U.S. President Calvin Coolidge was known for his collection of animals, including many dogs, birds, a wallaby, lion cubs, a raccoon and other unusual animals. One of these was William Johnson Hippopotamus, or Billy, a Pygmy Hippopotamus given to him as a pet in 1927 by Harvey Firestone, founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. Billy was born in Liberia where he was captured on one of Firestone Tires’ plantations. On May 26, 1927, Coolidge was informed that he would receive the rare hippo as a gift, and he subsequently donated him to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.
By August 1927, Coolidge had sent one of the largest collection of animals to the zoo of any president, second only to Theodore Roosevelt, and he paid them frequent visits. Upon his arrival, Billy was one of the most valuable animals the zoo had ever received, and was only the eighth pygmy hippopotamus to be brought to the United States. Billy was a popular animal. Several months after his arrival, The New York Times wrote that Billy was “as frisky as a dog. Even the antics of the monkeys go unobserved when the keeper opens the tiny hippo’s cage and cuts up with him.” In addition to his fame as an exotic presidential pet—which afforded him a trip to the 1939 New York World’s Fair—Billy is also notable as the common ancestor to most pygmy hippos in American zoos.