10 Animal Heroes Of The Past And Present

A hero can come in many shapes and sizes, but as we like to point out sometimes they can also be covered in fur or feathers.
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Canines may have the hard-earned reputation as man’s best friend, but all of these critters all prove that it’s possible to have more than one besty. In some cases, the animals featured here liked to give one another a hand and in the process remind us homo sapiens that we may think we’re pretty smart, but there are just some things in life best left to the animal kingdom.

The search and rescue dogs of 9/11

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center which saw a shocked America stop in its collective tracks as one of its iconic cities struggled with the worst terrorist attack on American soil in history, search and rescue canines (SAR) from across the country and their handlers were suiting up to do whatever it took to help the situation waiting for them at Ground Zero.

Over 100 dogs and handlers descended upon Lower Manhattan to search through the rubble where the Twin Towers once stood. Before these canines’ noses were put to work, dogs had already been saving lives on site. Roselle and Salty were two guide dogs who safely lead their visually-impaired owners down 70 flights of smoke-filled stairs and were later honored for their bravery.

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New York, N.Y. (Sept. 15, 2001) — A rescue dog is transported out of the debris of the World Trade Center. The twin towers of the center were destroyed in a Sept. 11 terrorist attack. U.S. Navy Photo by Journalist 1st Class Preston Keres. (RELEASED)

At Ground Zero, rescue dogs with padded paws tirelessly did what they were trained to do: locate the scent of humans needing help. Onsite veterinarians were needed to attend to cuts and scrapes as the dogs searched the debris, but the work never stopped for these four-legged heroes. Even when they weren’t scouring the carnage for survivors, the dogs provided an emotional break from the bleak surroundings for first responders. As the days passed and the last survivor, pulled from the rubble after being found by a German Shepherd named Trackr twenty-seven hours after the initial attack, was found, cadaver dogs were brought in to locate the remains of the deceased.

The last surviving 9/11 rescue dog, Bretagne, passed away in 2016. After her retirement from field duty, this hound kept working with the public, including a weekly in-class visit to area school children.

Sources: Remembering the Four-Legged Heroes of the 9/11 Rescue and Recovery , T he Hero Dogs of 9/11

 Wojtek the war bear

On April 8, 1942, a group of Polish troops who had been liberated from their Russian captors was in the process of a very long cross-country walking pilgrimage from Persia to Egypt and Palestine with a planned strategic rendezvous with the British Army. In times of war, it’s been said to hope for the best but plan for the worst. The chances are good no one ever thought to factor in a bear cub when that saying made its debut.

Enter into the picture an orphaned Syrian brown bear, who would later be named Wojtek (pronounced “Voytek”) by his Polish army adopters. Details of how exactly how Wojtek came to be part the 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division are unconfirmed, but one widely circulated story relates how the cub was traded to the soldiers by a young Iranian boy in exchange for some tins of canned meat.

That trade would turn into an almost two-meter-tall (six-foot), 220 kilogram (485 pounds) of mascot for the Polish troops. Raising him on condensed milk (from a vodka bottle, no less) along with whatever fruit was available from the limited rations, the troops loved having Wojtek around as a relief from the muck and mire they were surrounded by. He took to his human army buddies immediately, and with each passing day became more and more of a morale booster. With the exception getting a hoof to the head by a horse, Wojtek was a hit with other animals as well.

So how far were the members of the 22nd Transport Company willing to go to keep Wojtek in their ranks? When the company was preparing to ship off for the front lines, they made their furry buddy an enlisted soldier with a rank and serial number, becoming Corporal Wojtek. During the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek was put to work carrying crates of mortar shells from trucks to the gunners manning the front line assault. Wojtek became the symbol for the company when his crate-carrying pose became the inspiration for their official badge.

Wojtek survived the war years and was tearfully handed over to Scotland’s Edinburgh Zoo, where he passed away in 1963 at the age of 22.

Sources: The Bear That Went To War , The bear who was officially a member of the Polish army during WWII

Africa’s landmine-sniffing rats

Image Source: Getty

Let’s face it — people are surrounded by risks all the time. Risk can be on a sliding scale, though, and that’s why for some individuals hitting snooze one too many times on their iPhone is ‘risky’ for them, while in another part of the world coming face-to-face with a landmine is their definition of the word. We’re not currently aware of any creature trained to stop you from smacking your cell phone repeatedly, but in Africa there’s an animal already helping out with avoiding landmines: the rat.

Image Source: Caters News

It’s impressive enough that there’s a small army of trained African giant pouched rats clearing massive fields of mines across the country but APOPO, the Dutch non-profit agency spearheading the program, is also using rats to smell out tuberculosis in laboratories. For less than $7,000 per animal, these rats can be taught to use their canine-like sense of smell to hone in on landmines or TB.

In the case of the fieldwork, besides its sensitive nose, the giant pouched rat is ideal for the job since it weighs so little (despite ‘giant being in its name) that it physically can’t set off any mine it happens to step on. All it has to do once a mine has been found is raise its nose in the air and a handler will start the process of removing the device (usually by a safe-distance detonation).

They’re literally called HeroRATS for good reason. Not to knock the work humans have done to eliminate landmines and TB, but these sniffers more efficient and quicker — plus they do it all for a small snack to munch on.

Sources: How Rats Are Saving Human Lives With Their Noses

Saddle-up with Sgt. Reckless

Necessity is the mother of invention (or so we’ve all been told a time or two), which is exactly the reason why Lieutenant Eric Pedersen, commanding officer of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Anti Tank Company, Fifth Marine Regiment, found himself in the market for a horse in the midst of the Korean War.

Pederson was looking for a more efficient way to get the 11 kilogram (24 pound), 75mm shells fired by the recoilless rifle from point A to point B while troops were under enemy fire. The anti-tank rifle did the job, but everything surrounding the operation of it on the battlefield was slow and somewhat clumsy. Which is why Pederson and two of his men found themselves at a Seoul racetrack looking for a horse that could help carry the ammunition for them. Enter into the picture a mare with three white stocking feet purchased from a young Korean boy who needed the $250 paid for his ‘Flame of the Morning’ to outfit his injured sister (the victim of a landmine) with an artificial leg.

Flame, as she was known in her early days as a Marine, quickly found herself with a new name: Reckless. Reckless was immediately put into training and then active duty for her assignment carrying ammunition on the front lines. While doing so, she was treated as a true member of the Fifth Marine Regiment. She was soon in the heat of battle, at times carrying up to eight shells at a time (almost 90 kilograms or nearly 200 pounds) to awaiting gunners. During one frenzied battle, Reckless managed to make 51 trips from where the 75mm shells were stored to various gun sites. Despite being wounded, she still managed to carry twice as many shells as her human counterparts, 388 in total.

Reckless became property of the First Marine Division Association following a storied career in the field that saw her skills put to the test on numerous battlefields. After years with the Marines, she was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant. In recognition of her invaluable service during the Korean War, she would go on to be awarded two Purple Hearts, a Korean Service Medal and the United Nations Service Medal, amongst many others.

Sources: Sgt Reckless: Combat Veteran , Sgt Reckless

Pigeon power saves the day

Big city living is great if you tend to bore easily or just like having access to a little bit of everything when it comes to keeping life spicy — theater and music, art galleries, cool cuisine, the general hustle and bustle of a sprawling metropolis…and pigeons. Yes, pigeons often seem to be attracted to the same places humans are, and these ‘flying rats’ are oft-maligned bringers of poop and disease that people seem to instinctively despise.

Throughout history, pigeons have played vital roles in the communications departments of numerous civilizations. We obviously haven’t always had emails, telephones and texts to send word of important news, and that’s where pigeons proved their worth to humans. From the first Olympic Games in 776 BC when athletes arrived with a homing pigeon that would deliver the good news back to the participant’s town if they won their event to Genghis Khan putting pigeons to work establishing a sky network across Eastern Europe and Asia — pigeons can do one particular thing well, and that’s fly home.

Enter into this picture a Black Check cock carrier pigeon named Cher Ami (Dear Friend). During World War One, the U.S. Army Signal Corps stationed in France employed 600 pigeons to deliver messages back and forth between the front lines and military bases. Some estimates put the number of pigeons used by U.S. forces to deliver messages and conduct surveillance in the two World Wars at upwards of 200,000. On October 4, 1918, Cher Ami was a Hail Mary pass being thrown by Major Charles S. Whittlesey of the 77 Infantry Division, sometimes referred to as the ‘Lost Battalion.’

Whittlesey and his 196 men were trapped behind enemy lines, with their location unknown to their fellow troops and doubts as to whether they were even still alive. The Allied soldiers were being bombarded with artillery fire from Allied and Axis forces, food was running and dehydration was setting in. Whittlesey twice attempted to launch a pigeon carrying a note detailing their location, and twice the birds were immediately shot down by the Germans. Finally, Cher Ami was outfitted with a small metal case containing Whittlesey’s hand-scrawled note:

“We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.”

Cher Ami almost suffered the same fate as the previous two carriers after he took flight. The Germans managed to shoot him once in the breast, and then again in the leg with a bullet that nearly took the appendage clean off. It is estimated Cher Ami flew 40 kilometers (25 miles) in 25 minutes, and by the time he successfully completed his mission delivering Whittlesey’s note he had been blinded in one eye, shot twice and been targeted by hundreds of German guns. The 77 Infantry Division was rescued within hours of the message being delivered. For his efforts, Cher Ami was nursed back to health (not always the case for pigeons injured during the war), awarded the Croix de Guerre for his outstanding service and outfitted with a small wooden artificial leg.

Sources: Carrier Pigeons: Mother Nature’s Express Delivery Service , Shot and blinded, a pigeon named Cher Ami continued her flight and saved 197 American soldiers at the end of World War I

Life-saving monkey business

Maykool Coroseo Acuña thought taking a guided tour through Madidi National Park in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon would be fun. And why wouldn’t the 25-year-old think that? The locals swear there are spirits lurking within the depths of the jungle along with a host of wild animals, but the bevvy of tour operators based out of the nearby local town of Rurrenabaque preach more of a, “follow the leader and you’ll be just fine” doctrine.

That is not to say that even with an experienced guide by a tour group’s side accidents never happen in Madidi. Every year fatalities within the park are reported, but the last case of a tourist disappearing was over 15 years ago. That was until Acuña arrived, and then the story took a bizarre shift that came down to a lost five minutes, a single white sock and, according to Acuña, a group of saviour monkeys.

After an afternoon of jungle exploration, Acuña and his fellow travelers returned to their camp. The group’s guide, Feizar Nava, invited everyone to take part in a traditional ritual to thank Mother Earth (Pachamama) for allowing them to enter the rainforest. Acuña declined the invitation, instead returning to his cabin. From the time he was last seen at the camp to his disappearing was a mere five minutes. Talking with National Geographic, Nava had this to say about the incident:

“It’s because he offended the Pachamama. He didn’t want to participate in the ceremony.”

Six days after vanishing, one of Acuña’s socks was found in the jungle. Local authorities, the tour guides and Acuña’s family all feared the worst. Three days later, Acuña was found, covered in insect bites and dehydrated. Although he says he doesn’t recall of the specifics of his time wandering in the rainforest, he claims what helped him survive over the first few days of being lost was a group of monkeys traveling in the trees. Not only did they drop him food from the branches every day, but they also lead him to water and safe places to sleep each night.

The one thing the monkeys couldn’t supply Acuña? A bottle of Coca-Cola, which was the first request he asked for when he was found.

Sources: Man Lost in Amazon Survives—Thanks to Monkeys , Lost Tourist Says Monkeys Saved Him in the Amazon

World War One’s barking sergeant

It reads like a plotline taken directly from a movie, and technically now it is. ‘Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero’ brings to the big screen the story of a tailless mixed-breed mutt that lived his early life as a stray until one fateful day in July of 1917 when he wandered into the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut. There the hound, whose breed lineage has never officially been established but appears to have shades of pitbull and boxer in him, made first contact with the soldiers of the 26th “Yankee” Division’s 102nd Infantry.

While the film does its best to convey the story that would unfold from there, 90 minutes of animated historical storytelling can’t do the real thing the justice it deserves. Private J. Robert Conroy took the dog, which he named Stubby, under his wing. Months later, when it came time for Conroy and the rest of the 102nd Infantry to head overseas, Stubby was smuggled along. On the final leg of the journey, a crossing of the Atlantic ocean, Stubby was finally discovered by the higher-ups of the military. Legend goes that Stubby, who at this point had been trained by Conroy to raise a paw to his head as a form of canine salute, turned on the charm. The trick worked on the commanding officers, and with that playful gesture Stubby disembarked France’s port of Saint-Nazaire on his way to the Western Front as company’s unofficial mascot.

During his time in the frontline trenches, Stubby would find himself in the thick of 17 battles, including Meuse-Argonne, Aisne-Marne, Champagne-Marne and Saint-Mihiel. During his 210 days on the battlefield, Stubby survived poison gas attacks and shrapnel wounds. It is reported that Stubby saved the sleeping men of the 102nd from a lethal gas attack when his canine nose detected the odor of the gas, which he himself had been exposed to earlier. He ran up and down the trenches, barking and nipping at soldiers to wake them. For this accomplishment, Stubby was made a private first class — his first military ranking.

On his way through to his eventual sergeant rank, Stubby acquired quite the list of accommodations while performing tasks such as locating wounded soldiers in the heat of battle and even cornering a German spy who made it across enemy lines, including:

New Haven WWI Veterans Medal

Purple Heart

Republic of France Grande War Medal

St Mihiel Campaign Medal

3 service stripes

Yankee Division YD Patch


After the end of World War One, Stubby would go on to become the mascot for Georgetown University and meet three sitting presidents (Wilson, Coolidge and Harding). Following his passing while being held in Conroy’s arms at the age of nine, Stubby’s body was donated to the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of American History. There, his taxidermied body can be seen alongside another World War One animal hero already featured here, Cher Ami.

Sources: Sergeant Stubby , Sergeant Stubby: The Drool Sergeant of World War I , Sgt. Stubby

Pooches versus poachers

Starting in December, 2010, the nearly 20,000 square kilometers (7,500 square miles) that make up South Africa’s Kruger National Park has had nose-to-the-ground, tail-wagging weapons helping to combat poaching within its borders.

Several dog breeds, including well-known varieties such as the Labrador retriever and German shepherd, are seeing their superhero-like doggy senses being put to use in Kruger to help curb the increased demand for poachers to supply worldwide black markets with items such as rhino horns. The Kruger National Park K9 Centre located in Skukuza (which, according to the South African National Parks website, is Kruger’s largest rest camp is the program’s administrative headquarters), has also enrolled bloodhounds and the shepherd-like Belgian malinois to help fill out its canine ranks. The bloodhounds and malinois are often trained for field duty, while the others carry out various roles at the park’s gates sniffing out firearms and anything animal-related.

It was an eight-year-old Belgian malinois named Killer that was bestowed the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Gold Medal in January of 2016 for his role in the arrest of 100 rhino poachers. Over a one-year span, the K9 Centre’s 53 anti-poaching dogs and their handlers (including Amos Mzimba, Killer’s human sidekick) have been given credit for 168 of the approximately 200 poaching arrests made in the park. In an interview with the BBC, Mzimba gives praise where praise is due, especially for the dog who he said has also saved his life from an armed poacher attempting to shoot him.

“Thanks to him, we are arresting more poachers, but there is a lot more to be done if we are to save the rhino from extinction.”

It’s the work that still needs to be finished that today has helped cement the K9 program’s importance across much of South Africa, not just Kruger. The Ichikowitz Family Foundation, the group responsible for the establishment of the program, started off funding the dogs to help combat chainsaw-wielding poachers linked to crime syndicates across Asia from cruelly hacking off rhino horns destined for use in over 50 different traditional medicinal supplements and treatments in countries such as China. Now, the foundation is putting the dogs to work helping to protect another animal that ranks up with the elephant for being one of the most trafficked mammals in the world: the pangolin, sometimes called the scaly anteater.

Advocacy group Annamiticus puts the number of illegally trafficked pangolins, which in a 2014 CNN article is described as ‘an artichoke with legs’, between 117,000 and 234,00. Why the human demand for the particular oddity of nature? Like the rhino horn, parts of the pangolin (primarily their scales) are used in traditional medicines. But unlike rhinos, which are usually only killed for their horn, the pangolin also has to deal with poachers wanting it for its blood (used as a healing tonic) and its meat, considered by the Chinese to be a culinary delicacy. The dogs will be busy: a report published by the African Pangolin Working Group shows that in 2011, only 21 kilograms (46 pounds) of pangolin scales were illegally traded. In 2106, that number had risen to 19,599 kilograms (43,208).

Sources: South African National Parks , Rhino poacher-hunting dog from South Africa gets hero medal , Anti-poaching dogs a game-changer for Kruger , World First: Canine power to protect Pangolins , The most trafficked mammal you’ve never heard of

Lion bodyguards

It’s troubling to hear that in some nations today, kidnapping young girls and women, beating them, raping them and then marrying them is just how things are done. It’s a disturbing notion that such practices not only still exist, but are viewed as the norm in several countries, including Ethiopia.

So how do heroic animals come into play for a practice so widespread across this African country that for the last year statistics are available (2003), the National Committee on Traditional Practices of Ethiopia reported that 69 percent of Ethiopia’s marriages followed a very cruel gameplan: abduction, followed by rape and finally a marriage license signed under duress? In one particular case that occured in 2005, an incident that started off the worst week of a 12-year-old African girl’s life was partially salvaged by a pride of lions that stepped in to protect an innocent against captors trying to make her just another statistic.

Although specifics of the case vary, due in part to the remote south-west region of Ethiopia in which the abduction took place, anywhere from three to seven men kidnapped the girl as she walked home from school. The intent of the captors, as reported by agencies including NBC and CNN, was for one of the men to marry her. After being notified by the girl’s family of her disappearance, police began a search, but not before the captors began to beat their captive as the group did whatever it had to in order to evade the authorities.

Source: Bernard Dupont / Wikimedia

It was during this time on the run that they crossed the path of three lions. The men dropped their bruised and beaten human cargo and fled, with authorities claiming the lions right behind them. The lions returned to the girl, and it’s at this point of the story that the line blurs as to the true intentions of the beasts. Police from Bita Genet, where the terrified girl was discovered on the city’s outskirts, were the first to state the lions had gone out of their way to protect their discovery. Speaking to the BBC, Sergeant Wondmu Wedaj said that, “They stood guard until we found her and then they just left her like a gift and went back into the forest.”

At the time, some wildlife experts questioned the motives behind the lions’ behaviour. The animals were close to the girl for only half a day, leading some to think they were simply just waiting to eat her since she was wounded and not a threat to them. Others have surmised the girl’s crying and whimpering was mistaken by the lions as the same sounds lion cubs make, confusing them slightly as to what exactly they had stumbled upon. Regardless, the young girl was reunited with her family and authorities were able to apprehend four of the men involved.

Sources: Bride Kidnapping: Can the West Make a Difference? , Kidnapped girl ‘rescued’ by lions , Ethiopian girl reportedly guarded by lions

Moko the dolphin lends a helping flipper

Heroes of the animal kingdom don’t always earn the title of lifesaver because they’ve helped out a person in need. On some occasions, a very public good deed between species can rightfully earn an animal the recognition spotlight. Such was the situation with Moko the bottlenose dolphin, a well-known aquatic fixture along the eastern beaches of New Zealand’s North Island.

Amongst the human population, primarily those who frequent beaches and love surfing, Moko had a mixed reputation. It wasn’t that Moko wasn’t fond of humans; instead, there were many instances when he could be a little too friendly. Add in a healthy dose of mischievousness (‘stealing’ surfboards, blocking swimmers that ventured into the water to visit him from returning to dry land), and the 250 kilogram (551 pound) Moko definitely made a lasting impression with anyone who interacted with him. Dolphins are known for their social behaviour and their ability to charm humans, but until his death in 2010 at the age of four Moko’s occasional borderline aggressive behavior was credited to the fact he was young, loaded up with hormones, and probably spending too much time with people when he should have been interacting with other dolphins.

Moko’s personality and his strength became the saving grace for two pygmy sperm whales in early March of 2008. The distressed whales, a mother and her calf, repeatedly beached themselves on a sandbar while human rescuers looked on from the shallow waters of Mahia Beach. For 90 minutes the pair were assisted by people, only to become stranded again when they weren’t able to navigate their way past the sandbar and back into open water. It was an area familiar with whale strandings, with upwards of 30 whales a year dying after becoming beached. The same fate was looming in this instance, and that’s when Moko arrived on the scene, swimming amongst the human rescuers while appearing to converse with both the mother and her calf using chirps and whistles.

Again, the whales dislodged themselves from the sandbar that was looking like it might soon become a literal deathtrap, except this time instead of ramming themselves forward they followed Moko. He guided them 200 meters (650 feet) along the edge of the sandbar rather than over it, and a right-angle turn into a narrow channel later Moko and the whales were on their way out to sea. Locals say they have not seen those particular whales since.

Moko’s decomposing body was discovered washed ashore on Matakana Island, with the cause of death never determined. A memorial service was held for Moko in Whakatane, after which he was buried on the same beach where his body was found.

Sources: Save the whales: How Moko the dolphin came to the rescue of a mother and her calf , Hero Moko wins world acclaim for whale rescue , Dolphin Saves Stuck Whales, Guides Them Back to Sea


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