Signalman Jack: The Baboon Who Worked for the Railroad—and Never Made a Mistake

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One day in the 1880s, a peg-legged railway signalman named James Edwin Wide was visiting a buzzing South African market when he witnessed something surreal: A chacma baboon driving an oxcart. Impressed by the primate’s skills, Wide bought him, named him Jack, and made him his pet and personal assistant.

Wide needed the help. Years earlier, he had lost both his legs in a work accident, which made his half-mile commute to the train station extremely difficult for him. So the first thing he trained the primate to do was push him to and from work in a small trolley. Soon, Jack was also helping with household chores, sweeping floors and taking out the trash.

But the signal box is where Jack truly shined. As trains approached the rail switches at the Uitenhage train station, they’d toot their whistle a specific number of times to alert the signalman which tracks to change. By watching his owner, Jack picked up the pattern and started tugging on the levers himself.

Soon, Wide was able to kick back and relax as his furry helper did all of the work switching the rails. According to The Railway Signal, Wide “trained the baboon to such perfection that he was able to sit in his cabin stuffing birds, etc., while the animal, which was chained up outside, pulled all the levers and points.”

As the story goes, one day a posh train passenger staring out the window saw that a baboon, and not a human, was manning the gears and complained to railway authorities. Rather than fire Wide, the railway managers decided to resolve the complaint by testing the baboon’s abilities. They came away astounded.

“Jack knows the signal whistle as well as I do, also every one of the levers,” wrote railway superintendent George B. Howe, who visited the baboon sometime around 1890. “It was very touching to see his fondness for his master. As I drew near they were both sitting on the trolley. The baboon’s arms round his master’s neck, the other stroking Wide’s face.”

Jack was reportedly given an official employment number, and was paid 20 cents a day and half a bottle of beer weekly. Jack passed away in 1890, after developing tuberculosis. He worked the rails for nine years without ever making a mistake—evidence that perfectionism may be more than just a human condition.

Want to Give a Retired Police or Military Dog a Forever Home? Mission K9 Rescue Can Help

Mission K9 Rescue
Mission K9 Rescue

Over the course of their careers, working dogs perform lifesaving duties while assisting members of the police force and military. These dogs receive a lot of appreciation while they're on the job, but as they enter retirement, they're often forgotten in animal shelters. An organization called Mission K9 Rescue is dedicated to placing these dogs in loving forever homes after they've served the United States.

"Our mission is to give K9 veterans—and other working dogs who have served our country—safe, peaceful, and loving homes upon retirement from service," K9 co-founder and president Kristen Maurer tells Mental Floss. "There are so many animal-loving patriots in America, and most don't realize that many of these brave, selfless dogs often remain overseas much longer than needed when they are no longer able to work. Some do not receive adequate care. We bring awareness of their plight to the public, and we work tirelessly to rescue, reunite, re-home, rehabilitate, and repair these dogs so they can live out the rest of their days in a safe and comfortable environment."

Many retired dogs are abandoned in kennels—both in the U.S. and abroad—but for some, the situation is even more severe. According to Mission K9 Rescue, working dogs are sometimes euthanized en masse when they can no longer do their jobs. The organization aims not only to remove these dogs from harm's way, but to find them forever families that are a perfect fit for them.

After rescuing dogs from both the U.S. and overseas, Mission K9 Rescue matches them with new owners. If the dog has a past handler who is interested in adopting them permanently, reuniting the pair is a priority. For all other cases, the organization goes through a rigorous process to find dogs a brand-new home.

Mission K9 also specializes in rehabilitating dogs who have suffered either mental trauma or physical injuries in their work. Just like humans, canines can develop PTSD from working in stressful, high-pressure situations. After they're rescued, animals are given as much time as they need to decompress and reintegrate into society before they're adopted. On top of the mental demands, being a working dog causes physical strain, and Mission K9 provides medical care to dogs with injuries and other issues.

Anyone can apply to adopt a retired working dog from Mission K9 Rescue. If you're interested in bringing one into your home, you can fill out the application on the group's website.

German shepherd in a bed at home.
Mission K9 Rescue

Two dogs in the backseat of a car.
Mission K9 Rescue

Dog and owner in front of home.
Mission K9 Rescue

Some Fish Eggs Can Hatch After Being Pooped Out by Swans

iStock/olaser
iStock/olaser

A question that’s often baffled scientists is how certain species of fish can sometimes appear—and even proliferate—in isolated bodies of water not previously known to harbor them. A new study has demonstrated that the most unlikely explanation might actually be correct: It’s possible they fell from the sky.

Specifically, from the rear end of a swan.

A study in the journal Ecology by researchers at the Unisinos University in Brazil found that killifish eggs can, in rare cases, survive being swallowed by swans, enduring a journey through their digestive tracts before being excreted out. This kind of fecal public transportation system explains how killifish can pop up in ponds, flood waters, and other water bodies that would seem an unlikely place for species to suddenly appear.

After discovering that some plants could survive being ingested and then flourish in swan poop, researchers took notice of a killifish egg present in a frozen fecal sample. They set about mixing two species of killifish eggs into the food supply of coscoroba swans living in a zoo. After waiting a day, they collected the poop and dug in looking for the eggs.

Of the 650 eggs they estimated to have been ingested by the swans, about five were left intact. Of those, three continued to develop. Two died of a fungal infection, but one survived, enduring 30 hours in the gut and hatching 49 days after being excreted.

Because killifish eggs have a thick outer membrane, or chorion, they stand a chance of coming through the digestive tract of an animal intact. Not all of what a swan ingests will be absorbed; their stomachs are built to extract nutrients quickly and get rid of the whatever's left so the birds can eat again. In rare cases, that can mean an egg that can go on to prosper.

Not all fish eggs are so durable, and not all fish are quite like the killifish. Dubbed the "most extreme" fish on Earth by the BBC, killifish have adapted to popping up in strange environments where water may eventually dry up. They typically live for a year and deposit eggs that can survive in soil, delaying their development until conditions—say, not being inside a swan—are optimal. One species, the mangrove killifish, can even breathe through its skin. When water recedes, they can survive on land for over two months, waddling on their bellies or using their tails to "jump" and eat insects. A fish that can survive on dry land probably doesn't sweat having to live in poop.

The researchers plan to study carp eggs next to see if they, too, can go through a lot of crap to get to where they’re going.

[h/t The New York Times]

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