COON

Mischievous raccoons can capture hearts. One sent to the White House for Thanksgiving dinner became a beloved pet. (Photo courtesy of U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

For quite some time now, turkeys have graced the White House Thanksgiving table. However, in 1926, President Calvin Coolidge almost became the first American president to serve raccoon at the White House Thanksgiving dinner.

This bizarre story has its roots in rural Mississippi. It seems an ardent Coolidge supporter named Vinnie Joyce shipped a live raccoon from his hometown of Nitta Yuma to the White House in hopes our 30th President would dine on the animal at his Thanksgiving dinner. Upon the animal’s arrival in Washington Coolidge gave the raccoon what amounted amounted to a Presidential Pardon when he declined the opportunity to have raccoon served as the entree at Thanksgiving dinner at the White House. 

Surprisingly, in spite of his rural Vermont upbringing, the President stated that he had never tasted raccoon meat. The Press Corps covering the event reported that when the President was queried as to whether or not raccoon was edible, he commented, “...it might be for some people, but not him.”

Although this might seem to be the end of the story, such was not the case.  It seems that President Coolidge and his family were extremely fond of animals. During his six years in the White House the Coolidge family was accompanied by a host of pets.  

Coolidge wrote, “We always had more dogs than we could take care of.”  In addition, many people presented Coolidge with animals. As a result the White House and its grounds became a haven for cats, dogs, a black bear, canaries, an African pygmy hippopotamus and even two lion cubs. Being a fiscal conservative President Coolidge named the lions “Budget Bureau” and “Tax Reduction.” In fact, the President befriended so many animals the White House and grounds were popularly known as the Pennsylvania Avenue Zoo.

With so many different animals running and flying about the President’s official residence, it should not be a surprise to learn the family adopted the raccoon that literally had its neck on the chopping block.

Much to the dismay of the White House staff, the Coolidges moved the furry creature into the White House. In spite of its propensity for shredding clothes and damaging furniture, and even reportedly biting the President, the raccoon soon became a family favorite. However, after the wild animal proved adept at escaping from cages and harnesses, it became clear it would be best if the raccoon took up residence on the White House grounds. To this end, President Coolidge had a special raccoon abode built and placed in a tree outside his office window.

By Christmas the family was so enamored with the raccoon they named it Rebecca.  Rebecca was even presented with her very own Christmas gift--a collar with a metal plate on which was engraved: “Rebecca Raccoon of the White House.”

President Coolidge was particularly smitten with Rebecca. He would often take the raccoon on walks about the White House grounds. The raccoon would even curl up in his lap as he sat in front of a fire blazing in a White House fireplace.

In 1927 the Coolidge family was forced to move out of the White House as it was being renovated. Soon after moving into the First Family’s temporary home  the President so missed Rebecca he personally went to the White House and brought her back to their current residence.

In 1927 Rebecca made an appearance at the annual Easter Egg Roll staged on the White House lawn. Although the raccoon was at ease around the Coolidge family, she did not do well when surrounded by thousands of loud, energetic children. After Rebecca scratched a few of the youngsters and even the First Lady, the raccoon was promptly exiled to the First Family’s quarters.

The Coolidge family’s deep affection for their pets and for Rebecca was clearly demonstrated by the fact that in the summer of 1927 they took the raccoon, five canaries and two collies with them on a three-month vacation to South Dakota.

A year later Rebecca had a new companion--a raccoon Coolidge named Reuben. As it turned out, Rebecca did not take too kindly to Reuben. Perhaps as a result of having another raccoon suddenly thrust into her world, Rebecca soon began making forays away from the White House grounds. Fearing for Rebecca’s safety, the First Family eventually donated their masked friend to the national zoo.

Who would have ever thought a raccoon from rural Mississippi sent to the White House to be featured at a White House Thanksgiving dinner would end up becoming friends with the folks that were supposed to eat her? Only in America!

Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at tjwoodduck@bellsouth.net.