Mom, can we keep him? Ummm, no.


Back in October, I caught an HBO documentary about Ethel Kennedy; chronicling her public and private life.  It was cool seeing all of the archival footage, photographs and hear the stories, but one really caught my ear.

Apparently Ethel and Co. kept quite a menagerie at their home, Hickory Hill, in McLean, Virginia. Mostly, it was what you would expect to find on a big place in the country – horses, dogs, goats, etc.  Then, one of her children mentioned a seal, followed by shuddering over the memory of feeding it whole fish and removing the eyes and where these migrated.  As the story wound down, however, it was revealed that the seal (as a pet) didn't last long on the farm and was eventually sent to the National Zoo.  Really!?

Sandy's arrival at the Hickory Hill swimming pool was captured by an AP photographer.

First thing the next morning, I checked various seal/sea lion Latin names so I could access the animal records at the National Zoo (Record Unit 386 - National Zoological Park, Animal Records, 1887-1976).  I found a Californian sea lion, Zalophus califorianus, named "Sandy," that was deposited by Robert F. Kennedy, Chain Bridge Road, McLean, Virginia on December 18, 1959 and it was later formally donated to the Zoo by Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy on March 30, 1960.  It further was memorialized in the National Zoo's 1960 annual report, p. 133 as follows, "Robert F. Kennedy gave a young California sea-lion which had been sent to his children as a Christmas present and had been living in their swimming pool."

Later, Theodore Reed, the Zoo's Director, provided an update on Sandy's progress in his thank you letter to Mrs. Kennedy:

May I say again how delighted we are to have Sandy, and how much the National Zoo appreciates your generous gift.  He is a great addition to our seal colony, which is one of the most popular attractions here at the Zoo.

You will be interested to hear, that when I inquired of his keeper this morning how he was adjusting, was told that Sandy was happily swimming in his pool, had eaten his supper of smelts with gusto, and already was looking with interest through the fence at the other seals in an adjoining pool.  He will be put in with them as soon as acquainted, and then can swim happily with the pack.

Please tell the children we are sure Sandy is happy, but look forward to their visits is and hope they come soon.

Record Unit 326, Box 79, Folder - Animals Acquired – Gifts, 1941, 1957-1970, 1977

As far as I was able to determine, Sandy swam happily with pack and dined on smelts (could not tell if these were sans eyes) with gusto until June 25, 1967 when his death was recorded in the daily reports of the Animal Department.

So that's the story of Sandy, but he was not the only celebrity to come and live at the Zoo.  Over the years the Zoo has provided a home to some of Admiral Richard E. Byrd's sled dogs; Ham, the first chimp who flew in space; and, Pig 311 who survived the atomic tests associated with Operation Crossroads.

Related Resources

  • Ethel - HBO Documentaries

Related Collections

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.