Joe Biden Ditches His Shelter Dog for a Purebred Puppy Days Before Christmas
Updated: Dec 23, 2021
According to an email from First Lady Jill Biden’s press secretary to NPR, an almost 4-month-old purebred German shepherd puppy named Commander was given to the president as a birthday gift from his brother and sister-in-law, James and Sara Biden.
If you’re keeping track, the Bidens' oldest dog Champ died in June at the age of 13, so this should leave them with one dog, Major, whom they famously adopted from a shelter in 2018. But if you thought that put the total number of White House dogs firmly back at two, you would be mistaken. Because the Bidens are pawning him off to live with 'family friends.'
photo courtesy of @POTUS Instagram
This might sound an awful lot like he's off to live on the farm your parents told you about, the one where your pet turtle went to live when they found his decomposing corpse in the aquarium. And while I’m sure that the secret service is not going to dispatch him with an 'accident,' Major is still being disappeared.
The First Lady’s Press Secretary assured NPR, "This is not in reaction to any new or specific incident, but rather a decision reached after several months of deliberation as a family and discussions with experts." And this may be true. But the move still comes after two dog bite incidents in March, one reportedly involving a Secret Service agent and another involving a National Park Service employee. So the timing makes it look like long enough has passed to allow Major a more graceful departure from the family photo than a sudden exit.
Why is this dog ditching important? Because the optics of it create consequences for shelter animals across the country. Dogs are already treated as disposable objects, and shelter dogs are seen by the U.S. public as especially disposable because they are often regarded as defective. And while the trend of buying secondhand clothes is rising in popularity, there is less (albeit growing) enthusiasm for adopting ‘secondhand’ dogs. Because dogs are frequently bought as status symbols, a ‘used’ one imbues the buyer with less social and economic capital. Hence the celebratory atmosphere surrounding Major’s introduction to Pennsylvania Avenue. He was an historically unusual tenant.
I wrote my whole thesis on the topic of animal symbolism in U.S. American politics. The presidential dog is one such symbol. In a cruel twist of irony, the presidential dog as a symbol is used to humanize the politician. In other words, canine animals are exploited as vehicles to make human animals appear more human.
Intentionally or not, dogs craft a president’s image as caring, thoughtful, trustworthy, and approachable. Major’s distinction as the first shelter dog elevated to White House status was part of Joe Biden’s presidential image—the former vice president and former senator from Delaware who is so humble that he even adopted a rescue pet, an everydog for America’s everyman. Never mind that it was after facing criticism for his purchasing of a purebred dog a decade before (a critique he skirts because this new one was gifted).
Major’s usefulness as a political actor was made blisteringly transparent by his very name. He, like his youthful replacement Commander, was given the name of a high-ranking military officer. These names speak to the intensely American themes of nationalism and military worship.
Major's objectification was leveraged even further because his story was used to reinforce the timeless narrative of American meritocracy. His adoption was framed as a ‘wags’ to riches tale. The Delaware Humane Association even said, "From shelter pup at the Delaware Humane Association to First Dog at the White House, Major Biden is barking proof that every dog can live the American dream."
Indeed, the expectation was that this could open up opportunities for other unhoused dogs. Patrick Carroll, the executive director of the Delaware Humane Association, said that Major demonstrated the possibilities of what could happen “for all the great dogs who need homes out there.” His ascension to the White House symbolizes the possibilities for every poor and working class American, human or otherwise.
But if Joe Biden had the power to open the floodgates for shelter animals through Major’s adoption, what are the consequences of unceremoniously and publicly dumping the faithful companion when he has outlived his political usefulness and replacing him with a purebred puppy five day before Christmas? Those shelter floodgates could be closed as firmly and as quickly as the door to immigrant children at the U.S. southern border.
The White House categorically states that the rehoming is in Major’s interest. And make no mistake, it absolutely is! But the Bidens carefully ignore the larger and arguably more important question: how, after 2 years of living with him, did they not know Major well enough to understand how poorly he would adjust to the life of First Dog? If his emotional well-being was ever a consideration, it would never have been compromised by putting him in that situation in the first place. Whether they meant to do it or not, the Bidens benefited from Major’s political capital, and now they appear to be discarding him for their own shortcomings at meeting his emotional needs.
By comparison, Joe Biden’s predecessor former President Donald Trump is an anomaly. He was the first president in nearly 130 years to not have a dog. During a 2019 rally in El Paso, Texas, he explained three very credible reasons why he didn’t get one: the idea of obtaining a dog seemed “phony” to him, his base liked him just fine anyway, and he simply didn’t have time. Ironically, these may accidentally have been the most honest words Trump had ever spoken. He made explicit that presidential dog ownership was an inherently political calculation, and one that he didn’t need to make because the people he courted (and still courts) didn’t care. Plus, he simply didn’t have time which, to be fair, would be pretty true of someone running a whole country.
As it stands, the Bidens are set to welcome another furry family member in January. This time, a cat. Rumors had long circulated about a potential First Feline joining the Biden family, and it seems the time has come. Because a representative has confirmed that the cat is female, it can be assumed that she has already been hand-picked. Whether or not she comes from a shelter is anyone’s guess. But hopefully, the Biden cat will have better luck.