10. Laika the Space Dog
Laika was originally a stray dog, found roaming in the streets of Moscow, who was one of three trained for the space mission. The name Laika translates as Barker and it was not the first name that the small mongrel was given: she was originally called Kudryavka which means Little Curly. Stray dogs were chosen for space training as it was believed that they were already acclimatised to surviving in cold and harsh conditions. There was no real expectation of her survival even during take-off, so Laika’s survival into space was counted a triumph. Desperate to appear even more successful, the Russians claimed for many years that Laika survived for six days or until her oxygen ran out (or until she was euthanized before this eventuality), but in 2002 papers came out revealing that Laika actually died from overheating, apparently caused by a malfunction in the rocket. Laika should have lived a short, scrappy life, fighting constantly for food and shelter from her fellow strays. Instead, she played a vital part in history and is bound to be remembered for many years to come, despite her ignominious and untimely end.
9. Knut the Polar Bear
photo: Jens Koßmagk / Wikicommons
Knut shot to fame in 2006 when he was rejected by his mother, who was housed at Berlin Zoo at the time. His survival was something of a success story as he was the first polar bear cub to survive past infancy in captivity in over thirty years. ‘Knutmania’ swept Europe and then the world as activists protested his life ‘as a prisoner’ stating that it would be kinder to let the bear die, rather than be forced to live in captivity. Children and adults alike disagreed and were moved by the little bear cub’s plight. Knut was originally one of a pair, but his brother (who was never named) died at just a few days old. Knut is believed to be responsible for a decided spike in the zoo’s income, although his popularity waned somewhat as he grew up and ‘became less cute’. Sadly, Knut died from drowning after suffering swelling on the brain. He was only four years old.
8. Dolly the Sheep
photo: Toni Barros / Flickr
Dolly is perhaps the most famous sheep ever, having been created entirely in a laboratory, a perfect clone of her ‘mother’. Her name was chosen because the cells that were cloned to create her came from mammary tissue and Dolly Parton has always been famed (and even revered!) for her impressive assets. Dolly’s existence was filled with controversy with people objecting to the whole principle of cloning, others believing that whatever was born of such an experiment would be, variously: a monster, hideously deformed or the beginning of the Apocalypse! Dolly’s birth, and her birth as a fully functioning and entirely normal sheep, was a huge step forward in the science of cloning. Many people had believed that mammals were entirely too complex to be cloned in this manner, but she proved, more than satisfactorily, that one type of cell contains the DNA blueprint for the whole animal – something that had merely been surmised and hoped until then. Dolly even went on to have her own babies, also entirely normal sheep. She died young for a sheep, at 6.5 (sheep can usually expect to live to around 11 or 12) but her veterinarians believe that her death was caused by a disease commonly found in sheep and nothing at all to do with her being a clone. Naysayers claim that she died at six, because that was the age of the sheep from which she was cloned, but the science does not seem to support this view.
7. Alex the Parrot
Alex the Parrot was an African Grey parrot, a breed well known for their facility with picking up words and seeming to use their words appropriately, rather than as imitative sounds. It is believed that Alex had his wings clipped when he was very young and this meant that he never learned to fly, much like Blue in the cartoon Rio. Alex’s owner, Irene Pepperberg was an animal psychologist and she bought the bird in order to undertake research into the speech capabilities of birds. At the time it was believed that only the great apes (and most specifically, only humans) had the brain power and vocal chords to master meaningful speech. Alex and Irene worked together for thirty years and while Pepperberg was careful to never claim that Alex could speak, as such, there is clear evidence that he understood the meanings behind the sounds he would make: recognising objects, colours, shapes and even numbers (up to six). He could identify objects that vary in shape and size as being the same object, for example he could recognise all types of keys as being keys. He would even practise words when alone in the laboratory and correct Irene and her assistants when they made mistakes in front of him. Alex died at the age of thirty-one in September 2007, despite having been given a clean bill of health just two weeks before. It is believed he suffered a sudden, catastrophic (and therefore mercifully quick) stroke or heart attack struck him down: an issue that the vet had seen before in birds equally apparently healthy and even younger. (African Greys can live for up to sixty years). His last words, the words he customarily said to Irene at the end of the day, were ‘Be good, see you tomorrow. I love you’.
6. Koko the Gorilla
Much like Alex above, Koko is an animal who has displayed a clear understanding of both spoken words and sign language and is thought to have a vocabulary of 1000 words in American Sign Language and to understand 2000 spoken English words. Detractors claim that Koko simply parrots signs with no understanding in order to receive rewards, but evidence of her understanding is compelling. For example, Koko’s long-term trainer, Francine Patterson (known as Penny) taught Koko the sign for ‘ring’ one day, showing her an example. Instead, the gorilla came up with her own explanation for the piece of jewellery calling it a combination of two other signs ‘finger’ and ‘bracelet’ – making ‘finger-bracelet’. Which is a fairly accurate description of a ring in most eyes! Efforts to provide Koko with a mate saw her meeting and interacting with two companions, one of whom, Michael, learned to sign too. He was less gifted than Koko, but it is believed that he tried to tell her about witnessing the death of his mother who was killed by poachers in front of him. Now 42 Koko has not yet mated with either of the potential partners provided to her, but she has become something of a ‘cat lady’ asking for a pet, and tending and caring for her kittens like a devoted mother! She also interacted with a macaw, although she found the mostly red bird frightening at first, calling him ‘Devil tooth’!
5. Lonesome George
Photo: Arturo de Frias Marques / Wikicommons
A male Pinta Island tortoise George was known for being the rarest species on earth. In his last years he was the last known specimen of his breed, hence the Lonesome in front of his name. Believed to be over one hundred years old at his death in 2012, George was found on the island of Pinta in 1971. Efforts to mate him with similar sub-species of tortoise (an attempt to continue his line) failed and his species was declared extinct as he was the last living specimen – and in captivity besides. He was preserved after his death and after a short stint on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, he was returned to the Galapagos to go display in the Charles Darwin Research Station. (New findings have discovered some subspecies of tortoise share genetic markers with George, leading to the belief that the breed may not be entirely gone from the face of the earth.)
4. Jumbo the Elephant
Everyone knows that elephants are called Jumbo (and that excessively large examples of anything can be called ‘jumbo’), but few people realise that the name actually came from one specific animal who was the first and most famous to hold the name. An African elephant – and a particularly large specimen – Jumbo was born in Sudan, captured and sent to Germany, France and London (where he gave rides to children visiting the zoo). He was sold, over great objections from the many children of London, to Barnum Bailey Circus in 1881, for the princely sum of US$10,000. Jumbo earned his purchase price back with exhibitions at Madison Square Gardens. Jumbo even held another point of fame, leading a troupe of 21 elephants across the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge to prove to a frightened and sceptical public that the bridge was strong and unlikely to crumble suddenly underfoot. Jumbo died from injuries sustained when he was hit by a train. His younger brother Tom Thumb was on the rail and Jumbo was supposedly heading towards him to lead him to safety when the train struck the smaller elephant killing him outright and derailing and smashing into Jumbo.
Bubbles was a pet and perhaps something of an accessory to Michael Jackson, the pop star. Jackson supposedly acquired the chimp from an animal research facility. While cute and cuddly as a youngster the chimp matured into a large and sometimes aggressive ape, leading to his being sent to live with a trainer in California. The chimp is reported to have attempted to commit suicide while with the trainer and was subsequently moved to the Center for Great Apes in Florida. Bubbles seems not to have been a very happy animal and his owner, likewise, did not lead the happiest and most contented of lives. Hopefully his chimp will find contentment as he ages gracefully, in the company of his kin.
Keiko is a male orca (killer whale) famed for starring in the movie Free Willy. The name Keiko means lucky one, and is generally only given to females. His role in the movie, about returning a captive orca to the wild, captured the imagination and hearts of the public who began to campaign for better conditions for captive orcas and specifically Keiko himself. Despite the success of the campaign and the eventual release of Keiko into the wild the whale had become too accustomed to human support and company and would approach people, allowing children to ride on his back. He was supported in this semi-free manner until his death, probably of pneumonia in 2003, aged about 27.
Perhaps the most famous dog in the world, and one much beloved by children and adults from all over the world, Lassie is, sadly, a fictional character! Lassie is first seen in stories as early as 1859, and her stories continued to be told until the 1970s with revival movies being produced in the 2000s – showing the truth that good stories can stand the test of time. In the books Lassie is a beautiful Collie with large intelligent eyes and near human understanding and courage. She spends much of her time having adventures and looking out for small her human charges who seem to barrel around heedlessly, sure that the dog will be along to save the day before it is too late!