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10 True Tales of Pitbull Heroism

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After a dog attack that killed a woman earlier this year in Montreal, the Canadian city approved breed-specific legislation targeting pit bull-type dogs. Under the new law, no one would be able to get one of these dogs, and people who already have them would have to face severe restrictions, like paying a high fee for a permit, muzzling the animals in public, and keeping them on a leash that is 4 feet long. Any owners who don’t get the special permit will likely have their dogs seized and put down.

Luckily for the pit bulls of Montreal, Justice Louis Gouin of the Quebec Superior Court has suspended the legislation until a hearing about the legality of the law is held. But the legal scuffle has likely furthered false negative perceptions of the breed—even though the dog that initially spurred the ruling wasn't necessarily a “pit bull-type” dog; the Humane Society claims it was registered as a boxer.

Breed-specific legislation on the whole has been proven ineffective. Hundreds of cities have adopted them, forcing dog owners to jump through hoops like DNA tests, obtaining liability insurance, and enduring lengthy permit processes. But the fight against dogs hasn’t always been focused at pit bulls—in the past it’s been German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, and Rottweilers—and studies from Australia and the Netherlands have found that the bans aren’t reflective of reality. The American Bar Association, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Humane Society of the United States, and the American Veterinary Medical Association have all noted the ineffectiveness of these laws, as well as pointing out that research doesn’t implicate one breed as worse than others.

Pit bulls are known (and loved) for their sweet, silly personalities, and loyalty to their owners and other animals. Here are 10 stories of pit bulls that were true heroes.

1. CHIEF // SAVED TWO WOMEN FROM A COBRA ATTACK

One day in 2007, in Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines, a cobra found its way into the kitchen of the Fronteras family. The snake went after 87-year-old Liberata la Victoria and her granddaughter, Maria Victoria Fronteras—but the family’s 4-year-old pit bull, Chief, wouldn’t allow anyone to get hurt. When Fronteras screamed for help, the dog rushed in to protect both women from the cobra, shielding them from two attacks and then grabbing the snake by the neck and smashing it on the kitchen floor until it died. But in the process, he suffered a fatal bite on his jaw. Chief was able to give his owners one last glance and wag of the tail before dying from the attack. A local pit bull club later released balloons in his honor.

2. HERO // INTERVENED TO STOP A STABBING

When a stray pit bull was walking around town in Baldwin, Georgia, this August, he saw a man and woman fighting in the street and ran to intervene after the man pulled out a knife. He protected the woman, taking the brunt of the attack as he was stabbed five times. He was rescued by Sgt. Timothy Clay and Officer Daniel Seeley, who immediately brought him to a vet for surgery. The dog died twice during surgery but miraculously recovered; he was named Hero and has now been adopted.

3. LILLY // PULLED WOMAN OUT OF A FREIGHT TRAIN'S PATH

One night in May 2012, Lilly, an 8-year-old pit bull, and her owner, Christine Spain, were walking along train tracks in Shirley, Massachusetts, when Spain collapsed. The operator of a freight train was heading down toward them when he saw the pit bull desperately pulling the unconscious Spain off the tracks. Spain escaped injury, but Lilly was hit, causing internal injuries, pelvis fractures, and catastrophic damage to her right front leg. Even while suffering from a devastating injury, Lilly was calm and stayed by her owner's side until help arrived. After multiple surgeries, the amputation of her leg, and lots of physical therapy, Lilly recovered. Spain's son, Boston Police Officer David Lanteigne, who had adopted Lilly from a shelter in 2009 for his mother, told ABC News, "We saved Lilly, and Lilly saved my mom's life. My hope is that this story is going to get out and show what pit bulls are truly about. I hope by Lilly going through this, it's going to get other dogs homes."

4. MESSIAH // ALERTED WOMAN'S HOUSEMATE OF A MEDICAL EMERGENCY

When Darrin Trombley heard a crying noise coming from his housemate Carol Hathaway’s room one evening in 2014, he went to check on her—and found Hathaway, who has Type 2 diabetes, lying on the bed with her feet on the floor, unconscious. Her pit bull, Messiah, was whining and licking her face. Trombley saw that the pup's tail wasn't wagging and realized something was wrong, so he called 911. When EMTs arrived, they discovered that Hathaway's blood sugar was dangerously low. “She had already started to seize and was making, like, burbling noises,” Trombley told The Post-Star. Thankfully, the EMTs were able to stabilize her. When Hathaway woke up, Trombley told her that it was Messiah—who she had rescued from a shelter a year and a half before—that had alerted him to the fact that Hathaway was in trouble. “I was stunned,” Hathaway said.

5. PRECIOUS // STOPPED AN ALLIGATOR ATTACK

Robert Lineburger lived on his boat at Port LaBelle Marina in southwestern Florida with a service dog, Precious, who could sense his seizures. "She went everywhere with me for the past six years," he told WPTV. So, when Lineburger got up to use the bathroom one night in April 2016, Precious followed—and intervened when an alligator on the dock tried to attack. "She jumped in front of me," Lineburger said. "She was roughly 2 to 3 feet away from me when the gator attacked." Lineburger couldn't see the gator because of the lack of lights on the dock, which he believes is a violation of code. Precious died saving her owner's life, and he is determined that her death bring about some changes at the marina. "Nothing they will do will bring her back, but I do not want her death to be in vain," he said. "At least let it accomplish something [and get] some of these violations taken care of."

6. POPSICLE // FOUGHT CRIME WITH U.S. CUSTOMS OFFICERS

Popsicle began his life as a drug dealer’s fighting dog. When the dealer was arrested in 1997, a policeman found the dog in a black garbage bag stuffed into a freezer on the back porch, blood-caked, malnourished, and near death. Popsicle was taken to a local animal hospital/shelter, but no one would adopt him because of his breed. So, he was sent to the Canine Enforcement Training Center in Front Royal, Virginia, which trains U.S. Customs dogs. He graduated at the top of his class and ended up at the Texas-Mexico border, where he sniffed out more than 3000 pounds of cocaine hidden in a truck—the facility's biggest drug bust at that point.

7. PITTIE // ADOPTED AN ORPHANED KITTEN

Employees from an animal rescue group made a surprising discovery on a Texas roadside in March 2015: a stray pit bull nursing an abandoned newborn kitten. The dog, named Pittie by Mercy Animal Clinic where the pair was taken, was keeping the kitten alive with her milk. "Over my 28-year career, I've never seen anything like this," veterinarian Dr. Rick Hamlin told The Dodo. "My gosh, to find this in the wild, that a pit bull and kitten found each other on their own and they connected like they did, it's really something." From that point on, Pittie acted as the kitten’s mother—and when her milk began to dry up and the kitten had to be bottle-fed, Pittie followed and watched over the whole process. The two couldn’t be separated because Pittie would get upset every time someone took her kitten out of her sight. Sadly, according to Mercy’s Facebook page, Pittie’s kitten passed away in April (the kitten "had congenital malformation of the urinary bladder and kidneys," according to the clinic, which might be why its mother abandoned it). Pittie, though, has since been adopted to her forever home.

8. BABY // RESCUED A FAMILY FROM A HOUSE FIRE

In 2013, then 10-year-old pit bull Baby rescued her family—and their other pets—from a house fire in Wellston, Oklahoma. The fire likely started in the dryer and spread through the house while Rhonda Westenberger and her sister Evelyn were asleep. Baby ran into their rooms, barking and jumping on them so they would wake up and see the danger. "There were flames shooting down the hallway," Westenberger told KOCO News. "If Baby hadn't woken Evelyn up, I don't think either one of us would have come out of it." The women escaped, but they had five other dogs still trapped inside. Baby saved them, too, even pulling one from under the bed and dragging it out of the house.

9. STUBBY // THE MOST DECORATED DOG IN MILITARY HISTORY

Sergeant Stubby was a pit bull mix (among the types that would be banned in Montreal) hailed as a war hero in World War I. Originally a stray puppy found by Private J. Robert Conroy at Yale University in 1917, Stubby became the mascot for the unit Conroy was training with. The dog made it to the front lines in France, where he was injured after being exposed to gas; after he recovered, he was able to smell when gas attacks were coming. He was also very good at locating wounded men between the trenches. He once managed to capture a German spy—an effort that made him the first dog to gain rank in the U.S. Armed Forces. Stubby served in 17 battles total, and he even learned a modified salute, putting his right paw up by his right eyebrow.

10. JACK // FOUGHT OFF COYOTES TO SAVE A CAT

Rescue pittie Jack and rescue cat Kitty share a similar past and a current friendship, with Jack regularly acting as Kitty’s watchful caretaker. When two coyotes attacked Kitty at their Florida home in 2013, Jack sprang into action. Sheree Lewis, the animals’ owner, said the coyotes were battling over the cat, one grabbing her by the tail and the other grabbing her by the neck. Jack bolted over to save his friend’s life—"I didn't know Jack could run that fast," Lewis said—fighting off the coyotes until they let Kitty go. Kitty didn’t escape unharmed—she had several cuts, a broken tooth, and brain swelling—but without Jack’s help, it would have been far worse. Jack is still devoted to his friend. "He checks on her every day and sniffs her, seeing what kind of shape she is in," Lewis said.

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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Animals
15 Incredible Facts About Pigeons
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Though they're often described as "rats with wings" (a phrase popularized by the movie Stardust Memories), pigeons are actually pretty cool. From homing instincts to misleading rump feathers, here are 15 things you might not know about these avian adventurers.

1. THEY MIGHT BE THE FIRST DOMESTICATED BIRD.

The common city pigeon (Columba livia), also known as the rock pigeon, might be the first bird humankind ever domesticated. You can see them in art dating back as far as 4500 BCE in modern Iraq, and they've been a valuable source of food for thousands of years.

2. THEY WON OVER CHARLES DARWIN—AND NIKOLA TESLA.

Pigeon-breeding was a common hobby in Victorian England for everyone from well-off businessmen to average Joes, leading to some fantastically weird birds. Few hobbyists had more enthusiasm for the breeding process than Charles Darwin, who owned a diverse flock, joined London pigeon clubs, and hobnobbed with famous breeders. Darwin's passion for the birds influenced his 1868 book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, which has not one but two chapters about pigeons (dogs and cats share a single chapter).

Nikola Tesla was another great mind who enjoyed pigeons. He used to care for injured wild pigeons in his New York City hotel room. Hands down, Tesla's favorite was a white female—about whom he once said, "I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman and she loved me. When she was ill, I knew and understood; she came to my room and I stayed beside her for days. I nursed her back to health. That pigeon was the joy of my life. If she needed me, nothing else mattered. As long as I had her, there was a purpose in my life." Reportedly, he was inconsolable after she died.

3. THEY UNDERSTAND SPACE AND TIME.

In a 2017 Current Biology study, researchers showed captive pigeons a series of digital lines on a computer screen for either two or eight seconds. Some lines were short, measuring about 2.3 inches across; others were four times longer. The pigeons were trained to evaluate either the length of the line or how long it was displayed. They found that the more time a line was displayed, the longer in length the pigeon judged it to be. The reverse was true too: If the pigeons encountered a longer line, they thought it existed in time for a greater duration. Pigeons, the scientists concluded, understand the concepts of both time and space; the researchers noted "similar results have been found with humans and other primates."

It's thought that humans process those concepts with a brain region called the parietal cortex; pigeon brains lack that cortex, so they must have a different way of judging space and time.

4. THEY CAN FIND THEIR WAY BACK TO THE NEST FROM 1300 MILES AWAY.

A pigeon flying in front of trees.
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The birds can do this even if they've been transported in isolation—with no visual, olfactory, or magnetic clues—while scientists rotate their cages so they don't know what direction they're traveling in. How they do this is a mystery, but people have been exploiting the pigeon's navigational skills since at least 3000 BCE, when ancient peoples would set caged pigeons free and follow them to nearby land.

Their navigational skills also make pigeons great long-distance messengers. Sports fans in ancient Greece are said to have used trained pigeons to carry the results of the Ancient Olympics. Further east, Genghis Khan stayed in touch with his allies and enemies alike through a pigeon-based postal network.

5. THEY SAVED THOUSANDS OF HUMAN LIVES DURING WORLD WARS I AND II.

Pigeons' homing talents continued to shape history during the 20th century. In both World Wars, rival nations had huge flocks of pigeon messengers. (America alone had 200,000 at its disposal in WWII.) By delivering critical updates, the avians saved thousands of human lives. One racing bird named Cher Ami completed a mission that led to the rescue of 194 stranded U.S. soldiers on October 4, 1918.

6. TWO PIGEONS ALMOST DISTRACTED FROM THE DISCOVERY OF EVIDENCE OF THE BIG BANG.

In 1964, scientists in Holmdel, New Jersey, heard hissing noises from their antenna that would later prove to be signals from the Big Bang. But when they first heard the sound, they thought it might be, among other things, the poop of two pigeons that were living in the antenna. "We took the pigeons, put them in a box, and mailed them as far away as we could in the company mail to a guy who fancied pigeons," one of the scientists later recalled. "He looked at them and said these are junk pigeons and let them go and before long they were right back." But the scientists were able to clean out the antenna and determine that they had not been the cause of the noise. The trap used to catch the birds (before they had to later be, uh, permanently removed) is on view at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

7. YOU CAN TRAIN THEM TO BE ART SNOBS …

Japanese psychologist Shigeru Watanabe and two colleagues earned an Ig Nobel Prize in 1995 for training pigeons, in a lab setting, to recognize the paintings of Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso and to distinguish between the painters. The pigeons were even able to use their knowledge of impressionism and cubism to identify paintings of other artists in those movements. Later, Watanabe taught other pigeons to distinguish watercolor images from pastels. And in a 2009 experiment, captive pigeons he'd borrowed were shown almost two dozen paintings made by students at a Tokyo elementary school, and were taught which ones were considered "good" and which ones were considered "bad." He then presented them with 10 new paintings and the avian critics managed to correctly guess which ones had earned bad grades from the school's teacher and a panel of adults. Watanabe's findings indicate that wild pigeons naturally categorize things on the basis of color, texture, and general appearance.

8. … AND TO DISTINGUISH WRITTEN WORDS.

In a 2016 study, scientists showed that pigeons can differentiate between strings of letters and actual words. Four of the birds built up a vocabulary of between 26 and 58 written English words, and though the birds couldn't actually read them, they could identify visual patterns and therefore tell them apart. The birds could even identify words they hadn't seen before.

9. FLUFFY PIGEON FEET MIGHT ACTUALLY BE PARTIAL WINGS.

A white pigeon with curly feathers and fluffy feet.
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A few pigeon breeds have fuzzy legs—which hobbyists call "muffs"—rather than scaly ones. According to a 2016 study, the DNA of these fluffy-footed pigeons leads their hind legs to take on some forelimb characteristics, making muffed pigeon legs look distinctly wing-like; they're also big-boned. Not only do they have feathers, but the hindlimbs are somewhat big-boned, too. According to biologist Mike Shapiro, who led the study, "pigeons' fancy feathered feet are partially wings."

10. SOME PIGEONS DISTRACT FALCONS WITH WHITE RUMP FEATHERS.

In a life-or-death situation, a pigeon's survival could depend upon its color pattern: Research has shown that wild falcons rarely go after pigeons that have a white patch of feathers just above the tail, and when the predators do target these birds, the attacks are rarely successful.

To figure out why this is, Ph.D. student Alberto Palleroni and a team tagged 5235 pigeons in the vicinity of Davis, California. Then, they monitored 1485 falcon-on-pigeon attacks over a seven-year span. The researchers found that although white-rumped pigeons comprised 20 to 25 percent of the area's pigeon population, they represented less than 2 percent of all the observed pigeons that were killed by falcons; the vast majority of the victims had blue rumps. Palleroni and his team rounded up 756 white- and blue-rumped pigeons and swapped their rump feathers by clipping and pasting white feathers on blue rumps, and vice versa. The falcons had a much easier time spotting and catching the newly blue-rumped pigeons, while the pigeons that received the white feathers saw predation rates plummet.

Close observation revealed that the white patches distract birds of prey. In the wild, falcons dive-bomb other winged animals from above at high speeds. Some pigeons respond by rolling away in midair, and on a spiraling bird, white rump feathers can be eye-catching, which means that a patch of them may divert a hungry raptor's focus long enough to make the carnivore miscalculate and zip right past its intended victim.

11. DODOS WERE RELATED TO TODAY'S PIGEONS.

Two blue and green Nicobar pigeons.
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Though most of this list focuses on the rock pigeon, there are 308 living species of pigeons and doves. Together, they make up an order of birds known as the columbiformes. The extinct dodo belonged to this group as well.

Flightless and (somewhat) docile, dodos once inhabited Mauritius, an island near Madagascar. The species had no natural predators, but when human sailors arrived with rats, dogs, cats, and pigs, it began to die out, and before the 17th century came to a close, the dodo had vanished altogether. DNA testing has confirmed that pigeons are closely related to the dodo, and the vibrant Nicobar pigeon (above) is its nearest genetic relative. A multi-colored bird with iridescent feathers, this near-threatened creature is found on small islands in the South Pacific and off Asia. Unlike the dodo, it can fly.

12. AT ONE POINT, MORE THAN ONE-QUARTER OF ALL THE BIRDS LIVING IN THE U.S. MAY HAVE BEEN PASSENGER PIGEONS.

Wild/feral rock pigeons reside in all 50 states, which makes it easy to forget that they're invasive birds. Originally native to Eurasia and northern Africa, the species was (most likely) introduced to North America by French settlers in 1606. At the time, a different kind of columbiform—this one indigenous—was already thriving there: the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). As many as 5 billion of them were living in America when England, Spain, and France first started colonizing, and they may have once represented anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the total U.S. bird population. But by the early 20th century, they had become a rare sight, thanks to overhunting, habitat loss, and a possible genetic diversity issue. The last known passenger pigeon—a captive female named Martha—died on September 1, 1914.

13. THEY'RE REALLY GOOD AT MULTITASKING.

According to one study, they're more efficient multitaskers than people are. Scientists at Ruhr-Universitat Bochum put together a test group of 15 humans and 12 pigeons and trained all of them to complete two simple jobs (like pressing a keyboard once a light bulb came on). They were also put in situations wherein they'd need to stop working on one job and switch over to another. In some trials, the participants had to make the change immediately. During these test runs, humans and pigeons switched between jobs at the same speed.

But in other trials, the test subjects were allowed to complete one assignment and then had to wait 300 milliseconds before moving on to the next job. Interestingly, in these runs, the pigeons were quicker to get started on that second task after the period ended. In the avian brain, nerve cells are more densely packed, which might enable our feathered friends to process information faster than we can under the right circumstances.

14. PIGEONS PRODUCE FAKE "MILK."

Only mammals produce genuine milk, but pigeons and doves (along with some other species of birds) feed their young with something similar—a whitish liquid filled with nutrients, fats, antioxidants, and healthy proteins called "crop milk." Both male and female pigeons create the milk in the crop, a section of the esophagus designed to store food temporarily. As is the case with mammal milk, the creation of crop milk is regulated by the hormone prolactin. Newly-hatched pigeons drink crop milk until they're weaned off it after four weeks or so. (And if you've ever asked yourself, "Where are all the baby pigeons?" we have the answer for you right here.)

15. ONE STUDY SUGGESTS THAT, GIVEN THE RIGHT CONDITIONS, THEY'RE AS GOOD AT IDENTIFYING CANCER AS DOCTORS.

We've already established that pigeons are excellent at differentiating between artists and words, but a 2015 study revealed they can also distinguish between malignant and benign growths in the right conditions. Researchers at University of California Davis Medical Center put 16 pigeons in a room with magnified biopsies of potential breast cancers. If the pigeons correctly identified them as either benign or malignant, they got a treat, According to Scientific American.

"Once trained, the pigeons' average diagnostic accuracy reached an impressive 85 percent. But when a "flock sourcing" approach was taken, in which the most common answer among all subjects was used, group accuracy climbed to a staggering 99 percent, or what would be expected from a pathologist. The pigeons were also able to apply their knowledge to novel images, showing the findings weren't simply a result of rote memorization."

Mammograms proved to be more of a challenge, however; the birds could memorize signs of cancer in the images they were trained on but could not identify the signs in new images.

No matter how impressive their results, "I don't anticipate that pigeons, no matter how good they become at pathology or radiology, will be playing a role in actual patient care—certainly for the foreseeable future," study co-author Richard M. Levenson told Scientific American. "There are just too many regulatory barriers—at least in the West."

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