Ashley Davies: Famous animals capture our hearts

The plight of Lady the osprey is the latest in a long line of creature stories to catch both our attention, and our hearts, writes Ashley Davies

Paul the octopus found fame by predicting results in the 2010 World Cup. Picture: Getty
Paul the octopus found fame by predicting results in the 2010 World Cup. Picture: Getty

I can’t bear the thought that Lady the osprey is probably dead, and I know I’m not alone. Every spring for 24 years she flew thousands of miles north from Africa to set up a nest in the same spot in the Loch of the Lewes reserve in Perthshire, and fledged a record 50 chicks. More than once she has returned from her exhausting journey and instead of her sweetheart, Laddie, welcoming her with some fat fish and a twig swatch for the new gaff, she’s discovered a younger, hotter floozy had set up with her bloke. But she fought for what was hers and before long the wannabe nest-wrecker was forced to admit defeat. Lady, a 29-year-old campaigner, was not to be messed with.

But she hasn’t arrived yet this year – she’s never been this late – and Laddie, who is just five, has taken up with another bird closer to his age. Many thousands of fans are glued to the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s “nest cam” to follow their progress.

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Lady isn’t tagged, so there is no evidence that she has gone to the well-stocked loch in the sky, and I like to think she’s stopped off at a Spanish retreat to have her feathers done and will be here any day now, but experts reckon this is the end of her impressive innings. There is now talk of a plaque being erected in her memory.

Lady is by no means the first creature to have captured the hearts of the public. Every now and then a feathered or furry individual does something extraordinary and the world – or a certain group of anthropomorphising types at least – goes nuts for them. Before you know it there’s a statue, book, film or tourist industry dedicated to their memory.

Humans are particularly susceptible to evidence of loyalty when it comes to celebrity animals. And loyalty, as we all know, is a travelling companion of tragedy. The classic example of this is in Scotland is Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye terrier who is supposed to have spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner, John Grey, in the late 19th century. The statue of the pooch in Edinburgh is so beloved that his nose had to be repainted recently due to over-rubbing.

There are similar stories around the world. In the 1920s, Hachiko, an Akita dog, used to meet his owner, Professor Hidesaburo Ueno, from a Tokyo train station every day when he returned from work. After the professor died, Hachiko went back to that station every day for ten years, hoping to collect him. Eventually a bronze statue of the dog was built (though it had to be recycled for the war effort in the 1940s, but was rebuilt in 1948).

And of course there’s Fido (Latin for “loyal”), who was rescued from a ditch by brick worker Carlo Soriano in Tuscany in 1941. Soriano was killed by a bomb, and for 14 years Fido continued to go to the bus stop where he’d previously met his master after work. Fido died at the bus stop waiting for him.

A dachshund in Siberia called Masha hit the news recently for similarly tear-jerking reasons. For two years after her owner died (she had been his only visitor, according to hospital staff) she returned to the building where she had last seen him. Several people tried to adopt her but she was determined to wait for him at the hospital, just in case, and has now been granted permanent residence there.

On the subject of famous tragic dogs, to save my dignity I’ll gloss over the story of Laika, the stray dog from Moscow who was strapped into Sputnik 2 in 1957 so Russian researchers could see how living beings coped in space.

At the time it was suggested she would died after six days due to lack of oxygen, but in reality overheating killed the poor little thing within a few hours of take-off. In 2008, the Russians unveiled a monument to her – a dog standing on a rocket. Excuse me for a moment, I have something in my eye.

I wish Laika had run off while she had the chance. Some of the most famous animals are those who made a name for themselves as escape artists. One day in 1965, Goldie the eagle, a resident at London Zoo, said “Sod this” and did a runner – a flyer, if you will – and set up camp in nearby Regent’s Park.

After 11 days of traffic jams as drivers slowed down to catch a glimpse of the magnificent absconder, she was caught and sent back to the prison, I mean zoo.

Then there were the Tamworth Two – remember them? In 1998 brother and sister pigs Butch and Sundance ran away from a truck at a Wiltshire abattoir. The media went crazy and after a week on the run (well, in a thicket) they were captured, a huge fuss was made and they both lived a charmed, safe life until they were very old. A film was made about them and there was even a campaign to have a statue erected in their honour.

Visitors to Jordana park in Krakow will be familiar with the statue of Wojtek the bear, who was found in Iran during the Second World War and adopted by Polish soldiers. As he grew he was trained to carry ammunition (his name is an abbreviation of Wojciech, an old Slavic name meaning “smiling warrior”), and to drink beer and smoke. After the war he joined his soldiers in Berwickshire. He spent his final days in Edinburgh Zoo and died in 1964. A campaign is ongoing to raise the money to put up a statue of Wojtek in Princes Street Gardens; it is hoped to have it erected this year to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

People also love the trailblazers (Dolly the sheep) and the novelties (Paul the German octopus, who, it was claimed, could accurately predict match outcomes during the 2010 World Cup) and the lovelorn (Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island tortoise and victim of countless failed attempts at match-making).

But for me Lady is the ultimate animal hero – strong, beautiful and fierce – and I’m staying glued to that nest cam, just in case.