During this 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, it is edifying to recall that Abraham Lincoln was not only a great president, but a great cat-lover. “Disunion”, the NY Times series on the 150th anniversary (which is generally quite good), in a piece on regimental mascots and pets, notes that
Even President Lincoln wasn’t immune to the solace provided by animals during the war. When Mary Todd Lincoln was asked if her husband had a hobby, she replied, “cats.”
Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth President, loved cats and could play with them for hours. When asked if her husband had a hobby, Mary Todd Lincoln replied, “cats.” President Lincoln visited General Grant at City Point, Virginia in March of 1865. The civil war was drawing to a close and the enormous task of reuniting the country lay ahead, yet the President made time to care for three orphaned kittens. Abraham Lincoln noticed three stray kittens in the telegraph hut. Picking them up and placing them in his lap, he asked about their mother. When the President learned that the kittens’ mother was dead, he made sure the kittens would be fed and a good home found for them.
WEIT readers know that cats are a frequent subject of posts here, and that the origin of the moral sentiment is another, although not quite as frequent, subject. The two topics have occasionally joined hands, mostly in the person (?feline) of my cat Peyton (see here and here). Well, it turns out dogs can have a moral sense too. PZ Myers has a wonderful video of a dog in Chile going out into a busy highway to rescue another dog which has been hit by a car.
Actually, despite our well-known ailurophilia (digression: OED take note– you don’t have this word yet!) here at WEIT, we’ve long known that dogs have rudimentary moral sentiments, and Darwin included observations of his dogs (the second of which was named Bob) in his writings on the subject (see here, especially chap. 3, and here both links are to The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online). A sample (Descent, vol. 1, p. 77):
I have myself seen a dog, who never passed a great friend of his, a cat which lay sick in a basket, with-out giving her a few licks with his tongue, the surest sign of kind feeling in a dog.
An alert reader has called my attention to an error in WEIT. In the section on dog-breeding, I characterize the Chihuahua as having been bred as a food animal by the Aztecs. This appears to be wrong, but the real story is more interesting. The food-dog in question appears to be not the Chihuahua, but the Xoloitzcuintli (pronounced, according to Wikipedia and other sources, as “show-low-itz-quint-lee”). This is the rare “Mexican hairless” dog, apparently an endangered breed not recognized by the American Kennel Club, although it used to be. Weighing from 10-50 pounds, it is completely hairless except for a crest atop its head. It is thus hypoallergenic (a good dog for the Obama’s daughters?). It also sweats through its skin rather than its tongue–the only dog to do so. Obviously, like hairless cats, it must be kept warm.
The “xolo” was apparently used as a source of heat for sick Aztecs, since its naked body could be placed next to the patient. And it was apparently eaten as well. It’s one of the oldest breeds of dogs in the world. The hairlessness is obviously the result of a mutation (or mutations), but I couldn’t find the specific genetic lesion involved.
Anyway, let’s hear it for the xolo, a living “dog fossil” that is hanging on by its claws. You can read more about it here.