Hero Pet of the Year

Meet the hero pet of the year and see him on the Today Show

See a slideshow of all five hero pets.

Horse Sense

Since she was a little girl, Chloe-Jeane Wendell has had a special rapport with animals. But in the two years since her family brought Sunny Boy home to their farm in Vivian, Louisiana, the 16-year-old high school junior has bonded more closely with her palomino quarter horse than anyone expected. Hit, possibly, as a colt years before, Sunny Boy was spooked by almost any human contact. “No one could catch him,” says Chloe-Jeane’s dad, Mark, “but my daughter had an immediate calming effect on him that allowed her to saddle him up for a ride.” Sunny Boy and Chloe-Jeane quickly became inseparable. “He’s a sweet guy,” she says affectionately.

Hero Pet of the YearPhotographed by Tamara Reynolds

Sunny Boy, the palomino quarter horse, protected teenager Chloe-Jeane Wendell of Vivian, Louisiana, from an out-of-control pit bull.

See a slideshow of all five hero pets

At the local Redbud Festival parade in March 2008, the whole Wendell family—Mark and wife Bobbi Jo, Chloe-Jeane, and her younger sister, Kristen, 15—decked themselves out in Western gear and trotted on their horses behind the Vivian sheriff’s contingent. Chloe-Jeane rode Sunny Boy; Kristen was on her filly, Angel. A few blocks into the parade, a 75-pound pit bull shot out of the crowd right at Angel and began to attack her. When Angel kicked back, Kristen jumped off to avoid being thrown. The snarling dog then turned on the girl. Chloe-Jeane dismounted to protect her sister. “We watched in horror,” recalls Mark.

When Chloe-Jeane let go of the reins, Sunny Boy started, as if to run off. But as the pit bull whipped around to pounce on Chloe-Jeane, all 1,200 pounds of Sunny Boy stopped short and jumped between them. He astonished everyone by squaring off and kicking the dog hard in the face. “I was shocked,” says Chloe-Jeane. “Usually, he avoids other animals.”

The tenacious dog flipped around and began tearing gashes in the legs of Mark’s horse. Animal control officials moved in and finally captured the dog, which was later euthanized.

Chloe-Jeane’s friends clustered around her, saying, “Your horse saved you!” Indeed, the behavior was highly unusual. “I’ve been around horses all my life and have not seen one take on another animal like that,” says Mark.

That night, Chloe-Jeane visited Sunny Boy out in the pasture. “I gave him treats and told him how thankful I was that he protected me. I think he already knew how I felt.”

Sunny Boy will likely remain a hero, as the Wendells plan to have him participate in an equine-assisted therapy program for troubled youths.

The Right Dog for the Job

After their 15-year-old schnauzer-poodle mix, Bailey, died, in 2007, Ron Gillette and his wife, Ann, looked for months to find the right new pet. “I love dogs,” says Gillette, a maintenance worker at a health club in Waukesha, Wisconsin. “I can’t imagine not having one.”

Finally, the couple spotted a young Yorkshire terrier–poodle mix at the Humane Society in Milwaukee. His name was Oscar. “He was incredibly appealing,” says Gillette, 65. Oscar quickly made himself at home, sleeping on his new owners’ bed at night.

A diabetic for 25 years, Gillette faithfully took his insulin four times a day and generally had no problems. But on March 17, at about 3 a.m., he got out of bed to use the bathroom. “I must have taken the wrong dose of insulin before I went to sleep because my blood sugar was dangerously low,” he says. Suddenly, he slumped to the floor, landing awkwardly between a standing scale and the commode.

“Normally, Oscar gives little woofs. He’s very quiet and well-behaved,” says Gillette. “But when I hit the floor, he let out sounds like a wild animal.”

“Honestly, it sounded like the dog from hell,” says Ann, who was awakened by the yowling. “I didn’t know what the sound was. Then I saw my husband lying on the bathroom floor. He was out cold.” She ran for the phone and called an ambulance.

Gillette spent several hours in the hospital. By 6:30 a.m., he had stabilized enough to go home. “You would never suspect Oscar of any heroism,” says his grateful owner. “He’s a mellow little guy. We can walk him on our block, unleashed, without any problems. He’s got a lot of confidence now. And everyone wants to pet him.”

Even before Oscar’s enhanced reputation, the couple had given their pet a new nickname. “We felt the name Oscar wasn’t regal enough,” says Gillette, “so sometimes we call him Eduardo”—more befitting, the couple think, for an animal of his stature.

A Bird’s Way with Words

Like many other parrots, Willie is a fine mimic. He says, “Give me a kiss,” “Come here,” and, “I want out.” But unlike most parrots, Willie has a truly remarkable tale. When he spontaneously added a new word to his repertoire, he saved a life.

Last November, 19-year-old Meagan Howard volunteered to watch her roommate Samantha Kuusk’s two-year-old daughter, Hannah. “I suggested she stay with me instead of going to day care because she seemed cranky,” Howard says.

The apartment in Denver, Colorado, was warm and bright, and Howard’s 11-month-old Quaker parrot, Willie, kept up a genial patter from his cage in a corner of the living room. Kuusk, 27, left for a morning class at a nearby veterinary college. Howard toasted a Pop-Tart for Hannah and put it on the dining-room table. But it was too hot to eat, so the child toddled into the living room to watch television. She seemed content, so Howard dashed to the bathroom.

Seconds later, Willie began “freaking out in his cage,” she recalls. “He was flapping his wings, screeching, ‘Mama, baby! Mama, baby!’ ”

Howard rushed into the room to see Hannah’s face turning blue as she choked on her food. Willie kept crying, “Mama, baby!”

Howard performed the Heimlich maneuver, and the food dislodged from Hannah’s throat. “The minute I took charge, Willie quit squawking, as if he knew things were under control,” Howard says. “He calls me Mama, so he was clearly trying to get my attention. He’s loud and talkative, but what really amazes me is that he added the word baby on his own.”

Arriving home shortly after the incident, Kuusk found her daughter playing happily. “I don’t even want to think what would have happened without Willie,” she says.

Now Hannah lavishes the bird with attention. “First thing in the morning, she wants his cage uncovered,” says her mother, “and when she gets home in the afternoon, she runs to him. It’s ‘Willie, Willie’ everything.”

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