Essential Guide: Taxidermy Heroic Animals
From service on the military front lines to unwavering loyalty to extraordinary actions that made them national heroes, these animals all showed singular bravery and courage in their lives, and were preserved in death as a tribute to their remarkable stories. Below are some of the most heroic animals memorialized in taxidermy from around the world.
Sergeant Stubby (via Smithsonian National Museum of American History)
The only dog to ever be promoted to sergeant in the US Army was a stray who got the name of “Stubby” for his short tail. Sergeant Stubby was the most courageous dog of World War I, experiencing 17 major battles on the Western Front over the course of 18 months in the trenches.
Following training in the United States, were he was a mascot for the soldiers at Yale Field, he was snuck onboard the deployment ship. When he was discovered, the commanding officer was won over when he saluted with one paw on command to “Present Arms.” He proved a reliable little soldier, seeking out the wounded in No Man’s Land, warning of incoming missiles that he could hear first, and detecting mustard gas before it became too late, a sense he picked up from a mustard gas attack that left him hospitalized. He got his sergeant status when he caught a Germany spy hiding in foliage near their encampment.
When he returned to the United States he was laden with medals, met the president, and then joined his longtime master Robert Conroy at Georgetown University Law School where he became the school’s mascot. At halftime at football games, he’d knock around a football on the field to the cheers of the crowd. When he passed away in 1926, he was preserved as a tribute to his bravery, and he’s now on display in the “Price of Freedom: Americans at War” exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Sergeant Stubby (via Wikimedia)
Sergeant Stubby leads a parade (via usamm.com)
CHER AMI THE PIGEON
Taxidermy of Cher Ami (via Smithsonian)
The American battalion that was trapped behind enemy lines in 1918 was coming under deadly friendly fire and desperately needed to send out a message that they were there and alive. They’d already sent up two pigeons who had been shot down, and only one was left. His name was Cher Ami and in a capsule on his foot this message was attached: “We are along the road parallel 276.4. Our artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it.”
Cher Ami (his name meaning “Dear Friend” in French) flew up into the air, only to be quickly shot down. Yet he flew again and this time continued to soar for 25 miles over the next 65 minutes. A bullet hit him in the chest, while another almost ripped off his leg with the capsule, but he kept flying until he arrived, drenched in blood and blind in one eye, to deliver the message that saved the 194 “Lost Battalion” soldiers.
From the fronts of World War I, he sailed to the United States as a hero and received numerous medals for her lifesaving act. A year later he died of his injuries, and was preserved in taxidermy as a memorial to his bravery. The one-legged heroic bird is in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s “Price of Freedom: Americans at War” exhibition along with with Sergeant Stubby.
Cher Ami with one leg
BARRY THE SAINT BERNARD
Barry wearing his Hospice of Great St. Bernard container (via Atlas Obscura)
From the 18th century to the end of the 19th, it’s estimated that rescue dogs saved over 2,000 people in the Alps. The most famous of these fearless canines was Barry the Saint Bernard.
Full name Barry der Menschenretter (“Barry the Lifesaver”), he lived from 1800 to 1814, saving an estimated 40 people. Barry was one of the dogs based in the Great St. Bernard Hospice, and was a bit smaller than the dog we now know as the fluffy Saint Bernard. Yet this didn’t stop him from making some heroic rescues including, story goes, a young boy who was in an ice cave. After licking his skin to warm him awake, Barry is said to have carried the boy on his back all the way to safety.
For his hard work, a monk arranged for Barry to live out his retirement in comfort in Bern, Switzerland. After his death, his body was taxidermied and he’s on display in the city’s Natural History Museum. There’s also an elaborate monument to him in the Cemetery of the Dogs just outside of Paris, and at the Great St. Bernard Hospice, there is always a Saint Bernard called Barry to carry on his good name.
Illustration of Barry (via Project Gutenberg)
COMANCHE THE LITTLE BIGHORN HORSE
Taxidermy of Comanche (via University of Kansas)
On June 25, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer charged into battle with the US Seventh Cavalry for what would be a disastrous engagement. An estimated 268 US soldiers were killed, and on the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho side dozens of men, as well as women and children, perished as well. Two days after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the US Army surveyed the battlefield and found only one thing living among the carnage: a horse named Comanche.
Comanche had already proved himself a brave and rugged horse in previous battles, having suffered war wounds in his military career. Yet he was discovered barely standing, with seven bullet hits. But he had survived, and recovered enough to live until 1891 at Fort Riley in Kansas, where he was retired as a mascot and lived until the age of 29.
After he passed away, the famous equine survivor was preserved in taxidermy just in time to be displayed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. After that he returned permanently to Kansas where he is on display at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum.
Comanche the horse after his survival at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (via Wikimedia)
Seventh Cavalry emblem on Comanche’s harness (via Custer Battlefield Museum)
HACHIKO THE LOYAL DOG
Taxidermy of Hachiko (via Moof/Flickr user)
Hachiko was a loyal and patient dog who would wait for his owner to return from his commute each day at the Shibuya Station in Tokyo. Yet one day, his owner didn’t return, having died of a stroke, and would never be returning to Hachiko at the station again.
But the dog waited, and waited, coming back each day at the hour when his master’s train would arrive for nine years, each day departing by himself. Those who frequented the station became fond of the Akita and made sure he was fed and taken care of, and a statue was even put up in his honor at the station during Hachiko’s lifetime.
After years of waiting, Hachiko died in 1934 from cancer, and his body was preserved and displayed in the National Science Museum of Japan, as a reminder of the dedicated dog who never stopped waiting for his departed master. You can also go to the Shibuya Station and see bronze paw prints in the exact spot where Hachiko faithfully awaited the train.
Hachiko at the station
HUBERTA THE HIPPO
King William’s Town, South Africa
Taxidermy of Huberta in 1932 (via Gutted Arcades of the Past)
Why a hippo left her watering hole in South Africa’s Zululand and started to walk south is a mystery, but no matter the reason, she kept on walking for three years. Huberta the hippo covered hundreds of miles through the country, becoming something of a symbol of national spirit and hope during the depression of the 1930s.
Some speculated she was looking for a lost love, others that she was fleeing violence, while some even thought she might be retracing ground where hippos once lived, and no longer tread. Her fame grew and grew as she crossed the Black Umfolozi, went for a swim at the Durban beach, and even took a moonlight bath in a monastery garden. Once she stopped a whole locomotive by sleeping on the tracks until the recognized hippo was gently nudged away by the cattle-guard.
Because of her fame, she was designated “Royal Game,” which meant she was protected from hunting. However, in 1931, she was shot down by four farmers near King William’s Town. The killing was met with public outrage, and a heated trial had her bullet-scarred skull displayed as evidence. The farmers were fined 25 pounds each, and Huberta was sent off to London to be taxidermied. She’s now proudly posed in the Amathole Museum in King William’s Town.
Rare photograph of Huberta in the wild (via hrosi.org)
A mourner lays a wreath on Huberta’s hide in 1931 (via hrosi.org)
OWNEY THE POSTAL DOG
Owney the postal dog taxidermied at the National Postal Museum (via Wikimedia)
A scruffy terrier that made an Albany Post Office his home ended up traveling the world as one of the most famous dogs of his day. Owney the Postal Dog is believed to have visited all 48 of the contiguous United States during his time riding the rails with the mail bags of the US Postal Service.
When he left Albany, he was given an official mail tag to identify him as a postal dog, and everywhere he went he was given more tags and medals and eventually the Postmaster General gave him a harness to carry them all. He even got to sail on steamships to Asia and ride trains in Europe, all while accompanying the mail carriers as a good luck charm and beloved companion. As the Washington Post stated in 1895: “Owney acknowledges no master save about 100,000 United States postal clerks throughout the length and breadth of this land.”
372 of his medals are now kept in the Smithsonian National Post Museum, along with Owney himself. He died in 1897 after being mysteriously shot while in Toledo, and the mail clerks contributed to a fund to preserve him as the US Postal Service mascot.
Owney the postal dog (via National Postal Museum)
Owney and a mail carrier in 1895 (via National Postal Museum)
BELKA AND STRELKA THE SOVIET SPACE DOGS
Belka and Strelka preserved in the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics (via Wikimedia)
Before Yuri Gagarin became the first human in outer space, numerous animals gave their lives for science in the often cruel and stressful tests of space flight. The first creatures to survive a 24 hour ordeal orbiting earth in a space craft were two spirited dogs named Belka and Strelka.
All of the Soviet space dogs, including Belka and Strelka, were strays rounded up from the streets and put under various stress tests to see which were suitable for flight. It also helped to be cute and lightweight, for publicity’s and engineering’s sake, and Belka and Strelka were both adorable little dogs. Their flight took off on August 19, 1960, and they returned intact to a cavalcade of press conferences and public visits.
Some descendants of Strelka are actually still living, including those who descend from one of Strelka’s puppies that was given as a gift to President John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline. As for Belka and Strelka themselves, they were taxidermied and preserved alongside their Vostok spacecraft in the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow.
Belka and Strelka
Belka and Strelka in their space capsule
PHAR LAP THE RACEHORSE
Phar Lap the racehorse (via pharlapdoco.com)
Phar Lap didn’t seem to have the makings of a hero racehorse: the New Zealand-born colt’s gait was awkward, his coat unremarkable. Yet the chestnut horse would become the most celebrated racehorses of New Zealand and Australia, and an inspiration as an underdog for those downtrodden by the Great Depression.
Between 1928 and 1932, he won 37 of his 51 races, including the 1930 Melbourne Cup, earning the nicknames “Wonder Horse” and “Red Terror.” Where dreams were being diminished by the economic woes of New Zealand and Australia, Phar Lap inspired a dual spirit of hope. Unfortunately, he died suddenly following his first American race, a clear cause for which was never determined.
His remains were divided like cherished relics, with his heavy heart, weighing twice as much as an average horse’s at 13.6 pounds, at the Australian Institute of Anatomy, his skeleton at the National Museum of New Zealand, and his taxidermied skin in the Melbourne Museum.
Phar Lap with jockey Jim Pike in 1930 (photograph by Charles Daniel Pratt, via State Library of Victoria)
Phar Lap wins the Melbourne Cup in 1930 (via Picture Australia)
BALTO THE SLED DOG
Taxidermy of Balto (photograph by Luke Scarano, via Wikimedia)
With snowbound conditions and a fatal outbreak of the highly contagious diphtheria, Nome, Alaska, in 1925 was facing the possibility of a huge mortality rate if medicine didn’t arrive soon. The problem was, no planes or cars could get there; the only way to stop the spread of the disease was to bring the serum with a relay of dog sled teams.
The teams trekked along the Iditarod Trail from Achorage with the antidote, with the last stretch of 54 miles coming down to Gunner Kaassen and his team, which had in the lead a Siberian husky named Balto. Through whiteout blizzard conditions, Kaassen became disoriented, but Balto never swayed and kept on through the snow. On February 2, 1925, they arrived in Nome with the medicine.
Balto became an overnight hero, with a statue in Central Park and a two-reel film made of him and his team. To make money, Kaassen took the dogs on the vaudeville circuit, but as their fame diminished they eventually ended up in a Los Angeles dime museum. A Cleveland businessman found them there in a bad state, and raised money to buy them and move them to Ohio in 1927. There in the zoo Balto lived his final years in peace until his death on March 14, 1933. He was then preserved and displayed in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. (Another member of the serum relay, Togo, who actually covered the most hazardous leg of the race, is also preserved in taxidermy in Alaska.) Additionally, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is held annually to commemorate the courageous serum run.
Balto and his sled team in Nome, having arrived with the medicine
Gunnar Kaasen with Balto in 1925 (photograph by Brown Brothers, via Wikimedia)
SERGEANT STUBBY, Washington, DC
CHER AMI, Washington, DC
BARRY THE SAINT BERNARD, Bern, Switzerland
COMANCHE THE HORSE, Lawrence, Kansas
HACHIKO THE LOYAL DOG, Tokyo, Japan
HUBERTA THE HIPPO, King William’s Town, South Africa
OWNEY THE POSTAL DOG, Washington, DC
BELKA AND STRELKA THE SPACE DOGS, Moscow, Russia
PHAR LAP THE RACEHORSE, Melbourne, Australia
BALTO THE SLED DOG, Cleveland, Ohio
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