Everybody loves a good-news story of friend helping friend, neighbor assisting neighbor, stranger saving stranger—of people who step forward in a moment of crisis to offer a selfless hand. Sometimes, that hand is a paw or a hoof. Here are the stories of 10 heroic animals that stepped up to protect their favorite humans, often at risk to themselves:
[Read more more animal tales in Mysteries of Science: Amazing Animals.]
Freckles, smoke detector
Velma Leger remembers clearly the morning in October 1987 when she discovered her youngest child could barely see. When Leger held up a rattle for Sarah, then 6 months old, the baby reached for it and missed. Many doctors and tests later, it was confirmed that Sarah had bilateral retinoblastoma, a hereditary form of cancer that had caused tumors in both eyes. She received radiation treatment and was cured of the cancer, but developed into a shy young girl and teenager, utterly dependent on her mother and sister. “I used my cane,” she says, “but I was always running into things, and I couldn’t get where I needed to go without help.” (Wearing corrective lenses, she can make out shapes and very large print, but she is legally blind.)
Sarah’s world began to open up dramatically last year when she was partnered with Freckles, a small goldador guide dog—a cross between a golden retriever and a Labrador. “I could do so much more because of Freckles,” says Sarah, now a sophomore at Louisiana State University–Eunice. “It was easier to make friends, because I could get around by myself, and I wasn’t afraid.”
In January, while she was home in Leonville, La., on winter break, Sarah found out that Freckles is a lifesaver in other ways, too. One night, after Sarah had said goodnight to her family and headed to bed, Freckles stopped abruptly at the threshold to the computer room connected to her bedroom, blocked her entry, and wouldn’t budge. Sarah was forced to call out for help. The mystery was solved when an odd smell alerted her dad, a firefighter, that the computer monitor was smoldering. Though he grabbed it and took it outside, Freckles refused to settle down until she couldn’t pick up even a whiff, which meant the family was up until 3 a.m. airing out the house.
“She definitely was not trained to do what she did,” says Jennifer Gerrity, who worked with Freckles at Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, Fla. “Guide dogs are trained to navigate obstacles, not fires. And they do not perform body blocks.”
Falstaff, the next best thing to 911
Richard Schulenberg, 70, was gardening one beautiful Saturday morning last October when he began to sweat profusely, his arms went numb, and he felt like he had a constrictive band across his chest. Fearing a heart attack, the entertainment lawyer and producer started down a hillside toward his Beverly Hills home, stopping to rest every few feet. Certain that his partner, Arlene Winnick, had left the house to run errands, he knew he’d have to figure out another way to get help. While he assessed his options, one of his English setters, the elegant Lady Rosalind, wandered by, licked his hand, and continued her stroll through the grounds.
It wasn’t long, though, before rescue came. Falstaff, also an English setter, seemed to have sensed that something wasn’t quite right. When he found Schulenberg sitting on the hillside, the usually mellow dog began to bark fiercely and wouldn’t calm down. Nor would he leave Schulenberg’s side.
As luck would have it, Winnick was climbing into her car and heard the commotion. Why hasn’t Richard stopped the dog from barking? she wondered, going to investigate. She helped Schulenberg down to the house, where, in denial, he decided he wanted a shower. Once Winnick heard about the symptoms and realized he hadn’t simply fallen down, however, they went to the ER pronto. Within 90 minutes of discovering that Schulenberg’s left artery was 100 percent blocked, he had a stent snaked through his wrist and up his arm. “My doctor told me I was very lucky,” says Schulenberg. “Another 30 minutes, he said, and I would have died.” Since October, Schulenberg has dropped 35 pounds, and Falstaff now carefully patrols the yard.