After Priscilla, the pig in the purple harness, saved a handicapped tot from drowning, she became the first initiate of the Texas Pet Hall of Fame, a fact worth mentioning to show that dogs are not the only saviors of mankind.
They were all at the lake. Priscilla went in with her harness and lead and the little kid went under. The mother cried, "Grab the pig's lead," and after the usual confusion the kid did. His weight sent them both under water. But Priscilla pulled like mad and they both reached shore.
The question arises whether this, or many other instances of animal "heroism," truly qualify for that accolade. After all, pig or no pig, if somebody grabs your rope in the water you will exert yourself to reach shore, and if somebody is at the other end you necessarily tow him. To save yourself you have to save him. (An important sociological point, that.)
But the truth is we know virtually nothing about animal consciousness and extremely little about human consciousness either. Time and again some fellow will save another, then say, "I didn't even think, I just dived in."
Now you take a firefighter who dashes through poisonous smoke and fiery walls. That to me is ultimate heroism, as he knows the danger he faces, whereas a pig might not. But then the pig may.
Even if the pig has no high ideals, the result is a life saved. The only question is motive, which is the essence of heroism. I therefore question many examples in the generally admirable new volume "Animal Heroes" (Pelham Books).
Of course the case is clearer and less arguable when you get to dogs.
A blizzard in 1983 found little Andrea lost and buried by snow, her feeble cries unheard except by Villa, this old Newfoundland, who was not even her own mutt. Villa raced over a five-foot fence, packed the snow with his great paws, dug her out sufficiently for her to grab his collar, and pulled her to safety. Villa was given a steak and a ceremony right here in Washington.
In 1975 Mark, accompanied by his faithful shepherd, Zorro, was hiking when he fell into a ravine, dropped 85 feet, was knocked unconscious and rolled into a stream below. His first conscious moment was the perception that Zorro was dragging him from the water. Mark's friends, who probably noticed he did not get past the ravine, began a search, but it was only the following day that help came. Meanwhile, Zorro lay atop him. He did not die of hypothermia. They got Mark back and left Zorro (speaking of gratitude) but later they searched for him too. There he was, guarding his master's backpack.
Sometimes an animal has such a close call that even if there is no heroism, you wish to celebrate his life. Such was Donald, a duck, interred 18 months in a Thai prison with his fellow soldiers of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders. A decree went forth that all mascots should be killed. But one bright Scotsman, a Mr. Gray, in high agitation told guards that ducks were sacred to the men of Scotland, who, he said, worshiped the duck every sunrise. So they let the duck live. Donald later laid 160 eggs (the sexing of ducks is poorly understood in the army), providing valuable protein. Donald survived to a quiet retirement in Aberdeen.
One of my favorites is Sidney, a mongrel in a dog pound who attracted nobody to save him. The day he was to be killed, somebody brought in four infant hedgehogs, though it was feared they could not survive. Sidney nuzzled and warmed them, guarded them from all their foes, and nobody could bear to kill the dog. The hedgehogs did beautifully and Sidney found a good home.
During bombing raids a distinguished dog, expert at finding buried victims, led workers to a spot where they dug and dug and at last heard a man swearing like mad. The things he said. Still, it did not seem the time for reform, so rescuers shouted that help was at hand. Hold on, old chap. At last they dug him out. Him was a parrot in a cage. Still cussing.
Irma, a famous shepherd bitch, had an impeccable record finding victims beneath rubble. If they were alive when dug out, Irma barked madly. If they were dead, she licked their faces trying to revive them. Once a dead person was uncovered but Irma barked. Did not lick. So persistent was she, and so reliable in the past, that rescuers were cautious. The seemingly dead person lived. Irma also once rescued two small girls by refusing to budge, though the rescue team saw no hope. And again, where a rescue team had tramped for hours over rubble, Irma insisted, and a live woman was recovered who had been trapped beneath two floors of a collapsed building. Irma had a colleague, name of Peter, and both dogs were later received by the Queen of England. Peter tried to get her fur wrap. A hero may lack polish.
I say nothing, though the book says much, of either the grief or the faithfulness of dogs. There are monuments in cities to them of unbudging paw. Alone in love. And nothing need be said of dogs like Argus, who was a pup when Odysseus left for war and old when he returned. But only the dog knew the ragged stranger was the immortal hero. Argus knew such joy his old heart broke, having committed one last sweet sloppy lick (he was a hound). So Homer reports in "The Odyssey," and nobody now alive has credentials to argue with him.
Some people cannot stand dog stories. I know that. As Virgil said, leading a tour of Hell, simply observe the damned and pass on. The truth is, good dogs have lived and died, having transformed hearts, and left no memorial except the air that envelops life.