Beyond the call of animal duty, these pets risked life and limb—and paw and wing—to help humans

By Patrick Rogers Susan Horsburgh and Mike Neill
Updated December 02, 2002 12:00 PM


A parrot finds just the right word to help clear a house on fire

As far as anyone knew, Gem the parrot was a squawker, not a talker. Then on July 22 last year, Ammie, 15, the oldest of Carol and Paul Ingram’s five children, was home alone when smoke began filling the family’s two-story house in Surrey, England. She froze in panic, but the 8-month-old red lory found his tongue. “He looked at me,” says Ammie, “and said, ‘Fire! Fire!'” Ammie got Gem and the family’s 20 other pets—including four dogs—out on the lawn. Although badly damaged, the house was saved by firefighters. And Gem, says Ammie, “is looking so proud of himself.”


When her owner is assaulted, a brave shepherd mix takes the bullet

In March of 1998 John Schonefeld was walking his 3-year-old chow-shepherd mix Nikita in his apartment complex parking lot at 1:30 a.m. when suddenly he found himself in the middle of an urban nightmare. A man in a red ski cap carrying a gun jumped out of a passing car and lunged at him. “I knew he was going to kill me,” says Schonefeld, a National Collegiate Sports Association recruiter from Orlando. Forced to the ground, Schonefeld, then 26, had given up pleading for his life and begun to pray when he heard the roar of gunfire at point-blank range. When he opened his eyes, he found he was still alive—thanks to Nikita, who had jumped in front of the gun just as the stranger (who was arrested two days later) pulled the trigger. “She took a bullet for me,” says Schonefeld. “A lot of people wouldn’t do that, but my dog did.” Although he was unharmed, Nikita was not so lucky. Police later told Schonefeld that the bullet had ricocheted off the dog’s skull before piercing a sidewalk nearby. “She was shaking all over,” recalls Schonefeld, “and there was blood everywhere.” Rushed to a veterinary hospital, Nikita spent six hours in surgery. “I called my father and told him what happened,” says Schonefeld. “He said, ‘I don’t care how much it costs, you make sure that dog doesn’t die.'”

Nikita’s recovery was slow, and she still suffers a few aftereffects from her injury. “Every so often her eye will start twitching,” says Schonefeld. “The bullet did something to her optic nerve.” But her life has mostly returned to normal. That is, if you consider sirloin steak a normal doggy dinner. “Every time I feed her,” says Schonefeld, “I remember what she did for me.”


An Australian blue heeler wrestles a snap-happy gator

Great-grandmother Ruth Gay was walking her 2-year-old Australian blue heeler behind her former Fort Myers, Fla., canal-side home in July 2001 when she slipped and broke both shoulders. While she lay in agony, unable to get up, an alligator crept from the canal. It was almost eight times the size of 44-lb. Blue, but the dog charged the reptile anyway. “I heard Blue howl like something had bitten him,” says Gay, 86. Then everything went quiet. “I thought he was dead.” When her family arrived home more than an hour later, they found Blue bathed in blood with multiple puncture wounds but strong enough to lead them to Gay. “He’s like a guardian angel,” says Gay’s daughter Sylvia Gibson, 64. The gator? Three days later it reappeared with a chewed-up snout—and kept a wary distance.


A former stray spots a fire and earns her family’s undying gratitude

When a stray cat began hanging out on the deck at Daniele and Dan Kates’s house in Lisbon Falls, Maine, the couple didn’t want it sticking around. Daniele, 32, a hairdresser, was allergic to cats, and Dan, 38, a mechanical engineer, had never liked them. Still, one cold October night in 1998, the couple couldn’t help feeling sorry for the feline. “We brought her in,” says Daniele. The brown tabby they named Muffin soon repaid their kindness. On Jan. 12, 1999 Daniele was making lunch for her then 4-year-old twins Jordan and Benjamin (she has another son, Christopher, 15) when she heard Muffin crying and pawing the upstairs master bedroom door. Daniele discovered the bedroom engulfed in smoke and flames shooting out of the closet. All escaped unharmed, and news of Muffin’s heroism spread; in March 1999 she was named Cat of the Year by a division of the International Cat Association. Even Dan has warmed to her. “When Muffin’s on the counter,” says Daniele, “he never yells at her to get down.” As a result, she admits, “she’s kind of spoiled.”


Furious hooves and a well-placed chomp save D’Arcy Downs-Vollbracht from a dog attack

D’Arcy Downs-Vollbracht might have ended up dead if it hadn’t been for her good Fortune. On a torrid May afternoon last year Vollbracht, then 34, heard a terrifying scream—”like a baby crying,” she recalls—outside her three-bedroom ranch house in Bullhead City, Ariz., near the California and Nevada borders. Three dogs from an adjacent property were viciously ripping into one of Vollbracht’s African pygmy goats, Tug, while Slash, another pet goat, lay on the ground, bloodied and near death.

Vollbracht, a mock-trial teacher at a community college, managed to save Tug but soon the enraged dogs turned on her. One of them, a dalmatian, had just pounced when Vollbracht’s 6-year-old mare Fortune, watching from her nearby stall, smashed through a steel gate with her hooves and came running to her owner’s rescue. “Fortune started stomping the dogs and biting the dalmatian to get them away from me,” Vollbracht recalls. Then the 1,200-lb. American quarterhorse chased the intruders from the property. “She came back all sweaty and stood by me,” says Vollbracht, who, with her husband, Bob, 42, a restaurant manager, owns four dogs, seven horses and now, sadly, just one goat (Slash had to be destroyed). Vollbracht isn’t the only one grateful for her horse’s heroism. Since the rescue Tug has been bedding down in Fortune’s stall. “Horses are flee animals. To stand and fight against a pack of dogs goes against their nature. I’m sure she knew what she was doing. Fortune,” says Vollbracht of her horse, “is awesome.”


Attack cat fights off intruder

Last February Jacqueline Duncan, 67, was alone in her house outside Philadelphia when an intruder dressed as a mail carrier pushed his way through the open front door and began to beat her. The homemaker gamely fought back, but when the stranger threw her to the floor, her 15-lb. cat Whiskers came to the rescue. “Whiskers got between the man and me, jumped up and bit the guy right on the hand,” says Duncan. She was able to push the intruder, who was startled by the cat, out the door. Police arrived minutes later, followed by reporters. “They were all taking Whiskers’s picture,” says Duncan’s daughter Velenta, 43, a security guard. “He was posing,” adds her mother. Now, whenever anyone visits, “he watches every single thing that goes on,” says Duncan.


Don’t mess with an angry pig

Minneapolis mortician Becky Moyer had just pulled into her garage one night in February 2001 when two men “shoved something that felt like a gun” in her back, she says. The pair followed the terrified widow into her kitchen—only to meet Arnold, her 300-lb. potbellied pink pig. Arnold “lunged right at the gunman, grabbed the guy’s foot and started shaking it until there was blood flying all over,” says Moyer, 56. Breaking free, the robbers fled, leaving Moyer unharmed and Arnold a neighborhood legend. The porker now shares a mattress in a heated storage room with his potbellied pal Axel. Their monthly food bill comes to $400, but Moyer isn’t complaining. “I owe Arnold everything,” she says.


Barks for help for a choking baby

Pam and Troy Sica had to borrow the $4,000 it cost to remove a tumor from their 13-year-old golden retriever Bullet in 1999. Talk about a bargain. On May 1 Pam was heating a bottle for then 3-week-old Troy at their Bellport, N.Y., home when Bullet appeared in the kitchen doorway, “barking, running halfway down the hallway, then coming back,” says Pam, 43. “I realized something had to be wrong.” Racing to the bedroom, she found the baby “with his head back, gurgling or choking,” He was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with double pneumonia. Since the baby’s return home May 15, the retriever seldom leaves his side, says Troy, 41. Bullet’s heroism “was more than just instinct. It was his heart.”


Stops a midnight abduction—and saves the life of an 8-year-old girl

These days Rocky the Rhodesian Ridgeback sleeps on Laura Staples’s bed. He’s not only a big dog (116 lbs.) but a big bed hog, and Laura sometimes winds up on the floor. But after the horrifying events of Aug. 30, 1998, Rocky can do whatever he wants.

At about 11 that night, as Joan and Mike Staples and their three children slept, a convicted sex offender broke into their house in Harboro, Pa. Going into Laura’s bedroom, he clamped his hand over her mouth and carried the struggling 8-year-old downstairs. He was nearly to the front door with her when Rocky, then 3, went at him teeth-first. “Rocky ran right into him,” says Joan, 47, a special-ed teacher. “The man dropped Laura and started running.”

As Laura ran shrieking to her parents’ bedroom, the intruder, 39-year-old Frankie Burton, fled the house and hid in a nearby park. He was soon nabbed by police. “He didn’t resist much; he was pretty beaten up,” says Mike, 47, who owns a distribution business. Convicted on several counts, including attempted kidnapping and aggravated assault, Burton is now serving a term of 42 to 118 years in prison. “It’s horrible to imagine how different our lives would be if he had gotten out the door with Laura,” says Joan. “Without Rocky, I don’t know if we’d even have her alive.”

After the break-in, Rocky became especially protective of Laura-and she of him. “Since he saved my life,” she says, “I’m always trying to be as nice as I can be to him.” Even if it means she has to sleep on the floor.