Presidential history on 4 legs

An offbeat museum honoring U.S. leaders and their pets relocates to Annapolis

January 21, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,sun reporter

In 1985, Claire McLean was brought to the White House to primp Lucky, the first dog, for a portrait.

A breeder, groomer and author of books on Bouvier des Flandres dogs, she gave President Ronald Reagan's Bouvier a brush and trim. What to do with the leftover black hair? She stuffed it in her purse.

Her mother, Dorothy DiSilva, sketched Lucky and glued the hair on the page, unknowingly launching her daughter on a mission.

Now the official photo of a red-ribboned Lucky hangs on a pegboard by the furry drawing in the Presidential Pet Museum, just relocated from McLean's out-of-the-way Lothian barn to a storefront in Annapolis's tourist-laden historic district.

"I needed to move. I was not going anywhere there," McLean said.

She scrambled to unofficially open Wednesday, theorizing that Gov. Martin O'Malley's inauguration would draw visitors. But what with street closures, hardly anyone could stop in. The official opening will be Presidents Day, Feb. 19, but McLean is welcoming guests now.

Barely moved into her one room of artifacts, books and tchotchkes, already she needs a bigger place. Half again as much stuff is boxed up. The poster-size displays have no place to hang. Rotating exhibits through the year will help, as well as keep the museum fresh, and she wants to add a computer for children, she said.

The room combines history with entertainment, brimming with such items as a bell from one of President William Howard Taft's White House cows; a tea kettle featuring a portrait of Socks, President Bill Clinton's cat; photos of Lucky at McLean's home; and a bobblehead of President Theodore Roosevelt holding his namesake teddy.

It is, McLean said, a way to show that "responsible pet ownership begins at the top," to offer a twist on history and to depict the bond between animal and president.

And presidential hopefuls. "With the [2008] presidential election, you are going to see candidates using their pets to court votes," McLean predicted, citing past campaigns.

"I think it is fantastic," said Jay Wind, president of the Socks the Cat Fan Club. Wind is a likely occasional speaker on the Wednesdays when McLean guides tours.

McLean, 73, is a blue-eyed compendium of data on presidential pet ownership - or lack of it - from George Washington's foxhounds to George W. Bush's cat India. First lady Dolly Madison's parrot was saved when the British burned the White House in the War of 1812. No documentation exists on pet ownership by presidents William McKinley, Chester Arthur and James Polk, she said.

McLean described the move as her "last-ditch effort" to really establish the museum, which was featured in the 2006 book Weird Maryland.

"If I do not do it, it will never happen," she said. "My dream is for it to go on through a foundation that will run it."

McLean started the museum in her home around 1999, if one doesn't count earlier visitors. She dreamed of expanding and moving it to Washington - think Spy Museum - but scaled back for lack of multimillion-dollar backers. In the past year, having survived cancer, she looked to leave her South County home. Recently, she saw the "for rent" sign on Maryland Avenue, a half-block from the State House, and was sold on the high-visibility location.

Aside from foundation support, she intends to collect $2 admission and has various membership levels for the nonprofit venture, as well as plans to beef up souvenir sales. Souvenirs are pet-related, except for the ones that are president-related.

Not that all the connections are obvious, like the bald eagle cufflinks - "Zachary Taylor owned bald eagles: two," she says - and little stuffed Presidential Petibles: She has a trunk full of Spot, the late first dog of George W. and Laura Bush, though she is temporarily sold out of Barney, a current White House canine, and has just a few Fala (FDR's Scottish terrier) left.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

The Presidential Pet Museum, 51 Maryland Ave., is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday through March 30. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 1 through Nov. 30.

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