Joy over first White House shelter dog reflects growing embrace of rescue pets

The Bidens adopted their German shepherd Major from a Delaware shelter. Pet adoptions in the U.S. have helped enable euthanasia rates to drop.

Photograph by Win McNamee, Getty Images
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President-elect Biden will bring with him to the White House his two German shepherds: Champ, pictured here, and Major, who will be the first shelter dog to ever live in the White House. The news has thrilled animal lovers, reflecting a growing embrace of rescue pets.

Photograph by Win McNamee, Getty Images

Joy over first White House shelter dog reflects growing embrace of rescue pets

The Bidens adopted their German shepherd Major from a Delaware shelter. Pet adoptions in the U.S. have helped enable euthanasia rates to drop.

Major the German shepherd spent his puppyhood in an animal shelter. In January, he’ll move into the White House.

After four years without a presidential pet at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, dogs are coming back. Major, who President-elect Biden and his wife Jill Biden adopted from the Delaware Humane Association three years ago, will be the first shelter dog ever to live in the White House. With him will be 12-year-old Champ, the Bidens’ other German shepherd.

This news has been met with elation on social media, reflecting a growing embrace by Americans of shelter dogs—more than 1.6 million dogs were adopted last year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

While there’s no official tally of how many pets are purchased versus adopted in the U.S., the American Veterinary Medical Association estimated in a 2018 report that there are 77 million pet dogs in the United States, and that shelters and rescue groups source the largest share of those animals.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that about 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year. About 670,000 are euthanized—a significant drop from 2011, when 2.6 million dogs and cats were put down. The ASPCA attributes some of this drop to the popularity of shelter-pet adoption (another reason is an increase in stray dogs being successfully reunited with their owners).

President Trump was the first president since President James Polk in the 1840s to not have a pet in the White House, according to the online Presidential Pet Museum.

A long legacy of dogs in the White House

Ever since George Washington—who had twelve foxhounds, including Drunkard, Taster, Tipler, and Tipsy—most presidents have had pets. Andrew Jackson had a parrot who he taught to swear (and who swore so much at Jackson’s funeral that he had to be removed). Lincoln had two goats.

Teddy Roosevelt had a garter snake named Emily Spinach and his family held a “state funeral” for their pet bunny, Peter Rabbit. Franklin D. Roosevelt famously had a Scottish terrier named Fala, who is commemorated in bronze at the president’s memorial in Washington, D.C. Lyndon B. Johnson owned the White House’s first rescue dog (though not a shelter dog)—a terrier mix who his daughter found at a gas station.

The Bidens purchased their other German shepherd, Champ, from a breeder in 2008. In 2018, when seeking to find him a companion, their daughter Ashley saw a Facebook post from the Delaware Humane Association (DHA), about six newly arrived rescued German shepherd puppies, says Patrick Carroll, executive director of DHA. The puppies, he says, had come to the shelter after being exposed to something toxic in their home. The Bidens initially fostered Major, and then President-elect Biden came to DHA to sign the paperwork to make his adoption official. “We treated him like any other adopter,” says Carroll.

Pound puppies no more

Over the last decade, awareness around adoption as an option for prospective dog owners has grown significantly, says Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.

“People used to think that dogs were in a shelter or surrendered there because something was wrong with them,” Block says. She attributes much of the problem with dogs ending up in shelters to puppy mills, commercial-scale operations that breed solely for profit, often without ensuring proper health checks, welfare standards, or buyer education, leading to a glut of dogs ending up in shelters.

“Once people realized that they weren’t in shelters because they’re broken or misfits, but because there are too many of them, it really helped turn public perception,” she says.

Block says she thinks people resonate with the idea that they’re not just welcoming a new companion into their home, but are actively saving a life—and potentially opening up a space at a shelter for a new rescued animal.

Carroll of Delaware Humane Association says he’s seen a real growth in the number of people adopting over the 15 years he’s been with the organization. He attributes the growth to using social media to reach out to prospective adopters.

“I don’t even remember how we used to do it," Carroll says. "I guess we had animals on our website. And people would come in and just shop. But now our Facebook posts really drive [adoptions]. It’s how this happened with Major—Ashley Biden saw the puppies in a post.”

Joyful responses

When Cori Spruiell, of Sarasota, Florida heard the news about Major from her wife on Sunday night, “I immediately started crying,” she says. It’s joyful “to imagine that a dog at one point was potentially surrendered and in a shelter and now is going to be living in the White House.”

Spruiell, an active TikTok user and rescue dog owner herself, immediately pulled out her phone, recorded her emotional reaction to the news she’d just learned about Major, and posted the video, which immediately went viral, with more than a million likes. “A lot of things have made me cry today but this really put me over the edge,” she captioned her post.

“Started at the bottom, now we’re here,” several people commented, quoting a popular Drake song.

“From rags to riches,” read another. “Don’t you mean… wags to riches?” someone responded.

“Omg the Cinderella story we all needed this year!” one person wrote. “Isn’t that the plot to Annie?” said another.

Spruiell says that it felt like one more milestone to celebrate with the election: the first woman vice president, the first woman vice president of color—and the first presidential shelter dog. “It was this nugget of goodness,” she says.

Having pets—and especially dogs, by far the most popular presidential pet—in the White House is something that the average American can relate to, says Spruiell. “It symbolizes humanity and warmth, and I think we’d kind of lost a lot of that, not having that personal connection with the First Family,” she says.

'Adopt don’t shop'

"Adopt don’t shop" has become a catchphrase shared frequently on social media (including in several comments on Spruiell’s TikTok post), and by animal advocates. Groups like the Shelter Pet Project help connect people with shelter pet listings all over the country; many rescues all over the country focus on specific breeds.

Others, such as the Beagle Freedom Project, rescue dogs used in research experiments, placing them into “forever homes,” while Humane Society International facilitates the rescue and adoptions of dogs from the dog meat trade in South Korea. (Just last week, the group transported 196 dogs from dog farms in South Korea to shelters in the Washington, D.C., area.)

While she encourages prospective pet owners to consider adoption, Block advises that those who have their heart set on buying a purebred puppy do extensive research in selecting a responsible breeder, which might include meeting the puppy’s parents, observing living conditions, and never buying a dog online.

“But if you’re not looking for a champion show dog,” says Spruiell, who has an adopted husky named Samoa, “and if you just need some love in your life, a shelter dog is going to give all that and more.”