the fearful animal made such an impression on Philip that the horse was given to the boy.

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Photo Courtesy: Museo Archeologico Nazionale/Wikipedia

During his lifetime, Bucephalus carried Alexander into numerous conflicts and may have been mortally wounded at the Battle of Hydaspes. Later, Alexander founded the city of Alexandria Bucephalus in what is now Pakistan.

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