Clare Balding has written a collection of stories celebrating the exploits of her heroes – and none of them are human.
The presenter grew up surrounded by animals and says she was shaped by them more than people.
Heroic Animals includes the inspiring tales of Wojtek, the bear who fought in the Second World War, Congo, the chimp who created 400 abstract paintings, and many more.
Clare, 55, writes: “Animals have made me who I am. I was not quite born in a stable and schooled in a kennel but near enough.
“I grew up surrounded by dogs, ponies and horses. They were way above me (and my brother) in the pecking order of family importance and I was perfectly happy to accept that. Every family photo has at least one animal at the centre of it.
“I wanted to find a way of celebrating all sorts of animals from giraffes and rhinos to cats and dogs. There are all kinds of stories here – happy, sad, inspiring and funny. These animals are heroes to me.”
Wojtek the war-winning bear
Wojtek was the bear who won the Second World War. Seriously.
The story of Wojtek begins at a railway station on the Iran/Iraq border in 1942.
A group of Polish soldiers were in the mood for celebration and entertainment, so when a young boy approached them with an orphaned bear cub in a sack, it felt like a good omen. Suddenly they had a new pet.
It was unprecedented to have a bear at the centre of the Polish armed forces, and the soldiers named their new comrade Wojtek.
He learnt to follow instructions and to greet his seniors by saluting them. He was not always perfectly behaved and developed a habit of stealing the soldiers’ kit. On one occasion, however, his misdeeds earned him only plaudits.
The bear loved nothing more than to take a refreshing shower.
One night in June 1943, he spotted one of the doors to the huts ajar and he lost no time in lumbering inside.
Hiding in the shower was a spy.
He was not expecting 440 pounds of bear and, paralysed with fear, he screamed the place down.
The bear was rewarded with cigarettes, which he mainly ate, and beer. Polish II Corps was sent to Italy to fight alongside the British Eighth Army.
There was no question that their bear would be going too, but there was a strict rule prohibiting pets. Wojtek thus became an official serving soldier.
At the bloody Battle of Monte Cassino, he helped move 100 pounds of artillery shells to an advanced position.
Wojtek’s strength and bravery had proved so vital that a new emblem was designed for the 22nd Company, of a bear carrying an artillery shell.
When the Polish Army was finally disbanded in 1947, Wojtek was found a new home at Edinburgh Zoo. He was visited often by his former comrades.
Wojtek died in 1963. Former comrade Ludwik Jaszczur said: “I’ll tell you the truth. Wojtek helped us to win the Second World War.”
Super Stoffel doesn’t give up
In the 2002 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, the honey badger is listed as “the world’s most fearless animal”, a perfect description for our hero, Stoffel.
Stoffel began life in domesticity, reared by a farmer, but after he created chaos in the farmer’s house, he was taken to the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre near the Kruger National Park in South Africa.
Unfortunately, Stoffel kept escaping.
Stoffel undid the locks on the gate, helped by an accomplice, who climbed on top of him to undo the top latch as he undid the bottom.
Wire was put up to secure the locked gate, but Stoffel unwound it and out he went again.
To protect the other animals, staff put him in a quarter-hectare camp. When he broke out to fight nearby lions, he ended up in hospital for two months. When he got out, Stoffel tried to get back to the lions, maybe to sort ’em out.
A rotary club then sponsored a new brick enclosure. The walls were too high and smooth for Stoffel to scale. So he just dug under them. When measures were taken to stop his digging, he climbed a tree, bending its branches to reach the wall, and walked out.
When a keeper left a rake in his enclosure, he moved it to the wall and climbed up it. He also tried rolling rocks to the wall, and using them to leapfrog out. He even made himself an escape route with a mud ramp.
Now, the Harry Houdini of the badger world is an ambassador for his species, attracting visitors from far and wide.
Congo is picture perfect
Congo’s talent was discovered by Desmond Morris in 1956 during a study at London Zoo.
The first time Morris gave the chimp a pencil and a piece of card, he noted Congo’s first line “wandered a short way and stopped. Would it happen again? Yes, it did, and again and again”.
Morris said: “Congo was a genius. He was the Leonardo of chimp painting.”
Then Morris gave Congo paints. He said: “Initially it was splish splosh, with no direction. He would take the colours I gave him in pots and mix them up into brown. So I started to give him pots of colour in random order.”
This seemed to do the trick. “He was experimenting with forms, especially the form of a fan, balancing compositions, creating repeated motifs and experimenting with colour juxtaposition.”
The chimp, whose style was described as abstract impressionism, continued to progress, completing more than 400 works. He was very possessive about his art – if someone tried to take a piece away before he had finished, he would, apologies, go ape.
Congo appeared regularly on Morris’s TV programme from London Zoo, called Zoo Time.
An exhibition of his work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1957 sold many pieces. On seeing one of Congo’s paintings, Salvador Dalí said: “The hand of the chimpanzee is quasi-human. The hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal.”
After his death in 1964 from tuberculosis, Congo’s work became even more valuable.
In 2005 three of his works were auctioned
by Bonhams for more than £20,000, more popular than lots of Renoir and Andy Warhol.
Morris said: “Watching him paint was like watching the birth of art.”