Dan Jewel and Sophfronia Scott Gregory
July 14, 1997 12:00 PM

Most days they stick to their routine—wallowing in mud, crucking sunflower seeds, chasing cars. but when danger strikes, they step to the fore, often on four feet. They’re animal heroes, and they ask nothing for their bravery (through most wouldn’t turn down a pat and an extra scoop of kibble—and maybe one of those cool chew toys, as long as you are asking).”Animals don’t act out of instinct any more than we do,” says Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of 1993’s bestseller The Hidden Life of Dogs. “We see a need to help, and we rush in. I think animals do exactly the same thing.”

Herewith, a look at surprising deeds performed by all kinds of critters, great and small.

Ice Capade

Even with the temperature hovering at 35 below zero, dog trainer Jim Gilchrist of Innisfil, Out, decided to take his two pets-Tara, a rottweiler, and Tiree, a golden retriever-out for their usual afternoon walk on Feb.24,1995. After passing through the woods, they headed home across frozen Lake Simcoe. But as the dogs bounded ahead, Gilchrist, 61, felt the ice give way. “I was walking along and went ‘pop’ right through,” he recalls. “It happened so fast. I thought, ‘This could be the end.’ ”

Hearing her master’s cries, Tara raced over, only to crash through herself. As they thrashed about, Tiree appeared. “All I could think was that she’d meet our same fate,” says Gilchrist. Instead the whining dog crouched on her belly and crawled to the hole. As Gilchrist grabbed Tiree’s collar, Tara scrambled atop his back to jump out of the hole. Then she lay on her belly alongside Tiree so Gilchrist could grab her collar with his other hand. While the 200-pound Gilchrist hung on, the dogs clawed backward until he was safe. “They had every right to run ashore,” says Gilchrist, who, back home, gave his dogs a hot bath. “They risked their lives to save me.”

Having since won several awards for heroism, Tiree, 2, is back to her happy-go-lucky self, but Tara, 5, “is paranoid now about water,” says Gilchrist. Of course, so is he. “I will never go out on the lake when it’s frozen—or let my animals.”

The Cat’s Meow

Despite the heartbreak they had already suffered—three children who died during birth—Bernita Rogers, a nurse, and her husband, Roy, then an Army lieutenant colonel stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kans., were determined to have a family. So when their fourth child, Stacey, though premature, was born healthy in May 1986, the couple were ecstatic. “Needless to say,” says Bernita, now 46, “Stacey was extremely precious to us.”

Six weeks later the five-pound infant came down with what appeared to be a cold. Immediately, Bernita rushed Stacey to a doctor. “He thought I was overreacting,” she says. “He told me to just put a humidifier in her room.” Back at home, as Stacey napped in her nursery, Bernita tried to relax in another room, but Midnight, the family cat, wouldn’t let her. “He was being such a nuisance,” she says. “He kept jumping on my lap and batting my legs. This wasn’t his usual behavior.” Shooed away, Midnight persisted. “I heard him through the baby monitor [in the nursery]—an eerie moaning sound,” says Bernita. Alarmed, she ran to Stacey’s room, where the frantic cat was perched atop the dresser—and Stacey was blue and gasping for air. Taken to the hospital, she was resuscitated for respiratory failure and diagnosed with a viral infection. If not for Midnight, says Bernita, “Stacey would have been a crib death.”

Now 11, Stacey lives with her parents in Kansas City. A healthy fifth-grader, she thinks the whole story is “kinda neat.” As for Midnight, now 13, he doesn’t have much energy for hunting—or heroics. “Mostly he likes to just lie in the sun,” says Stacey. “I think he could do that all day.”

Circle of Friends

Daisy, the 25-year-old “bell cow” of Donald Mot-tram’s farm in Meidrim, west Wales, knows her job and does it well. “She saves me a lot of work,” says Mottram, 55. “I just go out and call. She comes waddling up, and the rest follow.”

Little did he know how priceless that leadership would be last Aug. 16. Motorbiking across his property to tend to a sick calf, Mottram suddenly felt a “horrendous thump” on his back. Landing faceup, he found an angry 3,300-pound bull, on loan to him for breeding, hovering overhead. “He started stamping on my chest and shoulders,” says Mottram. “I thought I was going to die.”

Falling unconscious, he came to surrounded by a large group of his cows. “They were milling in a circle, and the bull was on the outside getting mad,” says Mottram. “He charged into the cows or would stand there snorting.” With Daisy keeping the circle intact, Mottram crawled home and called for help. Since then, recovery has been slow. He suffered broken ribs and a dislocated jaw; a hoofprint on his chest took five months to heal. What’s Mottram’s explanation for bovine intervention? “I have treated the animals reasonably, and they have looked after me in return. People say I am too soft, but I believe you reap what you sow.”

Pig’s Feat

After losing their 33-acre Oregon farm in 1995, Collin and Deb Stolpe headed to Aurora, Colo., living in their converted school bus. With them was Snort, Deb’s newborn potbellied pig. “Baby Snort was like a three-pound bag of sugar,” says Deb, 44. Collin, 48, was less smitten: “I wasn’t looking forward to living in these quarters with a pig.”

Then, on Nov. 14,1995, Snort’s presence proved invaluable. That night, with the windows shut tight to block the cold, Deb was roused by Snort’s squealing: “She was oinking, snorting and running up and down.” Presuming nature called, Deb carried the housebroken pig outside. She did the same an hour later. But when Snort squealed a third time, Deb turned to Collin—only to find him convulsing. “I thought he was having a heart attack,” she says. With her speech suddenly slurred and her vision hazy, Deb realized she too was unwell. Taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, the Stolpes were diagnosed with near-fatal levels of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by their propane heater. Says attending physician Dr. William Clem: “The Stolpes were far better off for having been awakened.”

Snort now lives in a children’s petting zoo near the Sioux City, Iowa, apartment the Stolpes moved to in January. But the couple—Collin remodels homes, and Deb works at a Ford dealership—visit often. “It’s kind of embarrassing to have a pig save your life,” says Collin. “But I thank God she was there that night ’cause I have a lot of living left.”

Snake Handler

On Jan. 27 this year, the weather in Boston, Ga., was balmy enough for 2-year-old Sean Harry to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes: playing among the pecan trees in his grandmother’s backyard. As always, Haven, the Chihuahua belonging to his grandmother Phyllis Ingham, was nearby. “Sean loves to crack and eat pecans, and so does Haven,” says Sean’s mother, Lisa Harry, 25, a homemaker. “We were all just having a nice time.” Trouble began after Sean wandered over to a pile of hay. “I heard him scream,” says Lisa. “It was an unbelievable scream, one that I had never heard. I just froze.” A three-foot poisonous black water moccasin—no doubt visiting from the nearby swamp—had lunged at the toddler’s legs, and was now hanging by its fangs from Sean’s pants. “The snake was jerking Sean so that his whole body was wiggling,” says Lisa. Immediately, Haven leapt into action. “She jumped right on the snake, put her paws on Sean’s leg and just shook and shook until she got it off.”

Though Sean’s jeans were sprayed with venom—and bore two fang-holes—he had not been poisoned. “A bite certainly could have killed him,” says Dr. Henry Gainey, who treated Sean at a nearby hospital. But Sean has yet to show the 2½-year-old dog proper gratitude. Instead he tends to poke his fingers in her eyes. Sighs Ingram: “He’s wanting to love her, but doesn’t realize he’s hurting her.”

A Labrador Retrieved Her

Whenever Annette McDonald of Seaside, Ore., strolls along the town’s Necanicum River with her husband, Steve, and son Paul, 2½, their 4-year-old yellow Labrador Norman is always nearby. Though completely blind for nearly two years from progressive retinal atrophy, Norman still loves the water. “He lives to go to the beach,” says Annette, 39. “He runs and if he’s about to hit something, I’ll shout, ‘Easy! Easy!’ and he slows down.”

But during one walk last Aug. 5, Norman “flew off, ignoring my calls,” says Annette. “He looked like he was on a mission.” That he was. Minutes earlier, Lisa Nibley, 15, and her brother Joey, 12, tourists from Battle Ground, Wash., who had been swimming, found themselves caught in the river’s current. Joey managed to reach shore; his sister, whose screams alerted the dog, had not. “Norman swam after her, and my jaw just dropped,” says Annette. He finally reached Lisa, who grabbed his tail, and the two headed back to shore. “I don’t know how much longer I could have lasted,” says Lisa.

After hearing their daughter’s story, Elaine, a homemaker who had been with her husband, Jeff, a pilot, on the other side of the river, “started shaking and crying,” says Lisa. Now a photo of the brave dog hangs on Lisa’s bedroom wall “up there with pictures of all my friends,” she says. “He’s my guardian angel.”

Gator Aid

At 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 19, 1993, Gail Ennis was awakened by loud squawking coming from her 11-year-old African Grey parrot, Louie. Stumbling into the living room of her Delray Beach, Fla., home to check the birdcage, she saw the reason for the bird’s alarm: the toothy grin of an alligator pressed against the window.

Alarmed, Ennis, 54, a homemaker, began calling 911 from the kitchen when she heard a pop. Turning around, she saw the gator—having pushed through the screen—roaming the house. “His mouth was wide open, and he hissed,” she recalls. Hearing the commotion, her husband, Howard, 54, an electric-company foreman, bolted out of bed and grabbed his .357 Magnum. “The alligator was running down my kitchen right at me,” he says. Knocking a chair in the animal’s path, he aimed and pulled the trigger. Missing twice, he then hit the 7’3″-long creature in the eye. When police arrived, it was dead. “In eight years,” says John Woolard, a trapper sent that night by the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, “that’s the first one I’ve seen that’s gone into a home.”

With the gator’s head now mounted on their patio, the Ennises believe Louie—who had been captured in the wild as a baby—acted on instinct. “He still had enough of that in him to recognize a predator,” says Howard. Though aflutter during the incident, Louie no doubt learned from the experience. Along with “good morning” and “good night,” he now repeatedly squawks, “It’s okay, it’s okay”—the words Gail used to soothe him after the incident.

Trial by Fire

After battling a blaze in an abandoned auto shop on March 29 last year, New York City firefighters were startled to hear meowing. There, amid the smoke, sat three crying kittens; across the street were two more. Within moments, their mother, a badly injured calico, was found nearby. “She had done her job and pulled them out one by one,” says firefighter David Giannelli, who placed the animals in a box. “Her eyes were burnt shut, but she touched every one of those babies with the tip of her nose.”

Taken to Long Island’s North Shore Animal League, the kittens and their mother—named Scarlett at the shelter—were treated for smoke inhalation and burns. “The instinct to save your young is very strong,” says Dr. Bonnie Brown, North Shore’s medical director. “This was just an extraordinary example.” Sifting through some 2,000 adoption applications, administrators finally sent Scarlett home with Karen Wellen, a New York City writer, and her parents. (One kitten died from a viral infection; the others were placed in area homes.) Now, three times a day, Scarlett—a plump 15 pounds—receives eye cream to counter damage to her lids but otherwise is healthy and loving. Karen can’t believe her own luck: “This cat risked her life to save her kittens. To come out of it with such a sweet personality is amazing.”


FRAN BRENNAN in Delray Beach, JOHNNY DODD in Seaside, ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA in New York City, KATE KLISE in Missouri, SIMON PERRY in Meidrim, BARBARA SANDLER in Sioux City and Innisfil, STEPHEN SAWICKI in Boston, Mass., and GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Boston, Ga.

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