Heroic dogs, and sometimes cats––WHAT MAKES THEM BRAVE?
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1996:
PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y.––”A cat’s a better mother
than you are!” Rhett Butler exploded at Scarlet O’Hara in one of
the most memorable scenes of Gone With The Wind.
Cats are actually devoted mothers. On March 29 a
Brooklyn cat named Scarlet proved it, dashing five times into a
burning building despite severe burns to rescue each of her fourweek-old
kittens. Firefighter David Giannelli, a 17-year-veteran of
Ladder Company 175, saw Scarlet moving the kittens across the
street after getting them out of the fire and called the North Shore
Animal League. Now recovering at North Shore, they drew 700
adoption offers within hours of their plight becoming known.
The script-writers of the Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin serials
would have had a hard time topping the heroic animal headlines
during the first quarter-plus of 1996. Sixteen times in 15 weeks,
mass media reported dogs and cats performing daring or unusual
altruistic deeds, on behalf of either humans or other animals.
The streak began on New Year’s Day, when a nameless
cat in Minneapolis alerted a sleeping child to smoke in time to save
her family from a house fire.
The first case that went national and the first of a trio
involving Rottweilers came on January 24, a day after Blake
Weaver, age 3, vanished in the Ocala National Forest, of Florida,
wearing only shorts and a t-shirt. Samantha the Rottweiler followed.
At dusk she pushed the exhausted boy under a bush and lay
on top of him throughout a freezing night. At about 10:45 the next
morning, Samantha led young Weaver to rescuers.
Minnie, a stray Rottweiler, was heroine of the moment
two weeks later in Hayward, California, racing out of nowhere to
intercept David Bruce Jr., age 2, as he darted in front of a speeding
car. Out of work, living in a no-pets apartment, David Bruce
Sr. took Minnie to the Hayward Animal Shelter, then joined the
shelter staff in calling media to make sure she was adopted rather
In Winnipeg, Manitoba, on March 27, a Rottweiler
puppy named Thunder bit and rousted a
would-be kidnapper who tried to take Cody
Matthews, age 6, momentarily left alone
while his mother used a bathroom.
On April 12, near Pilar, New
Mexico, state police found Elisabeth
Atencio, age 3, missing for 14 hours
through a freezing night, safe and well
amidst her three dogs––a Rottweiler, a
Corgi, and an Australian shepherd.
That incident came a month and a
day after a dachshund mix and a “heeler”
mix, both strays, found Downs syndrome
victim Josh Carlisle wandering in the woods
near Cassville, Missouri; kept him warm
through a three-day ordeal; and finally
attracted rescuers by barking.
Only one of the early-year heroic
animals was trained for the deed: Lyric, an
Irish setter, who on March 13 pushed a special
911 button on the telephone of unconscious
and asphixiating asthma sufferer Judy
Bayly, 44, of Nashua, New Hampshire.
Not all the animal heroes seem to
have been deliberately heroic. On April 8,
police chased a dog running at large in Lake
in the Hills, Illinois. Dashing home, the dog
led them to Michael T. Day, on probation
and wanted in four counties for alleged
offenses including drunk driving, speeding,
assault, and illegal possession of fireworks.
But who’s to say that the dog didn’t
have a plan? One of the least mourned assassination
victims in recent years was former
Vichy police chief Rene Bousquet, 84, shot
in his apartment on June 8, 1993, while
awaiting trial for deporting 76,000 French
Jews to Nazi death camps during World War
II. Killer Christian Didier, 49, told police
that when Bousquet’s German shepherd saw
the gun, he hid.
German shepherds tend to be
brave, loyal, territorial, even unafraid of
guns: on January 7, 1986, a German shepherd
named King took four bullets for
Thomas Perkins, 77, of Boston, who was
similarly attacked in his own apartment––but
King never quit charging the attacker, finally
did roust him, and survived to pose enthusiastically
However, German shepherds also
tend to be excellent judges of character.
Evidently, Bousquet inspired neither the
bravery nor the loyalty that Perkins did.
Thirteen German shepherds were
among the 78 dogs involved in 75 recent
heroic dog and cat cases recently charted by
ANIMAL PEOPLE in search of any common
denominators. Most active of the
German shepherds was another King, who
made headlines in October 1989 by charging
down a Toronto alley to chase away two men
who were robbing and attempting to rape a
20-year-old woman. This King then licked
and comforted the bruised and half-naked
victim. Within the preceding year, the King
of Toronto had rescued another woman from
attempted rape, stopped a teenager from
stealing a child’s bicycle, and bit a burglar.
Owner Doug McCullough, a former police
officer, rescued that King from the city
pound, where he was to be euthanized after
having being taken from a drug dealer.
Matronly German shepherds
achieved memorable child rescues in January
1990 at Riudoso, New Mexico, and
February 18, 1992, near Midland, Ontario.
In the New Mexico case, single
mother Milay Denise Brady died suddenly
while carrying groceries in from her car,
leaving her one-year-old son Michael alone
in an isolated house at high elevation, in subfreezing
weather, with no heat and the front
door open. The family German shepherd
took charge, keeping Michael warm until
help arrived two days later.
In the Ontario case, Brian Holmes
let his dog Samantha out early one morning––and
she came back with a half-naked,
nearly frozen three-year-old. The child’s
mother was in the hospital, after giving birth
to a second child the previous evening. The
father, up half the night, fell asleep on a
couch. The child woke up, got out of bed,
and decided to go see his/her mother, not
realizing that the hospital was 27 miles away.
Also on the ANIMAL PEOPLE
case list were seven collies, collie mixes,
and border collies, counted together because
the reporting didn’t always make the breed
plain. Virtually every common breed was
represented, including a 12-pound Yorkshire
terrier named Oliver, who on November 1,
1991 fought off an 80-pound Akita to save
the life of neighbor Lillian Woodside, 79.
Pit bull terriers, Rottweilers, and
wolf hybrids are notoriously dangerous,
together accounting for 212 of the 257 lifethreatening
attacks by pet dogs recorded by
the editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE since 1982,
and 44 of the 56 actual fatalities. But among
the canine heroes were also six Rottweilers,
including the four who distinguished themselves
this year; four pit bull terriers; and
one roving Malamute/wolf hybrid, who was
hurt in knocking a Samoyed, with whom he
wanted to mate, away from a speeding car.
A seven-year-old pit bull named
Weela, the 1994 Dog Hero of the Year,
actually holds the recent record for heroic
rescues. During the three months of the 1994
southern California flooding, Weela, trained
by Lori and Daniel Watkins, rescued 30 people,
29 dogs, 13 horses, and a cat. In some
cases Weela found and led human rescuers to
the victims; in others, she brought them to
safety herself. The cat was among a group of
18 animals who were stranded on an island.
Weela swam to them repeatedly, hauling 30
to 50 pounds of food at a time.
Though the reporting may be more
intense than ever before, the evidence is that
some canines and felines have comparably
distinguished themselves for as long as
humans and their species have been companions––or
even close neighbors. Rome, for
instance, was founded on the mythic rescue
of the twins Romulus and Remus by wolves.
Paul Revere in his memoirs wrote
that when the need arose for him to make his
famous ride to alert Lexington and Concord,
at the outset of the American Revolution on
April 18, 1775, he was caught without his
spurs, on the wrong side of the British
troops. He sent his dog home through the
soliders with a note to his wife, and back the
dog came, the spurs tied to her collar.
Mark Twain too remarked on heroic
dogs. Two of his favorites were Bummer
and Lazarus, a pair of San Francisco strays.
In 1861, Bummer rescued Lazarus from the
jaws of a much bigger dog. Moved, the city
council in 1862 exempted both Bummer and
Lazarus from San Francisco’s first runningat-large
ordinance. Eight days later,
Bummer stopped a runaway horse-and-carriage,
saving several human lives.
Unfortunately, Lazarus was poisoned by a
man who said the dog bit his son, while in
1865 Bummer was kicked to death by a
drunk. The pair were recalled by the historical
fraternity E Clampus Vitus on March 29,
1992, with a commemorative plaque affixed
to the Transamerica Pyramid, San
Francisco’s tallest building, which stands
roughly where Bummer and Lazarus lived.
The Canadian heroic dog tradition
dates at least to 1832, when a Newfoundland
known only as “George Harvey’s dog”
accompanied rescuers in their skiff to the
scene of a shipwreck, swam to the sinking
vessel, retrieved a rope, and dragged it
through the heavy seas back to the skiff. The
skiff crew anchored the rope to the shore and
pulled 163 people to safety across it.
The Dog Hero of the Year program,
sponsored by various dog food companies
over the years, annually receives 200 to
250 nominations from around the U.S., while
Ralston Purina Canada’s Animal Hall of
Fame has saluted circa 70 dogs, 20 cats,
and a horse over the past 28 years.
Thirty-one messenger pigeons, 18
dogs, three horses, and a cat won the Dickin
Medal, a British military honor discontinued
in 1949. Among the most distinguished winners
were Antis, a German shepherd who
flew seven combat missions with Czech
bomber pilot Jan Bozdech during 1941.
Bozdech joined the Royal Air Force after
escaping from Nazi occupation. He and
Antis first distinguished themselves, shortly
after arriving in Liverpool, by digging four
air raid survivors from the rubble of a
Simon the cat won one of the last
Dickin Medals. Simon, a black-and-white
tom, though singed and wounded by hostile
fire, continued to roust rats from the supplies
the HMS Amesthyst was taking up the
Yangtse River on April 20, 1949, to relieve
the beseiged British embassy in Nanking.
Dying in quarantine upon entry into Britain,
he received the medal posthumously
ANIMAL PEOPLE discovered
only one clear trend among the 75 cases we
charted: one reported incident is almost
always followed soon by another, and another,
until the public becomes jaded and heroic
animal stories fade from print.
Animals, meanwhile, go on doing
what they’ve always done. While most of the
animal heroes are dogs and cats, this appears
to be simply because most humans are in
closest proximity to dogs and cats.
ANIMAL PEOPLE charted 11
cases of dogs alerting humans to fires,
fumes, or other imminent life-threatening
disasters, and five cases of cats doing likewise.
But sleep apnea sufferer Duane
Wright, 47, of Tucson, Arizona, was saved
under similar circumstances in May 1994 by
his pet iguana. When Wright quit breathing
circa 1:30 a.m., the iguana woke him up with
her claws and tail.
The 75 cases examined also included
12 rescues of lost or abandoned children,
along with five foiled kidnappings, and
seven rescues of children from other dangerous
animals and/or speeding vehicles.
The strangest of the 75 cases may
be the appearance of a mixed-breed stray at
the foot of Mount Aconcagua, Argentina,
the highest mountain in the world outside the
Himalayas, in mid-February 1995. The dog
followed a team led by Austrian guide Armin
Liedl as they started to climb, then disappeared,
only to reappear later, shivering,
outside Liedl’s tent. Liedl adopted the dog
and named him Summit. At 21,000 feet, two
climbers got lost and suffered altitude sickness.
Summit found them, then barked to
bring help. Eventually Summit joined Liedl
at the summit––but vanished on the descent.
The child rescues tend to be the
most moving. There are cases on record of
both cats and dogs finding and saving abandoned
newborns––and frequently the altruistic
animals are themselves abandoned strays.
No one ever got to thank a German shepherd
who saved an abandoned newborn in Detroit
on a cold night in November 1986: warming
and licking the child for hours, she fled when
police picked the child up. A nameless mutt
who found and saved an abandoned child
near Oakdale, California, on July 13, 1995,
did get thanks––and was run over by a TV
crew’s truck, suffering a broken leg.
In Bhadrak, Orissa state, India, on
November 18, 1994, two stray dogs found
and revived a baby girl whose “remains” had
been exposed to scavengers, as is Parsee custom,
after she was pronounced stillborn and
dead by a government hospital.
Such cases are commonly explained
by animal behaviorists as examples of the
animals extending their parental instincts to
humans. The same explanation is offered for
marine mammals, especially dolphins, who
several times a year reportedly push drowning
humans to shore. Supposedly the animals
respond to the struggling people as they
would to newborns of their own species,
shoving him or her to the surface to breathe.
That doesn’t explain, though, why in 1991 a
dolphin off Bangladesh reportedly took a
baby in her mouth, who had been swept to
sea by a tidal wave, and delivered the child
back to his/her home village. The account
might have been garbled in translation, but if
any semblance of the deed actually happened,
it is worth noting that wild dolphins don’t
normally carry their own babies in their teeth,
or anything else that can’t be dunked underwater.
Maternal instincts may well be
involved, but not without thought.
A different instinct supposedly
explains Priscilla the Pig, who on July 29,
1984, at age three months, pulled a drowning
mentally handicapped boy from Lake
Somerville, near Houston. According to
newspaper accounts, the pig just happened to
be swimming nearby. Carol Burk, a friend
of Priscilla’s owner, yelled for the boy to
grab the pig’s leash. He did. Panicked,
Priscilla made for shore, without apparent
Self-interest is the sort of explanation
also offered most often for cases of cats
alerting owners to fires, fumes, earthquakes,
and so forth. Cats, it is said, have no altruism
directed beyond their own young. Toto
the tabby was purportedly just saving his own
fur when in March 1944 he went berserk,
driving his family outdoors just before Mount
Vesuvius erupted, crushing the village and
killing 30 of their neighbors.
Likewise, the cat Ugly Sister was
purportedly just saving herself on July 16 in
Beijing, China, when she woke her family
by meowing and scratching their legs, then
pushed open a window and fled. But that
doesn’t explain why she immediately
returned inside and pulled the pants of her
owner until all six family members followed
her out of the house––seconds before the
two-story mud structure collapsed. Perhaps
Ugly Sister identified the six people with kittens,
a reversal of the theory that cats accept
humans as surrogate mothers.
Jack Fyfe, 75, of Sydney,
Australia, could testify to canine thinking in
a pinch. His dog Trixie understood the word
“water.” Paralyzed by a stroke in June 1992,
he lay in his bed for nine days, avoiding
death of dehydration by asking Trixie to
bring water––which she did by soaking a
towel in water and dragging it over his face.
Most dogs are probably not that
smart. But then, most humans are probably
not as dimwitted as Donnie Chastang, 26,
and Robyn Stack, 28, who in mid-July 1991
lost their three-month-old son in the woods
during a cocaine party, near Mobile,
Alabama. Fortunately their dog, a male
chow named Bear, took charge of the boy
and protected him from all harm but a few
bug bites. Chastang and Stack were jailed.
News media apparently didn’t
record what became of the boy and Bear,
whose motive, whatever it was, certainly
was not the hope of making headlines.