Animal Heroes
Animal Stories from

By Constance Young

August 2009

To paraphrase Henry Beston (The Outermost House, 1928), animals are not our brethren, or underlings, but are "other nations." They move "finished and complete," fellow prisoners of the splendor and travails of the earth. Too often humans forget, or ignore, the totality of other species, and think more of what they can and cannot do for us. In my files, which I have kept over many years, I have many examples of different animal species performing surprisingly clever, even altruistic deeds; some are truly heroic acts. What is more, they appear to be far more sapient than most people realize.


Companion animals are known to lower or stabilize blood pressure of their human companions, as well as provide good company, particularly for shut ins. Dogs and cats, and sometimes other animals, are often invited to visit nursing homes and hospitals to provide a kind of "therapy" for the residents. Dogs, monkeys and other animals also help disabled people in other ways, such as getting their newspaper or doing other chores, and some animals are trained to recognize the early onset of an epileptic attack well before the victim does, even sometimes dialing 911 in the event of a medical emergency.

And then there are the heroes: my file includes many accounts of animals who foil kidnappings, rescue children from dangerous animals or speeding vehicles; are seen overcoming fear with bravery and showing what—at the risk of anthropomorphizing—are clearly compassion, affection, grief, mourning, or other strong emotions. Of course we all know about the hero "911 dogs," who saved many lives after the World Trade Center attacks, but many of you will be surprised by the mindful bravery of other animals. Take, for example, the pack of 60 gorillas who stormed a village in Cameroon to rescue a young gorilla who had been captured alive by a hunter; the Welsh cow named Daisy who saved the owner of her farm by leading a group of cows into a circle around him to protect him from further injury by a 3,300-pound bull who had stomped on his chest and shoulders. Consider the many instances of dolphins who helped push drowning people to safety. Then there is the case of Duane Wright of Tucson, Arizona, a sleep apnea sufferer, who was saved by his pet iguana in May 1994 after he had stopped breathing. The iguana awakened him by hitting him with her claws and tail. Even bunnies know how to go thump, thump to protect their humans from fire. In July of 2008 in Australia, a news item for Agence France Presse reported on a pet rabbit who emergency workers claimed saved his guardians' lives by scratching at the door of their bedroom as their home burned.

Animals may arguably be more tolerant of differences than humans and will cross species barriers out of compassion. In April 2002, a disabled boy was adopted and raised by chimpanzees in Kano, Nigeria. In 2001 a mother bear appears to have cared for a missing 16-month-old Iranian toddler who was found safe and sound three days later. Very recently a Golden Retriever was pictured nursing tiger cubs at the Kansas Zoo, and there have been many other mismatched pairs—dogs and cats nursing squirrels, a rabbit nursing ostrich chicks, and a hen adopting a kitten, for just a few examples.

LuLu the Lifesaving Pig

But perhaps my favorite rescuer is a pot-bellied pig named LuLu. On August 4, 1998, Jo Ann Altsman of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, had a heart attack in the bedroom of her vacation trailer at a Pennsylvania lake resort. Many say that pigs are smarter than dogs, and certainly Altsman would agree. After her collapse, her American Eskimo dog began to bark, but no one was close enough to respond. Lulu can't bark, but she did something much more daring. She scrambled through a tight "doggie door," cutting her protruding stomach in the process; then waited at the side of the road until she saw a car. She then waddled to the road and lay down right in front of the car. The motorist stopped for the prone pig and got out. LuLu then led the man to the house and the rescue. Altsman heard a man screaming through her window that her pig was in distress. She answered that, in fact, it was she who was in distress, and asked him to call an ambulance. Luckily, help arrived in time: doctors said that if 15 more minutes had elapsed she likely would have died.

Nondiscriminatory heroes

Animals aren't only protective of their human guardians. They are also nondiscriminatory heroes and do brave deeds to help members of their own or other species. In July 1997, a lady in Oklahoma sent a photo to a CBS newsroom along with the story of the woodpecker pictured in the photo, who she wrote had flown into her window, knocking himself out cold. As she watched, another bird flew toward the house and picked up the unconscious bird and took it to a nearby tree branch. Out of what could only be compassion, this bird stayed with the unconscious bird for about two hours, watching over him. When the woodpecker finally awoke, seeming okay, both birds flew off.

And then there's the story of the swans and the geese as told by Charlotte Edwards on the website According to Edwards, a friend of hers was eating breakfast beside a huge window overlooking the Tred Avon River in Maryland one January morning in 2005. Lots of waterbirds know this place, but once or twice a year, a freeze hardens the water to ice. As her friend watched, she saw a large Canada goose, very still, with its wings folded tight to its sides, and its feet frozen to the ice. From the dark skies, she saw a line of swans. The leader swung to the right, then the white string of birds flew downward and the circle of swans landed on the ice. As swans and geese are often competitors, she was wary. But the swans surrounded the frozen goose, their bills working on the ice. For a long time they pecked at the ice. At last, the goose was rimmed by a narrow margin of ice instead of the entire creek. The goose's body struggled to pull away, and then he was free and standing on the ice, moving his big webbed feet slowly. The swans stood watching. Then, four of the swans moved around him, and their powerful beaks scraped the goose's wings from top to bottom, chipping off and melting the ice held within the feathers. Slowly, as if testing his strength, the goose spread his wings as far as they would go, then together again, accordion-like, and spread again. When at last his wings reached their fullest, the four swans took off and resumed their journey east, in perfect formation. Behind them, the goose moved into the sky and followed behind.

In "A Farm Boy Reflects," a recent New York Times opinion piece, columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote about his childhood struggle that pitted his admiration for the animals his family raised and their decision to kill and eat them. One poignant anecdote stood out. When Kristof was ten years old, his job was to lock the geese in the barn, rush at them and grab one and take it to the chopping block,where someone else would swing the ax. The geese knew something dreadful was happening and as he approached they would run and cower in a corner of the barn. More than once a brave goose would step away from the panicked flock and walk toward him, likely the mate of the one he had caught, and would step right up to him, "protesting pitifully." Geese are loyal and mate for life. Although terrified, that lone goose "was still determined to stand with and comfort its lover," Kristof wrote. An outmatched lone being, towered over by an ax-wielding person of another species, performed a defiant and brave act that few humans would replicate.

Dogs and cats are known for rescuing their human guardians from smoke and fire. The online journal Animal People, in 1996 charted 11 cases of dogs alerting humans to fires or other imminent life-threatening disasters, and five cats doing the same. A few of the cat heroes in my files include Susie, an orange tabby from Oklahoma City who alerted her 100-year-old human guardian, Lois Gillis Hall to a smoldering fire one evening in May 1998. Gillis Hall had just gotten to sleep and awoke to a shrill screech. As she opened her eyes she saw Susie sitting hunched beside her, fur on end, yowling furiously. Susie then pounced on Gillis Hall's chest, swiping her with the soft pad of her paw, which Gillis Hall assumed was Susie's way of telling her that she wanted to go out, so she led her downstairs and out the door. Susie bolted back in, meowing more desperately than before, as if to tell Lois something. As Lois turned, she saw that the house was burning. A fire had started in an electric blanket which had burned a hole in her mattress. Just a few more minutes and the bed would have burst into flames, with her in it.

Another of the most poignant, publicized cat rescuers was a stray calico cat from Brooklyn, who even has a website and a poem written in her honor. In March/April 1996, with her eyes blistered shut, her paws burned and her coat scorched, a cat who was later nicknamed Scarlett for her patches of red fur darted into a flaming abandoned building in Brooklyn and pulled out her kittens, one by one. Once all the kittens had been rescued, Scarlett conducted a head count, touching each kitten with her nose to make sure they were all there. Firefighter David Giannelli, a 17-year veteran with Ladder Company 175 told reporters, "She ran in and out of that building five times, got them all out, and then started moving them one by one across the street." Giannelli found the cat family outside the building and took them to an animal shelter, where the mother and babies received treatment. Three months after her heroic feat, Scarlett and her four surviving babies were not only well, but were adopted in a blaze of publicity. A sad note: on October 15, 2008, Scarlett passed away presumably due to complications of her injuries. Her life and times can be found on her own Wikipedia page.

In many of the cases I've mentioned, the animal is mindful of what he or she is doing. Sometimes, however, the lifesaving deed is unintentional. For example, my two cats may have inadvertently saved my life when I was in my 20s and living in a ground floor Manhattan studio apartment with a patio. They were in their usual position sitting face to face on top of the warm television set as I watched TV. Suddenly, they jumped upright, looked toward the patio door, and began to move toward it. Because of their action I looked too, and there stood an intruder peering in at us. I ran to my front door and buzzed the doorman, and the man ran away. Who knows what would have happened if my cats hadn't done what cats do?

Originally published on

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