Honest Abe’s Secret Passion


By Matthew Algeo

A few days before his eighth birthday, in February 1817, Abraham Lincoln shot a wild turkey. He hoped the kill would impress his father. Instead, the sight of the dead bird left the future president traumatized. Lincoln later wrote that he never again pulled a trigger on “any larger game.”

On the frontier, animals were seen as sources of labor, nourishment, or amusement. It was a time when ripping the heads off live geese was the entertainment equivalent of late-night TV. But Lincoln wasn’t shy about sticking up for critters. As a youngster, he saved a turtle when some boys tried to pour hot coals on the animal’s back; he also admonished his friends that “an ant’s life was to it as sweet as ours to us.” The role animals played in Lincoln’s life has been largely overlooked. But it’s not an unimportant part of his legacy. As biographer Michael Burlingame writes, “Lincoln’s outrage at the mistreatment of animals foreshadowed his indignation at the cruelties of slavery.”

Lincoln’s White House was a menagerie of cats, rabbits, goats, and ponies. And once, while visiting General Grant and his troops at City Point, Virginia, he noticed three kittens on the floor of a telegrapher’s tent, “crawling about ... and mewing pitifully.” Hearing that the kittens’ mother had died, Lincoln ordered an officer to see that the cats were cared for. Before leaving, he returned to play with them—three times.

But there was one animal he adored above all. Around 1855, Lincoln adopted a stray yellow mutt he named Fido (from fidelis, Latin for “faithful”). Fido lived up to his name, accompanying Lincoln everywhere. But after the election of 1860, Lincoln feared the trip to Washington would be too stressful, and left the dog behind with friends. He even left behind Fido’s favorite horsehair sofa to keep him comfortable.

When the president died, Fido returned the love, standing guard as thousands of mourners filed through Lincoln’s home to pay their respects.

Adapted with permission from Abe & Fido: Lincoln’s Love of Animals and the Touching Story of His Favorite Canine Companion.