While the world waits with (semi) bated breath for the Obamas to choose their dog, I’ve been reading up on past White House pets, and have come to a conclusion – none will ever beat Billy for sheer coolness factor.
Billy, or William Johnson Hippopotamus, (1920s – October 11, 1955) was a Pygmy Hippopotamus given as a pet to U.S. President Calvin Coolidge. Captured in Liberia, he was given to Coolidge by Harvey Firestone in 1927. Billy spent most of his life in the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. In addition to his fame as an exotic presidential pet—which afforded him a trip to the 1939 New York World’s Fair—Billy is also notable as the common ancestor to most pygmy hippos in American zoos. By the time of his death in 1955, Billy had sired 23 children; 13 of whom survived at least a year.
Harvey Firestone (left) gave Billy to Calvin Coolidge (right), who donated Billy to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.
In 1927, Harvey Firestone, the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, acquired Billy in Liberia, where he was captured on one of Firestone Tires’ large plantations. Calvin Coolidge, who was the U.S. President at the time, was known for his collection of animals, including many dogs, birds, a wallaby, lion cubs, a raccoon and other unusual animals. At the time, pygmy hippos were virtually unknown in the United States. On May 26, 1927, Coolidge was informed that he would receive the rare hippo, already adult-sized at 6 feet (1.8 m) long and around 600 pounds (270 kg), as a gift.
In Coolidge’s autobiography he wrote about the unusual menagerie he collected and stated that he donated many of these animals, including Billy, to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Though Coolidge had a deep fascination with animals, he was overshadowed by Theodore Roosevelt, who was more widely known for and associated with his interest in animals. By August of 1927, Coolidge had sent the second largest collection of animals of any president after Roosevelt to the zoo, and paid them frequent visits. Upon his arrival, Billy was one of the most-valuable animals the zoo had ever received, and was only the eighth pygmy hippopotamus to be brought to the United States. Billy was a popular animal; several months after his arrival, The New York Times wrote Billy was “as frisky as a dog. Even the antics of the monkeys go unobserved when the keeper opens the tiny hippo’s cage and cuts up with him.”
Today, pygmy hippos breed well in captivity: since Billy’s arrival, 58 pygmy hippos have been born at the National Zoo alone. As one of the earliest pygmy hippos in captivity in the U.S. zoo system, Billy went on to become the direct ancestor of nearly all pygmy hippos in American zoos. When Billy first came to the zoo, however, keepers did not know much about pygmy hippopotamus husbandry. A mate for Billy, a female named Hannah, was acquired by the zoo on September 4, 1929. Billy’s and Hannah’s first child was born on August 26, 1931, but did not survive the week. “Inability to survive the neglect of an errant mother was the cause given for baby Hippo’s demise”, eulogized The Washington Post. Over the next two years, two more babies would follow, both of which died in infancy. Billy’s third child was killed when Hannah rolled on top of the baby and crushed it. “She’s just a bad mother”, said the zoo’s long-time director Dr. William M. Mann to The Washington Post, upon the death of the third infant.
The only thing that could possibly be a cooler White House pet than a Pygmy Hippo would be a rare miniature House Hippo.
BTW, our poll continues: