Thomas Jefferson Had Two Pet Grizzly Bears And It Was A Disaster

Vintage |

Pet Grizzly Bears

There have been a few presidents who kept unusual pets. George Washington had a thing for parrots. Teddy Roosevelt owned a badger. Calvin Coolidge even had a pygmy hippo. But no POTUS holds a candle to Thomas Jefferson, who, for a brief time, was in possession of two pet grizzly bears.

Jefferson received two grizzly bear cubs as a gift from explorer Zebulon Pike in 1807. Pike and his party were arrested for unwittingly traveling into Spanish territory, and were held in Santa Fe and then Chihuahua. On his journey back, Pike bought the two cubs from an Indian man. The bears were transported on horseback for hundreds of miles and delivered to President Jefferson.

The bears arrived with a letter from Pike, saying that the bears were "a different species of bear from that found in the East." He also warned that the grizzlies were feared by people in the western territories as the "most ferocious animals on the continent." It is unclear whether the bears were presented as part of a long-distance white elephant exchange.

Thankfully, Jefferson was appropriately alarmed. He had already heard stories about grizzly bears' ferocity from Lewis and Clark. In a letter to his granddaughter, Jefferson said of his new friends: "These are too dangerous and troublesome for me to keep. I shall therefore send them to Peale's Museum."

Charles Peale was the founder of an art and natural history museum in Philadelphia, and a friend of Jefferson's. In his letter to Peale, Jefferson described the pet grizzly bears as "perfectly gentle" and "quite good humored." Jefferson was certainly a great friend.

"This charge I will cheerfully undertake," responded Peale for some reason. Three years prior to Jefferson's letter, Peale had put a grizzly on display at his museum, brought to Philadephia by a French trader. The bear promptly broke the chain that bound it, destroyed its cage, and had to be killed.

Pet Grizzly Bears - 2

Eager to once again rush into certain disaster, Peale was forced to wait two months for transportation to be arranged for the bears. Meanwhile, the cubs outgrew their cage and were transferred to an enclosure on the White House lawn. Jefferson's adversaries jumped on the opportunity to write mocking jabs at Jefferson's "bear-garden," a reference to the bear baiting pits of old Europe.

Peale finally got ahold of the bears in January of 1808. In a letter to Jefferson, he wrote, "We hope to see them get their full growth, and also to ascertain what they may weigh when they acquire their full size." He also hoped the bears, one male and one female, would produce offspring.

Shockingly, the bears once again destroyed their display cage. One of them rampaged through the museum, threatened Peale's family and was shot to death in the museum's kitchen. The other bear was killed immediately afterwards as a precaution.

The bears were stuffed, mounted and displayed at the museum. No other American president attempted thereafter to keep pet grizzly bears. For better or for worse.

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Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.