Abraham Lincoln was a lifelong animal lover. He rescued stray kitties, saved a pig hopelessly stuck in mud, and searched for a bird’s nest to return two baby birds blown out of the nest by a storm. Lincoln advocated for humane treatment for all animals – domestic and wild – and spoke out against cruelty to animals. His empathy and respect for all life influenced his own life during a time when he was faced with difficult decisions as the 16th President of the United States.
Lincoln was born in Hardin County, Kentucky in 1809. When he was 9, his father moved the family to Indiana where they squatted on public land and carved out a living farming and hunting on a small patch of land. He wasn’t close to his father, who didn’t like Abraham wasting time reading books. Throughout his early years, it was his sense of humor and love of animals that helped Lincoln deal with adversity.
As a young boy, Lincoln’s first pet was a pig. Sadly, it ended up on the dinner table. When he saw classmates turning turtles over on their backs, he scolded them for being cruel. One day while hunting, Lincoln shot and killed a wild turkey. He was overwhelmed with grief and vowed to never hunt large animals again – a vow he kept the rest of his life. Even though hunting was a way of life, young Lincoln hated killing animals for food and refused to hunt or fish, which was contrary to frontier life. He took a stand against animal cruelty, and believed in animal rights and human rights. Lincoln wasn’t shy about giving mini-sermons to his family about animal abuse.
Suffering from severe and at times debilitating depression, Lincoln relied on his family, friends, humor, work, spiritual beliefs and a determined will to see him through his “tendency to melancholy.” It was his pets, however, that pulled him through some of his darkest periods of depression. Lincoln’s pets included horses, turkeys, rabbits, cats, dogs and goats. Before being elected to the White House, Lincoln had rescued a dog five years earlier which he named Fido. After he was assassinated, Fido became a popular name for dogs for a time. Once in Washington, Lincoln took in a small dog he named Jip, and the two were often seen eating lunch together.
Lincoln was a gentle man around animals, and he adored cats, especially kittens. It was common to see him cuddling a kitty in his lap for long periods of time and speaking quietly to the feline. Shortly after arriving in DC, Lincoln was given a gift of two kittens from Secretary of State William Seward. The president named them Tabby and Dixie. During one formal White House dinner, he fed Tabby from the table with a gold fork – much to the disapproval of his wife who was horrified he fed the cat in front of his guests. One day in his first term, Lincoln remarked, “Dixie is smarter than my whole cabinet! And furthermore, she doesn’t talk back!”
Towards the end of the Civil War in 1865, Lincoln was meeting with General Grant to finalize plans for a critical battle campaign. During the meeting, Lincoln was distracted by tiny mews and searched until he found three stray kittens. He picked them up and put them in his lap, gently stroking them as he and his military leaders talked. When the meeting was over, Lincoln instructed one of the colonels to make sure the kittens were properly cared for and treated with respect. The officer assured Lincoln they would be. Three weeks later, Lincoln was assassinated.
Lincoln was the first president to pardon a turkey, although the custom wouldn’t become a tradition until 1989 when George H.W. Bush made the event official. The Lincolns were given a turkey as a gift for Christmas dinner, but one of his sons adopted the bird as a pet. The right thing to do, in Lincoln’s view, was to pardon the turkey named Jack.
Lincoln’s compassion for all life, human and animal, guided his decision making during the Civil War. His love of animals had a huge influence in his life, and that compassion was a precursor to his indignation against slavery. Throughout his life, Lincoln was concerned about the feelings of others, regardless of their station in life. The Emancipation Proclamation is one of our nation’s most important documents. It was written by a sensitive man who believed in the equal rights of all men, and the welfare of animals.
“We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” Abraham Lincoln
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