Throughout history, some of the greatest human achievements would not have been possible without a little help from the animal kingdom. From the possibilities of modern science to fire safety, animals of all shapes and sizes have taught us important lessons about the world around us. Here, we take a look at some of the most important animals in human history.
Koko the Gorilla
Perhaps no creature has taught us more about humanity than the western lowland gorilla Koko, who was able to communicate with humans. Koko understood 2,000 English words and was able to sign more than 1,000 signs in American Sign Language. The endangered animal, who was born at the San Francisco Zoo in 1971, didn’t just use her vocabulary for one-note conversations — she also had a sense of humor and playfulness. Case in point: When she met actor Robin Williams in 2001, she tried on his glasses.
Koko — whose full name was Hanabi-ko, which is Japanese for “fireworks child” — impressed the world with her personality and showed the power of interspecies communication and love. She also wowed with her abilities to learn new skills, like playing the recorder. In 2018, the gorilla died in her sleep at the age of 46.
Cher Ami the Carrier Pigeon
The U.S. Army Signal Corps owned 600 birds who flew in France during World War I, but none was more heroic than Cher Ami, who delivered a dozen messages within the American part of the French city of Verdun. During his final flight, he was shot by enemy fire right through the breast and leg, yet still managed to find his way back with the message hanging around his hurt leg. That message capsule had come from Major Charles S. Whittlesey’s Lost Battalion and ended up saving the lives of 194 survivors. Now enshrined at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre — a war cross presented for bravery — and made it back to the U.S. before dying in New Jersey in 1919 from his wounds.
Dolly the Sheep
Dolly the sheep was born into controversy. After all, she was the final animal cloned from adult cells, which sparked debates regarding the ethics of cloning. Created as an experiment by the University of Edinburgh's The Roslin Institute, the sheep was cloned from the mammary gland of a six-year-old Finn Dorset sheep and the egg cell of a Scottish Blackface sheep, and delivered by a surrogate Scottish Blackface in 1996. Her white face proved that she wasn’t genetically related to her surrogate and showed that it was possible to create exact duplicates of cells.
Named after the singer Dolly Parton, the sheep had a relatively normal life and birthed six lambs with David, a Welsh Mountain ram. Though the merits of cloning are still being debated, Dolly demonstrated what was possible and paved the way for key breakthroughs in the field.
Beautiful Jim Key the Horse
Born an enslaved person in Tennessee, 19th-century veterinarian William Key showed a connection with animals from a young age, especially horses. He eventually bought an Arabian mare that gave birth to a foal with a Standardbred, which seemed like a race-winning combo. Instead, the young horse staggered around, so he named him after the town drunk, Jim. The horse started picking up tricks, presumably learned from a dog since he would roll over and pick up sticks. But it wasn’t until one day when William’s wife asked Jim if he’d like a piece of apple — and the horse nodded — that they knew he was something special.
William took Jim on the road, and a stage manager eventually added “Beautiful” to the horse’s name. During their acts, Jim would spell out words as well as show his skills at mimicking a post office and cash register. But above all, William showed that he could teach Jim all these skills without any use of punishment and purely by encouraging him through kindness.
David Greybeard the Chimpanzee
Today, Jane Goodall is lauded for her contributions as an anthropologist, but she would never have attained such success without the chimpanzee David Greybeard. The chimp at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania showed her how he made fishing equipment out of leaves, which demonstrated that humans aren’t the only creatures capable of making tools. He also showed her how he ate a pig, demonstrating that chimpanzees don’t just eat fruits and leaves. As their relationship grew stronger, other chimpanzees took notice and also became more comfortable around Goodall, paving the way for her research.
Though Smokey Bear was born as a fictional creation of the U.S. Forest Service in 1944, a real bear soon took up the mantle as a symbol for fire safety in the wild. As a major wildfire spread through New Mexico’s El Capitan Mountains in 1950, crews spotted a baby bear wandering around the fire line without a mother. The little cub eventually climbed up a charred tree for safety, but he badly burned his paws and legs. The crew removed the cub from the tree, brought him to safety where his burns were treated.
The story about the rescue entranced the public, who worried about the little cub’s recovery. The game warden offered to give the bear to the Forest Service to become the face of wildfire prevention, and thus the legacy of Smokey Bear was born. Smokey went on to live at Washington, D.C.’s, National Zoo until he died in 1976.
Balto the Dog
Much has been told about Balto: children’s books, a 1995 animated film, and a statue in Central Park. And the Siberian husky is well worth all of the accolades. In fact, his story was first told just months after he led a dog team on a 674-mile, six-day journey to bring medicine to Nome, Alaska, after diphtheria broke out in the remote city in January 1925 to save the lives of those struck by the disease. By June of that year, a film came out called Balto’s Race To Nome, the first of many to spotlight the power and resistance of the dog’s life-saving mission.