Iconic Animals - The Stories Behind Some Of Nature's Best-Known Symbols
Iconic Animals - The Stories Behind Some Of Nature's Best-Known Symbols

Iconic Animals - The Stories Behind Some Of Nature's Best-Known Symbols

Posted by Leanne Sturrock on 27th Sep 2016 14 mins

Here at The Great Projects, it’s no secret that we love animals - why else do you think we put so much effort into conservation projects?! - so when the opportunity comes around to talk about some of the most iconic animals that’ve ever lived, you know we’re going to pounce on it. (When this topic flew around the office, I couldn’t wait to get involved and snatched it right up! – Leanne) There are many, many famous furry faces that you might already know about, but for today’s blog we’d like to celebrate some of the unsung heroes of the animal world – starting with my personal favourite, Hachiko.

Hachiko the Akita (1923-1935)

Perhaps the most fabled tale in all of Japan, at least when it comes to the loyalty of animals, is the story of Hachiko. Born on a farm near the city of Odate, Akita Prefecture, Hachiko belonged to a professor of agriculture. So strong was the bond between dog and owner, that when Prof. Hidesaburo Ueno finished his classes in Tokyo, the humble dog from farmyard beginnings would head into the big city to meet his human at Shibuya Station. This was a routine which would continue daily, all the way up until May 1925: tragically, Prof Ueno suffered a cerebral haemorrhage during his shift, never to return home or to greet his friend at the station. Unbeknownst to Hachiko, who was patiently waiting for his owner’s return on that fateful day, here began a heart-wrenching tale of a dog’s unshakable faith and loyalty – for the next nine years, nine months and fifteen days, little Hachiko would be seen waiting outside Shibuya Station for Prof. Ueno’s return. One of the professor’s students, Hirokichi Saito (conveniently an expert on the Akita breed) spotted the unmistakable Hachiko waiting at Shibuya and he began to document the dog’s remarkable routine, publishing many articles throughout the year which took Japan by storm.

This really is a story that puts a lump in my throat, and one which clearly affected the folk passing by the faithful dog every day. So profound was the effect on Tokyo’s community spirit that, upon Hachiko’s death, a bronze statue was erected outside of Shibuya station. Today, Haichiko still stands proud, with many people stopping by every day to pay their respects to this wonderful pup. Multiple films and documentaries have also been made based on Haichiko’s story, and the honourable hound remains as a symbol of loyalty, fidelity and affection.

Tama the Cat (1999-2015)

By now, you might have gathered that the Japanese have a huge affinity for animals, and a species highly revered is the cat. In every corner of Tokyo’s city streets, you’ll probably be able to find a cat café. Or maybe you’re more familiar with Maru, the famous box-loving cat on Youtube? With such an abundance of feline friends hailing from Japan, you’d perhaps be forgiven for missing out on the story of Tama the Station Cat. Allow us give you the scoop on this iconic kitty…

Born in Konokawa, Wakyama (anybody else wondering who issues the birth certificates for these animals…?), Tama was raised alongside a bundle of stray cats that would congregate around Kishi Station. The cats would be regularly fed by passers-by, including one Toshiko Koyama, who was considered an informal station manager at the time. Due to financial problems, the station itself was almost entirely shut down in 2004 – at which point, Koyama took it upon himself to adopt little Tama. It was also around this time that citizens demanded the station to stay open, so after a destaffing of stations across the whole Wakayama Electric Railway, employees of local businesses were instead elected as being ‘station manager.’ It just so happens that Koyama found himself selected as station manager for Kishi…with the title eventually being handed over to tiny Tama in 2007.

The cat’s main duty as Station Manager was to greet customers which, going back to Japan’s love of all things kitty, went down a treat: in fact, Tama was so popular that her appointment as SM lead to a 17% increase of passengers in her first month, with 1.1 billion yen made in publicity being pumped back into the community. Not bad for a feline raised on the streets! In lieu of a salary, Tama was paid in cat food and upon her promotion to ‘super station manager’ (I know, how cute), she also received an ‘office’, i.e a ticket office converted into a litter box. So incredible was Tama’s story that not only was she ‘the only female in a managerial position’; not ONLY did she take on two jobs at once (station manager and operating officer respectively); NOT ONLY did she raise billions for the local economy and railway; but she was the first cat to become an executive of a railroad corporation. To put it bluntly: Tama was absolute job-aspiration goals.

After many years of adoration and unshakable respect, Tama sadly passed away at the age of 16 (approximately 80 years old, if we were to put that into human years.) She was posthumously given the title of ‘Honorary Eternal Stationmaster’, and is survived by her sister and fellow station master, Chibi. (Is it too late to blame my tears on a cat allergy, rather than sheer emotion!?)

Cher Ami the Pigeon (? - 1919)

Size certainly doesn’t matter when it comes to our next iconic addition to the list. Deriving her name from the French term ‘Dear Friend’, Cher Ami was a homing pigeon who played a noble role in World War I. She was donated to the U.S Army Signal Corps in France, and had been trained by American pigeoneers to send important messages back and forth. Her first call of duty came on October 3rd 1918, when Major Charles White Whittlesey and 500 other men were trapped behind enemy lines with no food or ammunition. Cher Ami was dispatched with a note in a canister attached to her left leg, the note reading: ‘Many wounded. We cannot evacuate.’ She returned to carry another note, this time noting the group’s whereabouts and a plea to stop friendly fire coming from their own artillery.

On another attempt to fly back home, Cher Ami was caught in open fire coming in from Germans, who saw her rising out of the bush. She flew through the air as bullets zipped rapidly around her, eventually being hit but valiantly taking flight once more, and arriving back at her headquarters in just 25 minutes. Despite being shot through the breast and blinded, with one leg hanging on by just a tendon, Cher Ami’s bravery and ability to carry the message lead to 194 lives being saved that day.

Owing a huge amount of gratitude to the bird, army medics worked tirelessly to save the pigeon and, unable to save her leg, they carved her a small wooden prosthetic instead. Cher Ami headed to the United States, becoming the mascot of the Department of Service and being honoured with numerous medals. While today we would hate to see animals face such hardships as Cher Ami did, she has been held in high regard even after her death in 1918, and her body now resides as taxidermy at the famed Smithsonian Institution. What a brave bird she was.

Roselle and Salty the Guide Dogs (1998-2011; 1996-2008)

On September 11th 2001, the United States of America suffered an attack which has made its mark on history forever. Four coordinated terrorist attacks saw the fall of the World Trade Centre and twin towers, with both collapsing into debris in under the space of an hour. Since that fateful day, legions of heroes have been immortilsed: in the vigils held every year around the world; in the multiple sculptures and memorials built to represent the fallen; and in the numerous films, books and tv shows documenting the events of this tragic day. One thing for sure, is that the bond of humanity in the face of adversity has since proven to be unbreakable...as is the bond between man and his best friend, the devoted dog.

Roselle first met Michael Hingson, a blind man, on the 22nd of November 1999. Still as a young pup, Roselle was given the duty to be Hingson's fifth guide dog, and would accompany her human through all areas of life. Another man, Omar Rivera, also became the owner of another dog, this time named Salty. Neither owner, at the time of adoption, would have realised just how valuable their dogs would actually be to them.

Both men and their respective guide dogs were in Tower 1 on the morning of September 11th: Salty and Rivera on the 71st floor, and Roselle and Hingson on the 78th floor respectively. Both dogs, sleeping beneath their master's desks when the attacks commenced, were sharply awoken by the impact of the plane some 15 floors above them, and immediately prepared for duty. With Rivera and Hingson both in a state of shock (and unable to guide themselves out through the calamity), both Labradors remained calm as they began to guide their owners to safety. In the case of Salty, both he and Rivera's supervisor (Donna Enright) lead the gentlemen down the stairs. About halfway down, another co-worker attemtped to take Salty's lead but the dog refused to leave his owner's side. A few floors above, Rosella too was assisting Hingson (and 30 other individuals) out of the smoke and down 1463 steps of the tower. Both dogs were unspeakably brave in their acts, being unfathomably calm despite the noise and confusion surrounding them.

After covering much of the distance, firemen were greeted by Rosella before the dog continued descent. It took just over an hour for the dogs to lead their respective parties out of the building, and as they made it to the street, Tower 2 collapsed to the ground. Roselle continued to lead her owner away from danger, heading directly to a nearby subway station (collecting on the way a woman who'd just been blinded by falling debris.) So moved by his dog's actions that day, Hingson soon retired from his work as a computer salesman and began to work as a public affairs director for Guide Dogs For The Blind. He also set up a charitable foundation to raise money to help those with sight issues to engage more in everyday life, clearly experiencing a new lease of life and a supreme gratitude to his faitful friend. About Roselle, Hingson said: 'While everyone ran in panic, Roselle remained totally focused on her job, while debris fell around us, and even hit us, Roselle stayed calm.' Rivera had similarly a profound valuation of his dog following the event, often stating that Salty had truly saved his life.

In 2002, Salty and Roselle were jointly awarded the Dickin Medal by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, with the citation reading: ‘"For remaining loyally at the side of their blind owners, courageously leading them down more than 70 floors of the World Trade Center and to a place of safety following the terrorist attack on New York on 11 September 2001.’ Both dogs went on to live happy lives with their owners, with Salty eventually passing away in 2008 at the age of 11, followed by Roselle’s death in 2011, aged 13 years old.

Pocho the Crocodile (c.1950 - 2011)

Next up is an unlikely tale of one man and his crocodile cohort, Pocho. In 1989, local fisherman Gilberto 'Chito' Shedden discovered a vastly underweight crocodile struggling on the banks of the Reventazón River. Noticing that the crocodile seemed close to death, Shedden went in for a closer examination, upon which he discovered the animal had been shot through the eye. Shedden couldn’t bring himself to leave the ailing crocodile to suffer helplessly on its own, so he nobly lifted it into his boat and took it back home. Over the next six months, Shedden fed the crocodile back up to strength, oftentimes simulating the chewing of food to encourage the poor crocodile to eat. He talked to, petted and medicated the animal, even sleeping next to it at night; he even went so far as to hide the crocodile in a nearby forest until official permits were obtained and therefore would allow the fisherman to keep the animal legally. From here, the crocodile was affectionately named ‘Pocho.’

Once Pocho had regained his health, Shedden (or ‘Chito’, as he is often referred to in the media!) attempted to release the crocodile back into the wild…only to find the scaled giant sleeping on his veranda the very next day. Over time, Pocho was ‘adopted’ into Shedden’s family, and would spend his days relaxing in the water outside of the family home. The man and his unlikely friend spent more than 20 years together, with Shedden regularly swimming with the crocodile and Pocho acting more like a pet, coming to Shedden whenever his name was called. The two shared a very close relationship which (sadly!) led to the demise of the human’s first marriage, but this was water straight off of Chito’s back: ‘Another wife I could get’, he stated. ‘Pocho was one in a million.’

Both man and crocodile were very loving towards one another, with one of Pocho’s most famous behaviours being that he would rush towards Shedden with his mouth open, only to close it before getting too close, and allowing his human to kiss him on the snout. When Pocho eventually passed away in 2011, the first ‘human’ style public funeral was held for the croc, and many people from around Costa Rica arrived to pay their respects as Shedden sang to his dearly departed companion. ‘What an unusual story!’, I hear you cry. ‘So unique!’ Well, just wait until we round off the blog with this final narrative…

Dindim the Penguin (birth date unknown, survives til present day)

Any penguin experts out there will know of this pleasant bird’s commitment vow – penguins tend to find partners and remain loyal to this one individual, until the end of their 25 year long lives. Which is what makes this last story all the more fascinating.

In 2011, little Dindim was found covered in oil and slowly starving to death, isolated on a beach just off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. A retired fisherman named Joao Pereira de Souza was the one to discover the poor bird, and elected himself to bring Dindim back to health. He took him home, cleaned the creature’s tarred feathers in the shower, and fed him a healthy diet of fish until he got his strength back up. Satisfied with this act of charity, de Souza headed back to the coast and released the penguin back into the wild…only for Dindim to follow him home. ‘He wouldn’t leave,’ said de Souza, ‘he stayed with me for 11 months and then just after he changed his coat with new feathers, he disappeared.’ Sweet enough is the tale that Dindim felt so safe with de Souza that he didn’t want to leave, but that’s not the end of this adorable anecdote. ‘Everyone said he wouldn’t return, but he’s been coming back to visit me for the past four years. He arrives in June and leaves to go home in February, and every year he becomes more affectionate as he appears even happier to see me.’

Dindim and de Souza have become celebrities in the fisherman’s native Brazil, as well as global sensations. Many people now know of Dindim’s annual journey, with the little penguin swimming some 5000 miles to give thanks to his human saviour. De Souza told Globo Tv: ‘I love the penguin like it’s my own child, and I think the penguin loves me…he lays on my lap, lets me give him showers, allows me to feed him sardines and pick him up. I’m flattered that Dindim is happy to exchange his home with thousands of other penguins every year, to find his way here to spend one-to-one time with me. It’s a very special relationship.’

I think we’ll all agree with you there, Joao. We hope that today’s blog has brought a smile to each of your faces – feel free to share any other heart-warming animal tales that you might know!

With many thanks to Vassamon Anansukkasem, and on Shutterstock for our use of Hachiko's pictures.

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