by Pam Bonsper
If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, he would undoubtedly be at one of the animal rescue projects wearing a t-shirt and helping out with adoptions. Perhaps he’d be heading up an agency…or maybe even signing federal animal rights legislation. Abe was a true animal lover and advocate who preached against animal cruelty.
In the 1800s, not many people carried extra leashes and dog biscuits in their saddlebags. However, while on the judicial circuit in Illinois, Abe, wearing a new suit, was said to have jumped off his horse and saved a pig from a mucky slough. While in the White House, Abe heard three orphaned kittens meowing in the telegraph hut and found homes for them. My favorite: he issued “an order of reprieve,” which spared the Thanksgiving turkey from the roasting pan because his son, Tad, had befriended the turkey and named him Tom.
Although Abe looked out for many animals, his most difficult advocacy involved his own beloved dog, Fido.
Fido, meaning “faithful” in Latin, was a large dog with floppy ears and a rough, yellowish coat—probably a shepherd/retriever mix. It is not known how Abe acquired Fido, but it is known that Fido lived up to his name. The Lincolns lived in Springfield, Illinois when they got Fido (it is believed he was born in 1855). The friendly pooch was often seen following Abe through town, helping with errands by carrying a package in his mouth. Waiting outside Billy the Barber’s while Abe had a haircut, he’d entertain walkers-by while chasing his tail.
Fido loved people and loved being treated as he thought a dog should be: full run of the house and dinner scraps. I wouldn’t be surprised if Abe offered Fido one of his favorites—warm apple pie—right from the table.
Fido gave his family much in return. Joseph E. Suppiger wrote: “Lincoln enjoyed watching his younger sons, Willie and Tad, romp through the back yard with [their dog] Fido while Robert studied in his room and Mrs. Lincoln sewed and tatted.”
Fido had lived with the Lincolns for five years when Mr. Lincoln became President Lincoln. Needing to move his family to Washington to live in the White House, Lincoln was faced with the agonizing choice of whether or not to take their faithful pet. Abe decided to put Fido first in making his decision.
Thunder and all loud sounds sent Fido scampering to the parlor to hide under the sofa. Abe’s presidential victory had been celebrated with booming cannons and firecrackers, and Fido had been terrified. A long and loud train ride to the capital and brass band parades at the White House would be too much; Abe decided to leave Fido with long-time friends, the Rolls family, who had young boys who loved Fido. The new president also left strict instructions:
1. He shall be an indoor dog and given treats.
2. Never leave him tied up.
3. Let him in the house whenever he scratches.
4. Never scold him for muddy or dusty paws.
5. Allow him in the dining room during meals and be sure to give him table scraps.
Leaving for the capital, the Lincolns had the assurance that Fido would be spoiled, loved and cared for. They also had something else.
Before leaving for their new home, Abe’s sons asked for a picture of Fido. Even though photography was new and it was not customary to have photos of your pets, the boys took Fido to F.W. Ingmire’s studio, which was across from their father’s Springfield law office. A flowered rug was placed over a washstand and the first photograph of a presidential pet was taken. It was proudly displayed in the White House.
For Fido, Abe did something special. He left the custom-made, 7-foot mahogany horsehair sofa that Fido loved to lie on (and hide under) with the Rolls family. Fittingly, Fido would continue to be treated like royalty. In 1863, Abe’s barber wrote a reassuring letter to the Lincolns, “Tell Taddy that his dog is alive and doing well. He stays mostly at John E. Rolls’ with his boys who are about the size now that Tad and Willy were when they left for Washington.”
It must have warmed Abe’s heart to know he had made the right decision.
Two years later in 1865, Fido was there to say good-bye to his fallen master, along with Abe’s horse, Bob, who had also been left in Springfield. Bob was the riderless horse with a pair of boots turned backwards in the stirrups, and Fido was at the Lincoln home where he greeted mourners.
A quote from the great president reminds us of his dedication to animals: “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”
Abe Lincoln was a man before his time.