Humanity loves animals. We study them, we document their actions, and we marvel at the sheer diversity of their lives. It’s therefore no surprise that every now and then a particular animal captures our imagination. These animals earned a level of fame and notoriety that most of us can only dream of.
10. Mike the Headless Chicken
It’s not hard to guess what made Mike the Headless Chicken famous. On September 10th, 1945, a farmer named Lloyd Olsen picked out a chicken for supper. An unlucky cockerel named Mike was selected and promptly decapitated. With most chickens that would have been the end of the tale, and the Olsens would have had a tasty dinner. But Mike survived being decapitated, a feat that sets him apart from the rest of his poultry brethren (and humans, for that matter).
The farmer’s axe missed Mike’s jugular vein and left the brain stem intact. This allowed Mike to maintain basic motor functions, and a clot formed to prevent the chicken from dying of blood loss. The severe handicap didn’t prove to be a major inconvenience for Mike, as he lived to cluck his tale for another 18 months as a popular sideshow attraction throughout the American southwest.
9. Alex the Parrot
Alex changed the perception of parrots (and birds in general) when it came to their intelligence and ability to communicate. He was the subject of a study that lasted almost his entire 31 year lifespan by psychologist Irene Pepperberg in order to determine whether birds are capable of basic reasoning skills.
Alex was an African Gray Parrot, a species popular as a pet due to its ability to mimic human speech. The fact that Alex knew over 100 words and could also distinguish shapes and colors was impressive, but not necessarily revolutionary. However, Alex also showed great results when it came to solving more complex problems and using his own reasoning skills to deduce a solution. These kinds of tests had previously only been solved by larger brained animals such as dolphins and primates.
Dr. Pepperberg argued that Alex possessed the intelligence of a five-year old human and that there would have been room for improvement if Alex didn’t die in 2007. Opinions are still divided over whether Alex was truly capable of reason and thought, or if he was just following subtle cues given by his handler.
8. Koko the Gorilla
Some animals become ambassadors for their entire species because of the way they interact with humans. This was the case with Koko, a female gorilla who took part in an ape language experiment and became notable for her talent of understanding and using American Sign Language. Born in 1971, Koko’s participation started when she was just a year old. Her trainer claims that her sign language vocabulary has grown to 1,000 words, and that she also understands around 2,000 words of spoken English.
For most of her life, Koko was not alone in her quest to advance her species. A male gorilla named Michael also took part in the experiment before he passed away. Despite not being as proficient as Koko, Michael reportedly knew around 600 words and showed a passion for painting. Throughout her life, Koko has been in the headlines for various reasons: she’s among the few non-humans to keep another animal as a pet, and Koko even got to meet some TV and movie stars such as Mr. Rogers and Robin Williams.
7. Paul the Octopus
Octopuses are regarded as being among the most intelligent species of invertebrates, with good memories, learning abilities and even different personalities. But even with these lofty standards, one octopus named Paul managed to stand out by becoming the most famous oracle in the world.
Paul’s gift for divination was used to predict the results of Germany’s soccer matches in two major tournaments. This was done by placing two boxes with food and the flags of the countries playing in Paul’s tank at the Sea Life Center in Oberhausen, Germany and seeing which one Paul chose. Despite the fact that the octopus was really just going for food, Paul’s correct choices were way above mere chance — he managed to correctly select the winning team in 11 of Germany’s 13 matches during Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. He also correctly predicted the winner of the finals. Despite his popularity, public opinion in Germany quickly turned against him when he chose Spain over Germany in the World Cup semi-finals. Paul would have the last laugh when his prediction turned out to be true.
6. Topsy the Elephant
Not much is known about Topsy’s life except for the fact that she spent her last years in the circus at Luna Park in Coney Island. She was the victim of trainers who were aggressive with her and used violent tactics of “persuasion.” This led to her becoming aggressive with her captors and eventually killing one of her trainers, which prompted the decision to put her to death.
This is where Topsy’s story takes a turn for the weird — her executioner was Thomas Edison. Edison offered to electrocute the elephant, and even filmed it and released a movie imaginatively titled “Electrocuting an Elephant.” Topsy’s untimely demise came at a time when Edison’s direct current technology was in a bitter rivalry with the alternating current technology pioneered by Tesla and perfected by George Westinghouse. His plan was to use AC to kill the elephant and prove the current was dangerous. The execution was successful, but Edison’s scheme wasn’t.
5. Dolly the Sheep
On the 5th of July, 1996, the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell was born. Dolly earned the title of “the world’s most famous sheep,” although the competition wasn’t exactly heated. Her arrival was met with a polarized response — while most of the scientific community saw Dolly as a major breakthrough, controversy surrounded the nature of her cloning.
Dolly was able to live a seemingly normal sheep’s life. She had six lambs, but only lived to be six and a half years old, a little more than half the average life expectancy for a sheep. She was euthanized because she had a progressive lung disease, but it was never determined if the illness was caused by her cloning.
4. Washoe the Chimpanzee
The fact that chimps are smart isn’t news. Many tests, studies and experiments have shown that chimps have a complex social structure, good communication skills, reasoning abilities and the ability to use tools. A lot of the knowledge we have today regarding chimpanzees and their intelligence is thanks to Washoe.
It seemed that Washoe was always destined for great things. Initially, she was intended to be part of the space program and would have been one of the first animals sent into space. However, she was moved to another study where Drs. Allen and Beatrix Gardner were trying to find ways to communicate with other primates. They started with spoken methods, but decided to try American Sign Language (ASL) with Washoe. The Gardners took Washoe in and attempted to raise her as they would a deaf-mute child.
The strategy worked, and Washoe became the first non-human to learn ASL. When she died in 2007 at the age of 42 Washoe knew over 250 words, and the same technique has been used successfully several times since then to teach other chimps to communicate.
3. Lady Wonder the Horse
Most horses that become famous do so because of their racing prowess, although a few achieve notoriety thanks to their ability to perform tricks. Lady Wonder, however, gained fame and fortune (mostly for her owner) thanks to her supposed psychic abilities. Forget about being proficient for an animal psychic — Lady Wonder boasted a career that put most human psychics to shame. She’s said to have consulted over 150,000 people, she was used to discover oil, and was supposedly even sought out by police in the disappearance of a little boy. Her abilities even impressed psychologist and botanist J.B. Rhine, a man who tried to debunk several well-known human psychics.
Of course, not everyone was convinced of Lady Wonder’s powers, and magician Milbourne Christopher debunked the ruse. Christopher showed that actions by her owner led Lady Wonder to the correct answer. Whenever her owner didn’t know the answer to a question, the horse was unable to provide it.
2. Knut the Polar Bear
Knut was a polar bear that was born and raised in captivity at the Berlin Zoo after it was rejected by his mother. His mere presence was notable, as he was the first polar bear cub to survive past infancy at the zoo in over 30 years. This was enough to turn him into a popular tourist attraction whose life and development were covered by the German media.
Controversy arose when animal rights activist Frank Albrecht said that it would have been better to let the cub die instead of having it be raised by humans. This led to a massive outpouring of support for Knut as people pleaded with the Berlin Zoo to not kill him. Once the zoo decided to keep him Knut became a worldwide phenomenon, leading to books, toys, DVDs and special media events.
Sadly, Knut died suddenly at the age of four. An autopsy revealed that he was suffering from encephalitis, which caused a seizure that led to Knut collapsing and drowning in his swimming enclosure.
1. Hachiko the Dog
Fewer dogs have done more than Hachiko to promote a positive image for both their breed and their entire species. Hachiko, widely regarded as the most famous dog in Japan’s history, is remembered as the quintessential loyal dog that will always love and obey his master thanks to his daily routine with his owner, professor Hidesaburo Ueno. Each morning the professor would take the train to work at the University of Tokyo and when he came back in the evening Hachiko would be waiting for him. This went on for two years until the professor died of a cerebral hemorrhage. For the next nine years until his death in 1935, Hachiko would still go each day to the train station and wait for his master.
One of the professor’s former students heard about this feat of loyalty and began writing about Hachiko and the Akita breed. And many people who used the same station regularly were already familiar with Hachiko, and would bring him water and food. By the end, the dog even had his own bed to wait in. His story of unwavering loyalty became a famous symbol for family closeness. When Hachiko died his body was preserved and is still on display at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo.