Electing to honor `first pets'

October 31, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Claire McLean, who has literally written the book on the dog breed Bouvier des Flandres, was once the official groomer of Lucky, President Reagan's Bouvier.

Now retired, she collects trinkets, photographs, books, tchotchkes, all related to the men who have been president and the pets who have been by their side -- a mish-mash she calls, rather grandly, the Presidential Pet Museum. It's a quirky little place in rural Anne Arundel County that shares a small outbuilding on her property with her dog-breeding business, though it really hasn't taken off yet.

But in the meantime, she has inadvertently become something else -- an expert on presidential pets. The Internet has seen to that.

A few years ago, she put up a Web site, and it gets thousands of hits. Interest goes up around election time. She gets dozens of e-mails a week asking all sorts of questions. If she doesn't have the answer, she will look it up, or forward it to fellow pet aficionados who might know.

A Kentucky woman once sent $100 because McLean helped her daughter with a paper, and the girl got an A.

"Claire and her computer are the best of friends," said Shirley McVicker, a longtime friend of McLean's who served in the Clinton White House as a senior military social aide. (That put McVicker into regular contact with President Clinton's pets -- Buddy the dog and Socks the cat.)

"It always excites Claire when people write in and say, `I didn't know this was here,'" McVicker said. "She will personally respond to each and every one of them."

Said McLean: "I like them because they come up with so many unusual questions. I always wonder what the next question is going to be."

The pet project dates to 1985, when McLean was summoned to the White House to primp Lucky for an official portrait.

"Nancy [Reagan] wanted the dog all groomed up to look like a million dollars," McLean recalled. So the first dog got a haircut and a good brushing. "When I was done, I looked down on the ground, and there was all this hair. I looked at it and said, `I have to put it somewhere,' so I put it in my handbag, and I walked out of the White House with all this hair."

McLean's mother ended up doing a pencil drawing of Lucky and then affixed the purloined puppy coat to the canvas for effect.

"That was the beginning of my collection," McLean said.

Before long, her presidential grooming days ended. Lucky, growing too big for the confines of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., was sent to the Reagans' Santa Barbara ranch. Besides, McLean said, "I heard Nancy thought I took too much hair off."

McLean opened the Lothian museum in 1999 and gets 50 to 100 visitors a year, by appointment only. She can't accommodate more. There is very little parking. There are no bathrooms. It isn't wheelchair-accessible. It isn't even zoned for this sort of thing. None of that bothers McLean, who at 71 started this as a retirement hobby but has visions of something more.

"While we're a ragtag, small museum and very humble, it's not what we are, it's what we can become," she said.

She has a small foundation that is working to create a national pet museum somewhere in Washington, perhaps in Southeast where the new baseball stadium will be built. She has dreams of a tribute to what she calls "the most glorious relationships on Earth" -- the relationships between people and their pets -- and wants to promote responsible pet ownership, too.

The Web site (www.presiden tialpetmuseum.com) is more organized than the museum, which is crammed into two small rooms, making logical display a challenge. There are pictures of presidents, pictures of pets and often pictures of presidents with their pets, in no particular order.

Stuffed toys in the likeness of Barney, the Scottish terrier who now resides in the White House, and Spot, the late springer spaniel who also belonged to George W. Bush, are scattered around. Pictures of dogs -- not necessarily presidential dogs -- line some walls. A Discovery Channel documentary entitled, First Dogs, plays on the VCR.

When McLean guides tours, though, the stories flow: Woodrow Wilson and his tobacco-eating ram; James Buchanan and the elephants he received from the king of Siam but didn't keep at the White House; Lyndon Johnson and the way he would pull the ears of beagles Him and Her; Macaroni the pony, who belonged to John F. Kennedy's family.

"In the early days, birds were most popular, and they had a lot of horses but they weren't considered household pets," she said. "They used them mostly for transportation."

The only item in McLean's little museum that belonged to a presidential pet is Lucky's hair. It's very difficult, she said, to get leashes, saddles or other mementos because they go to the individual presidential museums. She always asks, though.

"I added to it slowly," she said of her museum. "People like the idea. It's uplifting. It's nonpartisan. Dogs can belong to Democrats or Republicans.

"You can't talk about politics or, `Are you going to vote for Bush or Kerry?' or, `Do you support the war?' But everyone loves the pets."

For the record, Sen. John Kerry, who faces Bush in Tuesday's presidential election, has pets of his own: A German shepherd named Cym (and pronounced "Kim") and a yellow canary named Sunshine.

But, McLean said, there is no picture available of Kerry with Cym, something she would very much like to have.

There is also no picture of McLean with the Reagans' Lucky. An offer to snap a photo of the groomer and her charge was made, but McLean demurred. She's sorry now, but still holds onto the fact that she has that fuzzy black hair.

"It's like having the belt of George Washington or a button off one of the Beatles or a lock of Elvis Presley's hair," she said. "I doubt there's anything like it."

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