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.
Tiger, a quick and fearless decoy
When Sophie Thomas’s son gave her a kitten for company several years ago, the independent 97-year-old resident of Harrison, Mich., became very protective of her. Little did she know that one day their roles would be reversed.
Thomas was pulling dandelions in her garden one sunny afternoon last summer when she was suddenly surrounded by four growling pit bulls. Clutching her spade, Thomas tried talking to them and shooing them away as they circled her, to no avail. One of the dogs lunged, biting her on the arm. She hit him on the head with her spade, and he backed off, but a second dog advanced. “I’ve never been so scared,” Thomas says. “I was shaking!”
Suddenly, little Tiger came out of nowhere. “She flew through the air and shot past me like a bolt of lightning,” Thomas recalls. “She just jumped right into the middle of them, then ran for the garage.” The dogs took off after Tiger, giving Thomas a window of opportunity to run to safety inside her house. Eventually the dogs left her yard, and Tiger came out of hiding.
The bite required a tetanus shot, and Tiger, who took a swipe to the nose, needed a little patching up. The dogs were quarantined. Thomas credits Tiger with saving her life. “She’s such a scaredy-cat usually,” she says. “I don’t know what came over my angel that day. She got a lot of love that night!”
Scottee, the coyote-battling horse
Every morning about 8:30 or so, Robert “Bob” Bennington Jr. heads over to his brother’s Old Moon Farm, just down the road from his home in Streator, Ill., to feed the family horses. Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010, was no different. When he saw Scottee, his wife Eleanore’s horse, Bennington called out to the 14-year-old brown bay to come get fed.
“That’s when Blue, a 28-year-old horse, ran in front of me like a bat out of heck,” recalls Bennington, 68, a retired employee of a nearby glass factory. “I said: ‘What the hell is the matter with you, Blue? Where’s the fire?’ ” Just then he spotted five coyotes rounding the old outhouse and heading up the hill toward him. “I called to Scottee, who was eating grass by the creek, to come quick.”
The horse, so easygoing and gentle that he once spent his summers working at a kids’ camp, took off at full gallop toward Bennington, who’d been surrounded by the coyotes and was terrified. Scottee planted himself in front of Bennington and started whinnying, rearing up, and stomping the ground. Soon three other horses—Danny Boy, Codee, and Levi—were helping Scottee form a tight circle around Bennington. Blue ran down to the east side of the barn and joined the other horses in a line, watching and ready to fight if needed. “I had seen cows do this to protect their babies,” Bennington says. “But never horses.”
The largest of the coyotes lunged toward Bennington, and Danny Boy kicked at it. The mangy black animal came back at him, snarling. Then a shaggy gray coyote moved in. “Scottee wheeled around and kicked him dead center, and sent him for a loop,” says Bennington. “The big black one went wide, and Levi caught him in mid-leap and kicked him in the head.” The coyotes, which Bennington later heard had attacked a child and killed a Shetland pony, let out a few yips and retreated to an empty cornfield. “I thought my number was up,” he says. “All I had for protection was my cane.”
These days, Bennington often can’t help but cry when he tells the story, since Scottee died unexpectedly last November, probably after grazing on a poisonous plant.
Calamity Jane, armed-robber alarm
At about 11:15 on the night of Jan. 23, 2009, Shar Pauley went outside with her three rescued golden retrievers. Calamity Jane, who had joined the family just weeks earlier after being abandoned with a gunshot wound and having a leg amputated, trotted along happily on three limbs. Just days earlier, she’d given birth to a litter of puppies.
The residential street in Aledo, Texas, was quiet. But suddenly Calamity Jane stiffened and bolted toward a neighbor’s home, growling and barking furiously. The other dogs, alarmed, began barking too, though they stayed in their yard as they’d been trained to do. Pauley was taken aback; the dog was usually so docile that she hadn’t even bothered to put her on a leash. “Calamity Jane just picked up on something, and charged over there,” Pauley says. Noticing that her neighbors had company—there were cars parked outside—Pauley worried about disturbing them. She grabbed the dog’s collar and pulled her into the yard next to the driveway. As she did, she heard car doors slam and saw a car speed away. What Pauley didn’t know was that inside the house, Judy Kolman, 59, and her husband Steve had been preparing to bid goodnight to seven guests, including two children, when a gun-wielding man in a ski mask burst in. Herding them into the living room, the gunman shouted at them and beat Steve, while two accomplices ransacked the home, taking jewelry, electronics, and a coin collection.
Suddenly aware of the racket outside, the gunman contacted his getaway car using his cellphone set on speaker. “There’s people outside,” Kolman heard the lookout say. The men fled, leaving the family and their guests shaken. (The men were later apprehended and are now serving jail time.) “Who knows what might have happened,” Kolman says, if Calamity Jane hadn’t raised the alarm. Only after Kolman ran next door to ask Pauley’s help in calling police did Pauley learn what had happened.
Pauley speculates that her dog, a victim of violence herself, might be more sensitive to disturbing sounds or movements than her other dogs. Since foiling the home invasion, Calamity Jane has returned to her mild-mannered ways and now volunteers as a therapy dog, visiting patients at local hospitals.
Charley, neighborhood watch dog
Frances Gippert, a travel manager who works from home in Loganville, Ga., became annoyed at her dog Charley one afternoon in August 2008. Well before he normally would need to go outside, “he kept coming up to me, tapping my arm, barking like crazy,” says Gippert, 48. “I need it quiet, because I’m constantly on the phone.”
Finally, she relented and snapped on Charley’s leash. Though the West Highland terrier’s habit was to visit a spot across the street, this time he pulled Gippert in the opposite direction, to a spot three houses away, and began barking furiously. “I knew something was wrong,” Gippert says.
Sure enough, when she looked closely into the yard, she spotted a man lying in some bushes. Gippert grabbed Charley and ran home to call 911, then returned to stay with the man while awaiting the ambulance. “He was semiconscious,” she says.
The man was Roy Monie, who owns and rents out the house and had stopped by to do some maintenance on the roof. “I know I shouldn’t have been doing it alone,” he says. While climbing from a lower roof to an upper roof, he lost his balance and fell, hitting his head before landing in the shrubbery below. He lay there for more than two hours, drifting in and out of consciousness. “Charley raised a ruckus,” he says. “He really was a lifesaver.”
Monie suffered serious injuries in the fall, including a collapsed lung and a cracked rib, and spent a week in the hospital. “It’s amazing,” says Monie, 64, “that a dog could have heard something from at least 200 feet away and interpreted it as danger.” Monie now counts Charley as a fast friend.
Jake, rescue swimmer
It was a warm day in June 2008, and Diane Bailey and her family were spending it at their cabin on the Platte River near Omaha, Neb. While she was absorbed in preparing a picnic, Bailey’s then 12-year-old son, Tony, headed to the river to wade. The water looked waist-high at most.
But it quickly became apparent that the water was deeper than he’d thought, and the current was strong and swift. Although not far from shore, Tony became caught in the current and felt himself being pulled under, and because the wind had shifted, his calls for help went unheard—at least by the humans.
Jake, the family’s 3-year-old black Labrador retriever, charged into action. “All of a sudden, we saw Jake barrel over to the river,” Bailey recalls. She and other family members ran to the riverbank and watched the Lab paddle out to Tony, who put his arms around the dog. Together, they were able to swim their way to calmer water, where family members could reach them.
Jake’s burst of heroism was somewhat surprising, Bailey says wryly, because the dog, now 6, doesn’t often listen to or obey his owners. Luckily, she says, the family had picked him as a puppy from a kennel that breeds black Labs because they like to swim.
Toby, canine paramedic
Debbie Parkhurst, 49, almost always peels apples before she eats them, a habit instilled by her father, who removed the skins for her as a child. But one afternoon in March 2007, the jewelry maker munched a piece of fruit without peeling it and felt a piece become lodged in her throat.
Alone at her home in North East, Md., Parkhurst fought rising panic as she struggled to cough up the piece of fruit. She leaned over a chair to put pressure on her chest, trying to simulate a Heimlich maneuver, and she pounded her sternum with her fist. Nothing worked. “I was crying from the choking feeling,” she says, “and felt I was about to pass out. I thought I might die.”
But then her young golden retriever jumped up against her and pushed her over, she says. “He never jumped on me like that before. My thought was, ‘Toby, this isn’t a good time to play.’ ” She fell to the floor, and Toby pounced on her chest—and she felt the fruit come unstuck. “I could just see this blond, fuzzy face on top of me,” she says. “He started licking my face.” Parkhurst wholeheartedly credits her dog with saving her life. Meanwhile, Fred, her basset hound, sat staring out a glass door, oblivious to the crisis.
Parkhurst thinks Toby’s sensitivity to her plight can be explained by the particularly strong bond the two developed after she adopted him from a rescue group as a 3-week-old puppy, when he still needed her to bottle-feed him. Now 6 years old, Toby has lost a leg to bone cancer but is in good health.
Willie, SOS squawker
One day in November 2008, Samantha Kuusk left her daughter Hannah, who was 2, in the care of her roommate, Meagan Howard, while she attended class at the Bel-Rea Institute of Animal Technology in Denver. As it turned out, Howard’s bright green Quaker parrot Willie was also paying close attention.
Howard, then 19, popped into the bathroom for a moment. She had been out of sight of the toddler for only about 30 seconds when she heard the parrot squawking and flapping his wings, screeching two words of his budding vocabulary repeatedly: “Mama, baby! Mama, baby!” When Howard rushed out of the bathroom, she says, “Hannah’s face was blue.” She quickly performed the Heimlich maneuver on the toddler and dislodged a piece of Pop-Tart from her throat. Kuusk returned minutes later to find a shaken Howard and a completely unfazed little girl. “Hannah was running around totally fine,” says Kuusk.
Willie’s alert was especially remarkable, Howard believes, because the bird had been living in the apartment with Hannah for only about two weeks, and his cage was on the other side of the room from the youngster. “It was like he just knew how she acted normally, and [that] she wasn’t doing anything,” Howard says. “Thankfully I knew how to do the Heimlich.” The parrot typically called Howard “mama,” but must have learned the word “baby” from spending time around a young relative of hers; she’d never heard Willie say “baby” before. Soon after the rescue, the Denver chapter of the American Red Cross presented Willie with its Animal Lifesaver Award, typically given to dogs. Willie was feted at a breakfast ceremony attended by then Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and then Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter.
These days Howard, 22, lives in her own apartment in Denver and hopes to become a veterinary technician after graduating this year from Bel-Rea. She and Kuusk, 30, who is continuing to work toward her degree in veterinary technology, remain friends, as do Willie and Hannah. Hannah is 4 and headed for kindergarten, old enough to cautiously let the parrot perch on her finger. “He’s into her,” says Kuusk. “She’s a little scared of him.”
Velvet, extreme mountaineer
Presidents’ Day weekend 2007 offered up a perfect blue-sky day, warm enough for T-shirts. Matty Bryant, a special education teacher, and seven of his friends from the Portland, Ore., area set out to scale 11,239-foot Mount Hood, camp out for the night, then head back home. Experienced climbers, they packed carefully, and Bryant, then 34, took Velvet, a black Lab-shepherd mix he’d found a few years earlier wandering in the Nevada desert. Once they’d made it more than halfway up the mountain, the climbers dug snow caves and settled in to sleep.
The weather changed dramatically overnight, and the group awoke to a total whiteout and high winds. Abandoning the climb, they quickly focused instead on how to get back down the mountain. Everyone roped up, with Bryant, Kate Hanlon, Christina Redl, and Velvet clipped together.
The descent was steep, Bryant recalls. With him in the lead, the group tried to make it to a nearby ski area, thinking it would be easier to walk down those slopes. But they overshot the target, and Bryant misstepped at about 8,200 feet and fell over the edge of a cliff, pulling his dog and friends with him in a 600-foot slide into the White River Canyon. Bryant was unhurt, but Redl was knocked unconscious for a couple of minutes, and Hanlon twisted her ankle. Velvet ended up with a bleeding paw.
Their companions called 911 and the sheriff’s office at the base of Mount Hood was alerted; meanwhile, the threesome began sending signals to the office with the Mountain Locator Unit they had rented. In search of a sheltered spot to wait out the storm, they trudged along for about 45 minutes until they reached a boulder. After spreading their foam pads on the snow for insulation, they climbed under their sleeping bags and their tarp and pulled Velvet inside with them. The bad weather turned worse.
Later, they learned that the winds had reached 70 mph, and the temperature, with wind chill, hit about 20 degrees below zero.
To keep their blood circulating, they performed isometric exercises every half hour. Velvet, without prompting, stretched out across each of them again and again in turn, warming them with her body heat. “Twenty-four hours after we lay down,” says Bryant, “we looked up to see three or four guys—angels—there to rescue us. Another day and we might not have made it.”
The group made one critical mistake, Bryant says. They didn’t heed the weather report that predicted severe snowstorms. But because they did everything else right and had Velvet with them, Bryant was the only one who suffered from any extremity issues. His temporary frostnip might well have turned to frostbite and permanent damage, he says, had Velvet not eventually draped herself over his feet and settled there. “That we made it off of that mountain, alive and not permanently injured, is truly a miracle,” he says.
Bryant has since married (and he and his wife, Amanda, took his mother’s maiden name, McDermott). At the wedding, on cue, Velvet charged down the aisle bearing the rings.