25 Incredible Animals That Shaped Human History

Posted by , Updated on March 21, 2024

It’s unarguable that most humans perceive animals as mentally and intellectually subpar compared to our own kind, a position perhaps solidified by our achievements in science, technology, intellect, and medicine. However, there have been instances where animals have been instrumental to our history. While we humans may be at the apex of the food chain, we cannot ignore that our existence strongly owes to animals in one way or another. This is made evident in these 25 extraordinary animals that played key roles in human history.



Congo: The Fascinating Painter


The mere thought that the human race descended from other animals, specifically from apes, could cost you your life in medieval Europe, but from the nineteenth century on (especially after the publication of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species) such theories found fertile ground for deep exploration and many adherents. Congo, an incredibly talented chimp, added more fuel to the validity of such theories with his emotional intelligence, superb artwork, and artistic creativity, which gained him fans around the globe, Picasso being one of them.


The Black Pig That Killed A French King

Black Pig

As Philip of France was having a relaxing day riding his horse alongside his friends a random black pig entered his path, which made his horse flip out and somersault with Philip still in his saddle. The injuries were so bad that the king died the next day and it could be conjectured that this pig may have altered history by preventing Philip from conquering further lands and preventing the whole world from speaking French today instead of English.


Jim The Horse

Jim the horse

Did you know that we have a horse to thank for the diphtheria cure? It’s true. Jim the horse was infected with diphtheria but unlike other animals he didn’t die. Doctors found that his body created antibodies to fight the disease and as such gave doctors the opportunity to use Jim’s incredible immune system to make a serum for humans, with great success. Thus Jim made history by being a medical miracle that helped save the lives of millions of humans and animals around the world.


Tesla’s Cylon Pigeon

Tesla's Cylon Pigeon

Anyone who’s familiar with Tesla’s genius and experiments is probably aware of his odd fascination with pigeons, especially a female pigeon he referred to as the “purpose to my life.” In 1924, this bird landed on his window and died right before his eyes. Tesla later claimed a dazzling light emerged from her eyes while dying, brighter than anything he had ever seen. After that, Tesla was never the same and suffered massive creative frustrations. According to most biographers, if the incident had never occurred Tesla would have offered even more inventions to humankind.


Tibbles “The Terminator”


There have been many cases where we (humans) have systematically caused the extinction of various species, but we never really noticed that the same thing occurs in the animal kingdom. Enter the unique case of Tibbles “The Terminator.” Believe it or not, this cat is the reason for the total extermination of the rare species of a flightless bird known as the Stephens Island wren, and to date, it is the only case where a single living animal (besides humans) wiped out a whole species.


Ham The Chimp

Ham The Chimp

Ham the Chimp was named after the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center and became a huge celebrity all over America. He ended up on the cover of Life magazine after his Project Mercury mission labeled MR-2, which launched him into orbit on January 31, 1961. Ham learned to pull levers to receive banana pellets and avoid electric shocks and thus he successfully became the first animal to actually interact with a space vessel rather than simply ride in it.


Alex: The Genius Parrot

Alex The Genius Parrot

Alex, the world-renowned African Grey Parrot, changed how the world viewed and understood animal intelligence before the mid-seventies. The remarkably smart parrot displayed the extraordinary cognitive and communication abilities of his kind and became the hot topic of scientific discussion and dispute for a long time for his ability to count each object individually in a group, identify colors, things, and actions, and even solve plain math problems.


Sergeant Reckless: The Hero Horse of the Korean War

Sergeant Reckless

Reckless was a small, humble mare that served in the Korean War, for which she was twice promoted to staff sergeant. She was trained to transfer ammo, and during a single battle she made fifty-one solo trips under enemy fire. Additionally, she saved the lives of numerous wounded soldiers by evacuating them, a fact that earned her many medals including the Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Korean Service Medal, among other honors.


Checkers: The Dog That Inspired A Historic Presidential Speech


On September 23, 1952, Senator Richard Nixon gave one of the most famous speeches in modern American history. Nixon, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice presidential running mate, was accused at the time of accepting illegal gifts. He denied the allegations with a passion and during his speech referred to a cocker spaniel named Checkers that his family had given him. Arguably due to his speech, Nixon remained on the Republican ticket as Eisenhower’s running mate, and they won the election only a few weeks after (that speech). Furthermore, September 23 was designated National Dogs in Politics Day, also known as Checkers Day.


Bucephalus: The Most Dominant Horse in History


According to legend, Bucephalus was a wild horse than no man could get close to. A young Alexander the Great became the first and only man to tame the wild horse not by force as so many before had tried and failed, but by turning the horse’s head toward the sun, understanding that Bucephalus was simply afraid of his own shadow. After that no one but Alexander could mount the horse and together they would conquer vast territories and spread Greek culture and civilization all over the then-known world.


Robert The Bruce’s Inspirational Spider

Bruce's spider

We all know Robert the Bruce today (because of Braveheart) as one of the most famous Scottish warriors ever and the man who led his country during the heroic Wars of Scottish Independence against England. However, before he become one of Scotland’s greatest heroes he had suffered a few humiliating losses which made him hide in a cave on Rathlin Island during the winter of 1306.

There he observed a spider trying to build a web across the cave walls only to have the harsh winter weather tear its work down every day. Nonetheless, the spider never quit, and one day, the web held fast. Robert was so inspired by the spider’s persistence that he returned to war with the English, determined to fight for Scotland until his country was free.


Sergeant Stubby

Sergeant Stubby

Sergeant Stubby is the most decorated war dog of World War I and the only dog in US history that was promoted to sergeant because of his time in combat, even though most historians believe that the dog earned the honorary rank from the Smithsonian Institution and not the US army. One way or another, Stubby served for eighteen months and participated in seventeen battles on the Western Front during the course of which he saved his regiment from many unexpected mustard gas attacks and found and comforted several wounded soldiers.

According to legend, he once caught a German spy by the seat of his pants, holding him there until American soldiers found and captured him. What more can you ask from a dog?


The Monkey That Killed A Nation’s Leader During War


After two victorious Balkan Wars against the Ottoman Empire, Greece was prevailing and conquering one territory after another against Turkey at the beginning of the Greco-Turkish War (1919–1922). After the Greek army had conquered the biggest part of Thrace and Asia Minor and was about to invade and re-conquer Constantinople (Istanbul) after five hundred years of Ottoman occupation, the Greek leader of the military campaign would lose his life because of an attack from a monkey while walking in his royal gardens.

A macaque bit Alexander, the Greek king, and caused him a wound that would later become infected and kill him at age twenty-seven. Only a couple of years after his death and a series of political mistakes by the Greek side, the initially victorious campaign fast became a national disaster for Greece and a monkey became the nation’s most hated living animal.


The Snake That Killed Cleopatra

Snake Cleopatra

Even though Cleopatra’s death is disputed, it is widely accepted that she made a poisonous snake bite her as her empire was falling into Roman hands. If this is what indeed happened, then the snake shaped history by killing one of the most powerful, dominant women who ever lived.


The Dog That Captured The World's Most Wanted Man

Cher Ami

On May 2, 2011, a well-trained Malinois named Cairo accompanied the US Navy SEALs who killed Osama Bin Laden. Even though we don’t have many details about this secret but successful operation, every member of the team guarantees that the outcome might not have been as successful if Cairo wasn’t present to help.


The Crocodiles That “Fought” in WWII Alongside the Allies


The South Pacific during World War II holds the distinction for being an especially savage killing ground the likes of which humankind had never seen before or since. Yet one of the bloodiest, most horrifying massacres in the history of the war came not at the hands of humans, but from the jaws of the animal kingdom.

The Battle of Ramree Island, which was fought for six weeks during January and February 1945, entered The Guinness Book of World Records for the “Most Fatalities in a Crocodile Attack.” According to various estimations, anywhere from five hundred to almost a thousand Japanese soldiers were slaughtered by thousands of saltwater crocodiles that were lying in wait in the inland swamps, thus shaping military history as no other animal has.


A Random Eagle And A Turtle Killed The Father Of Tragedy


Aeschylus is recognized worldwide as the father of tragedy since he was the first of the three ancient Greek tragedians, along with Sophocles and Euripides. As the legendary playwright was working on his new play he became the victim of his own bald head. According to various historical sources, Aeschylus was killed by a tortoise dropped by an eagle that had mistaken his head for a rock suitable for shattering the turtle’s shell. In this ironic way the life of one of the greatest writers who ever lived was cut short, thus preventing many more classic plays from being finished.


The Newfoundland Dog That Saved Napoléon

Napoleon Dog

It is widely believed that a Newfoundland whose name and sex has gone unrecorded saved the great military general Napoléon Bonaparte from certain death. In 1815, during Napoléon’s escape from exile on the island of Elba, a gigantic wave knocked him overboard, which almost led to his death. Fortunately, a fisherman’s dog (the unnamed Newfoundland) jumped into the water and kept Napoléon afloat until he could reach the safety of the shore.


Cher Ami: The Most Heroic Pigeon In History


During WWI Cher Ami was one of the many birds used by the US Army Signal Corps in France to transport important messages from commanders in the battlefield. In one of the missions Cher Ami was shot by German troops after he took flight, but the wounded bird continued flying and heroically managed to deliver the important message he carried. As a result, a Lost Battalion of the Allies was saved, and Cher Ami later was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government. After he died in June 1919, the famous bird was preserved by a taxidermist and put on display at the Smithsonian.


The Hungry Wolves Who Temporarily Ended WWI

Wild wolves

In the winter of 1916–17 the Germans fought against the Russians in an area stretching more than a thousand miles from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. During that winter the subzero temperatures and icy weather didn’t just cause problems for the soldiers, they also forced the starving Russian wolves to attack organized groups of soldiers.

The problem eventually became so serious that there were days where both sides had more casualties from the vicious wolf attacks than the actual battles. Because of this the soldiers convinced their commanders to make a temporary truce so they could join forces against the bloodthirsty wolves. The two sides discussed how to find an effective solution to the situation and finally, after concerted effort and cooperation, they managed to murder hundreds of wolves while the rest scattered, permanently leaving the area. The victory against the wolves accomplished, the truce ended and the soldiers went back to killing each other again.


The Birds That Inspired The Invention Of The Robot

Archytas pigeon

Archytas, an ancient Greek mathematician and scientist who lived around 430–350 BCE, is also known as “the Father of the First Robot,” but if it wasn’t for his fascination with and love for birds, especially pigeons, he would never have earned such a flattering title. See, in his quest to learn how birds fly, Archytas created his own steam-powered wooden “pigeon,” because he believed that it would help him better understand how real birds fly. Despite the fact that Archytas created the artificial bird for a different purpose, he accidentally gave to the world the first robot and flying machine.


The Rats and Fleas That Killed Almost Half Of Europe’s Population

black death

In the mid-fourteenth century, a deadly pandemic known as the “Black Death” wiped out about half the European population. Later, scientists and researchers found that the infectious disease that killed so many people was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which infects rats and other small rodents and is typically transmitted to humans by the bite of infected fleas. This discovery confirmed that these tiny little “invaders” caused the Continent’s greatest biomedical disaster in history.


Dolly: The Most Famous Clone in History


Arguably the most famous animal of our generation, Dolly made history back in the nineties when she became the first mammal to be cloned. From a medical and biological viewpoint the significance of this feat can benefit humans and animals alike in literally millions of ways, one of these being cloning other animals, even extinct ones, which would mean that Tibbles the cat (aka The Terminator) would be erased from the history books since the Stephens Island wren could be resurrected.


Laika: The Iconic Spacedog


Even though Laika was not the first animal in space, it’s without a doubt the most famous and the first to orbit Earth as the only crewmember of the legendary Sputnik 2 in 1957. Unfortunately, Laika died during the flight, as was inevitable since the technology to return from orbit had not yet been invented.


Balto: The Humanist


This is the only time in recorded history that an animal saved not one or two people, but the whole population of a town with his heroic act. In 1925 the Alaskan town of Nome suffered a devastating outbreak of diphtheria and the only available airplane in the area was frozen and nonfunctional, so several teams of sled dogs were put together to rush to Anchorage for the antitoxin.

For over a thousand miles, the heroic dog led the team, going through whiteout blizzards and all kinds of danger in the hostile environment. The dog’s fearless journey is nowadays honored through the running of the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and is the story behind the Disney animated film Balto, who is voiced by Kevin Bacon.