Pets That Changed History


As any pet owner knows, our furry (or feathery, or scaly) friends can be just as much a part of our families and lives as our human relatives.

Here are some amazing stories of some of the most famous pets in history.

Incitatus, the Horse that Almost Ruled Rome… Maybe

Statue of The Roman emperor Caligula on his horse, Incitatus [Credit: HorseNation]
We know horse lovers might sometimes spoil their equestrian friends, but if the historians are right, Emperor Caligula of Rome took it to a whole new level. Roman historian Suetonius wrote that Caligula was so enamored of his horse, Incitatus, that he wanted to appoint him as a consul of Rome — one of the highest positions in the empire. Suetonius also claimed that Caligula endowed his horse with excessively lavish quarters and belongings: a stable of marble, an ivory manger, purple blankets, and a collar made from precious stones. Another Roman historian, Cassius Dio, wrote that Incitatus was fed oats mixed with gold flake.

There is reason to doubt this story — historians of that era were not bound by modern concepts of objectivity, and they might have been trying to display Caligula in an unflattering light. It’s also possible that Caligula did treat his horse lavishly, but that he did so as a prank or ironic commentary on the competence of the Senate.

Either way, the horse definitely never became a consul.

Unsinkable Sam

Unsinkable Sam [Credit: Wikipedia]
Unsinkable Sam [Credit: Wikipedia]
They say cats have nine lives, but how many have used up three of them on different shipwrecks?

This seafaring feline first set sail on the German battleship Bismarck on May 18, 1941, presumably with his owner. The ship was sunk 9 days later, and only Sam and 115 of the 2,100 crew members survived. The crew of a British battleship, HMS Cossack, found the cat floating on a board, rescued him, and named him Oscar — the naval code for “man overboard.”

5 months later, the Cossack was damaged by a German torpedo. 159 of the crew members were killed. Surviving crew members were transferred to HMS Legion — Oscar among them. He was brought to shore at Gibraltar, and became known by a new nickname: “Unsinkable Sam.”

He was then transferred to HMS Ark Royal — which was also subsequently torpedoed on November 14, 1941. Sam was found floating on a plank, and his rescuers described him as “angry but quite unharmed.”

Sam was eventually sent back to the UK and spent the remainder of his days in a seaman’s home in Belfast.

Historians aren’t convinced it was the same cat who survived the three shipwrecks, but hey, it’s a great story.

Cher Ami, War Hero Pigeon

Cher Ami, the pigeon that flew 12 important missions in World War I  [Credit:National Archives]
Back in the days before email and cellphones, messenger or homing pigeons were the fastest way to send a message over a long distance from a place with no telephone lines. Pigeons have a remarkable navigation ability: when you take them to a distant place and release them, they’ll almost always find their way home. This talent made them perfect letter carriers — especially during World War I.

Cher Ami (French for “dear friend”) was one of 600 homing pigeons given to the US Army Signal Corps by British breeders and trained by the Americans. Over the course of several months during the final year of the war, Cher Ami flew a total of 12 important missions.

His final mission took place on October 4, 1918, during the Battle of the Argonne. Major Wittlesey, the officer in charge, realized that his battalion was being shelled by their own men, so he sent Cher Ami with a note attached to his leg to tell the soldiers to hold their fire. Cher Ami sustained a serious injury to his chest, lost most of one leg, and was blinded in one eye, but that didn’t stop this bird. She delivered his message and saved the lives of more than 200 soldiers.

Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government and given a wooden leg, but he died less than a year later. He was preserved by a taxidermist and put on display at the Smithsonian Museum.

Smoky the Yorkshire Terrier

Smoky the Yorkshire Terrier [Credit:]
Smoky the Yorkshire Terrier [Credit:]
It’s not only cats and birds that have braved enemy lines. Smoky was a tiny Yorkshire terrier who was found on a battlefield in New Guinea during World War II. Living on soldier rations, she helped her owner, Corporal William Wynne, by warning him of incoming fire — and at one point by running a telegraph wire through a narrow tunnel for 70 feet.

Smoky was widely recognized and celebrated for her service after the war: she appeared on variety shows and performed tricks at army hospitals until her death in 1957.

King Alexander’s Monkey

Plenty of primates have risen to fame (or infamy, as the case may be), but have you heard of the monkey who indirectly caused the deaths of 25,000 people?

King Alexander of Greece was out for a stroll with his dog Fritz on October 2, 1920. A monkey belonging to someone at the palace attacked the dog, and while King Alexander was breaking up the fight, another monkey approached and bit the king in his leg and upper body.

The wounds became infected, and King Alexander eventually died. He was only 27 and had ruled for just three years since his father, King Constantine I, abdicated the throne. King Alexander’s death set off a series of events that eventually led to the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) — which Greece lost. Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “It is perhaps no exaggeration to remark that a quarter of a million persons died of this monkey’s bite.”

Are there any famous (or infamous) pets in your family history? What do you think your pet might become famous for? Tell us in the comments!

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  • Carol Elizabetth Skog

    July 5, 2019

    My Maternal great Great Grandfather !1853-1905) was a notable Bavarian Sculptor, He resided in America with his wife & my maternal grandmother from 1884-1887, during which time a 2nd daughter was born. — Joseph had a large St Barnard, called Bayard or “Barry”. He entered him in the 1884 Westminster Dog Show. The NYT’s wrote a description about Bayard, in the 1884 Westminsters Dog show article, Mrs Frank Leslie also pictured my Maternal GGF walking Barry in an 1885 Illustrated Newspaper. I have a copy of both NYT article & Mrs Frank Leslie’s article. I also have a photo of Bayard, who saved 37 lives in Flood & Fires. I could write an article with photos if it would be of interest. I am a member of my in USA.


    November 9, 2019

    Way back in the 1960’s I owned, and lived in, a Trailer Park in Ohio. I had a pure bred [but unregist-ered] Irish Setter named KITSIE. She was bred to a registered Setter. She had 17 perfect pups. There was not a white hair in the whole bunch. Our Vet thought we had a world record but found out there was a Setter in France that had 18 pups. Our births made it into the national news. That’s how we found out about the French births. They read about ours in a French newspaper & then contacted us about their births.

    All my friends wanted me to get Kitsie registered but I just wasn’t into that. I just loved my pets for who they were, not their pedigree.

    It was a BIG job taking care of 17 pups. We took shifts to feed all the pups every 4 hours. After they were 6 months old I started giving them away (for free) to friends & family who wanted one. The Male pup which I kept for me was killed on the road out front within an hour of letting him loose. That really hurt a lot but thankfully I still had Kitsie.