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Special Envoy to the President

Article

George Washington had his hounds, Drunkard and Sweetlips. Abraham Lincoln had Jack the Turkey. Woodrow Wilson had a ram, Old Ike, which enjoyed the occasional chew of tobacco. During Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, a lion, hyena, wildcat, coyote, five bears, two parrots, a zebra, a barn owl, snakes, lizards, rats and roosters all called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home, thankfully not all at the same time.

George Washington had his hounds, Drunkard and Sweetlips. Abraham Lincoln had Jack the Turkey. Woodrow Wilson had a ram, Old Ike, which enjoyed the occasional chew of tobacco. During Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, a lion, hyena, wildcat, coyote, five bears, two parrots, a zebra, a barn owl, snakes, lizards, rats and roosters all called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home, thankfully not all at the same time.

President Lyndon B. Johnson shows puppies (sired by Him) to Courtney Valenti (Jan 1966).

Of the nation's 43 presidents, 40 have been pet owners. These pets hold the distinct status of being national mascots revered and loved in their own right. And each pet has been in need of a veterinarian.

Although it has been years since a cow grazed on the White House lawn and the Sultan of Oman doesn't present tiger cubs to the president anymore, dogs, cats and birds remain constant companions of first families. The United States Army Veterinary Corps provides their care.

The pressure of taking care of the country's first pets can be intense, but the benefits of working for the first family can be just as rewarding.

"Pretty heady territory for a farm boy from Iowa," says Dr. Dick Schumacher, who cared for Lyndon Johnson's Beagles.

In 1961, Schumacher left his small town and family farm in Iowa to join the Army Veterinary Corps. After two years of being stationed in Japan, he was transferred to Fort Meyer. His primary duty was to look after the 25 horses and 70 dogs that were housed there. But almost every week, he was asked to visit the White House to check on Him and Her.

The trip for the then-24-year-old was a thrill. "You're in a staff car, and you drive up to the White House, and they wave you in. It made you feel pretty important," Schumacher recalls.

The White House is equipped with a medical-care station where Schumacher would look after the two Beagles. Him quickly became a national favorite after President Johnson held the dog up by the ears to mug for a photographer — a snapshot that appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

Schumacher usually worked with President Johnson's daughters, Lucy and Linda, or a White House aide when visiting the dogs for their medical checkups. But one afternoon, Schumacher received an emergency call from the White House. Lucy's chauffeur had hit Him in the driveway. He raced to the scene, but Him died before he arrived. Unable to do anything more for the dog, Schumacher watched as an aide phoned the President with the difficult job of telling Johnson about the death. Schumacher says he couldn't hear what exactly the President was saying, but could tell the President was very upset. At one point, the aide dropped the phone and started crying.

Usually, however, the visits were more routine, though Schumacher admits "there was a lot of pressure," especially because the veterinarian staff was young and mostly terrified something would go wrong.

After two years of work at Fort Meyer, Schumacher went on, eventually building and managing three veterinarian hospitals and directing the California Veterinary Medical Association for 14 years. "A lot of what I am today goes back to those years," he says.

They are years he doesn't take for granted, acknowledging that only privileged few have the opportunity to enjoy the presidential mansion.

Lieutenant Col. Ron Walton, DVM, (right) gives Millie a check-up while First Lady Barbara Bush looks on (May 10, 1990)

"You would look out and see the rose garden," Schumacher says. "There you were in a place where history was always going on."

Dog lovers

In 1989, the Army Veterinarian Corps. recruited an equine practitioner working at the University of Georgia in Athens. Lieutenant Col. Ron Walton, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, thought the idea seemed like a great adventure and signed up. Only a few months after being stationed at Fort Meyer, Walton became the veterinarian liaison to the White House medical unit and President George H.W. Bush's veterinarian for his Springer Spaniel, Millie, and her puppy, Ranger.

Walton, a California native, had always focused his studies on large animals. When he began working with presidential pets, he welcomed the challenge of caring for small animals. It felt incredible to him that the president had the trust and faith in him as a professional to let him take care of the country's mascots.

What surprised him the most, though, was the utter lack of privacy the family and their pets had. "We literally had the National Enquirer calling our staff posing as White House staffers asking for Millie's records when there was a rumor she was sick. It was rather amusing."

To this day, he is incredibly impressed with how close the Bushes were with their pets. "They took such fabulous care of them. They were some of the best pet owners a vet could ask for," Walton says.

Barbara Bush would come to every appointment, and the president would often stop by, asking pertinent questions about the care of their dogs. And they followed up on all of Walton's orders themselves instead of handing the dogs off to aides. Furthermore, the Bushes took care of the dirty work. If one of the dogs had an accident on the floor, it would be President Bush who would grab papers to clean it up.

"Anytime a veterinarian has clients that are that involved with their pets, where they are really part of the family, it just makes your job that much more pleasurable," Walton says. "I would have loved to stay there and do that job forever."

But all good things must end; the army sent him back to school to get a specialization in small animals. He is now stationed in Fort Collins, Colo. He likes that he started as a large animal practitioner and wound up being a small animal practitioner. "It was a little bit of retraining on my part as a large animal (veterinarian), but the reality is a mammal is a mammal," Walton says. "It's worked out well. I've enjoyed every minute of being in the Vet. Corp. What you do really makes a difference."

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