America’s Hero Pets

These best-in-breed creatures risked their own lives to protect their two-legged friends. Here are the amazing true stories of this year's hero pets.

By Gary Sledge from Reader's Digest, | August 2011


"He has a mind of his own," Sgt. Chris Duke, 28, says proudly of the mongrel dog he found roaming his outpost in Afghanistan. "He likes to run in the woods and stay out all night. He was just a good old country boy."

Until one night, when he also became a hero. "I owe my life to him," says Duke.

In 2009, Duke was stationed at a desert fortress in Paktia Province, a desolate and dangerous place. A pack of feral dogs prowled the area, and Duke, homesick for family and his own dogs back in Franklin, Georgia, befriended one of them, a brindle-and-white male he dubbed Rufus. The dog ran with a ragtag female the soldiers named Target because the Afghan border police, who believed that dogs were unclean, liked to use her for rifle practice. A puppy the Americans called Sasha rounded out the trio.

Duke fed Rufus scraps from his plate, and the two quickly became buddies. "When you'd come back from a mission," Duke remembers, "you just wanted something familiar to get your mind off what you'd seen. I'd go play with Rufus."

On the night of February 11, 2010, however, Duke's safe haven was shattered when an enemy intruder penetrated the compound. Between 40 and 50 GIs were settling down in their barracks for the night, laughing and talking in their rooms.

Duke was in the main hallway on a computer when the other men heard frenzied barking outside. Some of the men got up to quiet the dogs. Suddenly, the main door to the barracks was flung open, revealing a stranger dressed in local garb struggling with Rufus and Target, who had sunk their teeth into his legs. Little Sasha was leaping around the intruder, yelping and snapping.

Trapped in the doorway by the dogs, unable to move forward or escape, the trespasser blew himself up, sending metal shards down the 75-foot-long hallway. "I took shrapnel all down my left side," Duke recalls.

Miraculously, while five men were wounded in the attack, none died or were permanently injured. The dogs who had stopped the intruder did not fare as well: The day after the attack, the men found Rufus and Target gravely hurt with lacerations and shrapnel. Rufus was singed on 90 percent of his body, and Target, who gave birth to a litter of four puppies just a few days after the incident, had most of her fur burned off. Sasha died from her wounds.

From that day on, Rufus and Target were heroes to the men. After his unit was sent home in March 2010, Duke decided to try to bring the two dogs to the United States. He wrote a letter to Hope for the Warriors, a nonprofit group that grants wishes to wounded servicemen and -women and veterans, and appealed for transportation money. Funds were raised by several organizations, including Puppy Rescue Mission, started by two women who had heard about the dogs' heroism. On July 29, 2010, Rufus and Target were flown to Atlanta, where Duke picked them up and brought them home with him to Franklin. A week later, Target was flown to Arizona to be adopted by another soldier (see "Target in Memoriam").

Rufus now lives with Duke and his family. Sometimes as dark comes on, Duke looks outside to the perimeter of his property in rural Franklin and sees a dark shape moving in the shadows. He knows it is Rufus, the vigilant sentry, guarding the periphery, strong, courageous, and free.

Fierce Guardians of Our Forces

Among the Navy SEAL Team Six members who met privately with President Obama after taking out Osama bin Laden last May was a fearless four-legged warrior with a distinguished European pedigree. According to Rebecca Frankel, an editor at and a veteran reporter on the war-dog beat, the sole canine commando on the mission was a Belgian Malinois that goes by the name of Cairo.

One of some 3,000 dogs currently deployed in the U.S. military around the world, Cairo upholds a long and noble tradition: Dogs have fought alongside U.S. soldiers for over 200 years, having first seen action during the Revolutionary War. Surely those 18th-century military canines would be amazed by their modern counterparts' skills, such as the ability (and eagerness) to parachute from a plane at 30,000 feet.

They might also slaver over the special equipment now available, including Doggles (protective eyewear), bulletproof armor, gas masks, long-range GPS-equipped vests, infrared night-sight cameras, and communication systems that can penetrate concrete walls. Despite all their high-tech accessorizing, however, military working dogs are most highly prized for one superior talent: their olfactory power, which still outperforms expensive bomb-detector technology -- a crucial asset in IED-plagued Iraq and Afghanistan.

Same goes for another legendary trait: their loyalty to man. During months of intensive training, a military dog develops a deep attachment to its handler. Though trained to attack and, at times, kill, canine commandos remain, in their hearts, man's most trusting friend.


When Glen Kruger picked a kitten from the Allegany County SPCA in upstate New York, he expected little more than lap time and the usual amount of feline disregard. Yet right from the start, eight years ago, there was an uncanny connection between him and the small black cat with the white bib and white paws. He named her Inky.

"I grew up on a hundred-acre dairy farm and had only kittens and cats as playmates," says Kruger, 61, a former building maintenance mechanic. "My hearing was damaged by chain saws and the noise of farm equipment, so I learned to connect with animals. They respond to what they see and what you do."

Inky liked to roam outdoors during the day but went inside at night to escape foxes and coyotes. Indoors, she was a typical tuxedo, sharing the house with five other spayed and neutered cats. But on a January night in 2009, Inky did something that would set her apart from ordinary cats forever.

Kruger had gone down to the basement to shut off the wood stove for the night. When he was finished, he climbed to the top of the stairs and reached to turn off the lights. In doing so, he knocked aside a board that propped up a broken spring-action ladder leading to the attic. The heavy wooden contraption came crashing down. It slammed against his right shoulder and sent Kruger headfirst down the stairs. He felt bones crack.

Lying in a pool of blood on the basement floor, Kruger felt himself going into shock. He yelled for help, but his wife, Brenda, was asleep in their bedroom at the opposite end of the house. Then Kruger noticed Inky watching from the top of the stairs.
"Go get Brenda," Kruger said to Inky. In the past, Inky had responded only to the simplest commands when food was offered. So when the cat dashed away, Kruger thought, I'm sunk.

But Inky was on a mission. She ran to the bedroom door and scratched and yowled until Brenda opened it. Then Inky led her to the basement. Brenda found her husband at the bottom of the stairs and called 911. Kruger was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with head lacerations, a shattered right arm, and fractured vertebrae in his neck and back. "I spent six months recovering and, due to spinal compression and curvature, actually lost height," says Kruger. "But I was blessed." Since the accident, Inky never leaves Kruger's side.


The auburn-colored quarter horse, Stormy, has always been special. Originally a rescue horse, she'd worked as a therapy animal for kids with disabilities for three years -- until the stable that hosted the program needed to move her out to make room for younger horses. The Leonard family, of Sulphur, Louisiana, had been looking for a horse for their daughter, Emma, nine; the 30-year-old steed seemed the perfect match. Soon Emma was giving Stormy pedicures, painting her hooves hot pink with glitter, and riding her almost every day.

Last September, Emma went bareback riding on Stormy. Her brother Liam, seven, accompanied them on foot, carrying his rubber-band gun in case they met any bad guys. The trio headed down a rough-mowed country road crisscrossed by deer trails leading into a forest of oak and pine. Emma guided Stormy up one narrow trail tangled with vines and underbrush, while Liam marched behind. But as they walked, the typically calm Stormy became skittish and fretful. Suddenly, Emma heard something thrashing in the woods behind her.

As she turned in the saddle to look, a feral boar crashed through the underbrush. It was a huge, filthy-looking beast with sharp tusks jutting out of its mouth and ridged black bristles up its back. It stomped and snorted, pawing at the earth just six feet from Liam. "Run, Liam!" Emma cried. But the boy stood still, frozen in fear.

Stormy turned and trotted directly past the wild pig, putting herself between the boar and the boy, then gently nudged Liam to safety. The boar became agitated, but when it charged, Stormy was ready. As Emma hung on, Stormy lashed out with her hind legs, slamming her ironclad hooves into the animal's face. With a squeal of pain, the boar shot off into the woods.

When the kids got home, "they were white with fright and crying so much that I could barely understand them," their mother, Cathy Leonard, 38, recalls. Between sobs, Emma and Liam described the terrifying incident and how Stormy had saved them.

Why didn't Stormy instinctively startle and run? For Stormy's owner, the answer is simple: "She was very brave," Emma says, "and she loves me."


Teresa Oney's ten-month-old beagle, Digger, stirred at the foot of the bed and began whining to go outside. It was past 2 a.m., 27 degrees outside, and snowing in Lexington, Kentucky. Oney was of no mind to get out of bed. Digger had already gotten her up once at midnight.

But Digger kept pleading. So Oney, who lives alone, stumbled into the kitchen and out into the garage to let him out. Then the 59-year-old high school physics teacher watched him through the kitchen window as he sat down on the covered porch, facing the backyard. He stayed perfectly still. When Oney called him, he wouldn't budge. She tiptoed gingerly through the cold garage. "Digger," she called out the back door. The normally obedient dog did not respond. She went to him and grabbed his collar, but he got away and hunkered back on the porch, staring at the fence that separates Oney's property from her neighbor's.

Then Oney heard a muffled cry. At first, she thought it might be kids playing. But the voice called again and again. "Help. Somebody help me." Oney dashed back into the house and phoned 911. Then she pulled on boots and a coat and went out to the backyard. Now she could clearly hear a woman's voice, and it was coming from the yard of the neighbor behind her. She got in her car to drive around the block and met up with a police car at the neighbor's house.

Oney led the cops to the backyard. There they found her, an 83-year-old woman on her hands and knees next to the fence, conscious but disoriented. She was dressed only in a short-sleeved nightgown and soaking wet from the snow. Blood stained the snow. She told the police, "I reckon I been out here pretty near an hour."

Oney believes the elderly woman had wandered outside, slipped on ice, and in her confusion crawled away from the house. Emergency workers later reported that the woman, who suffers from Alzheimer's, had been in critical condition when she was discovered. Without Digger's vigilance, she would have frozen to death. (She has since recovered from her fall.)

When Oney drove back to her house, Digger was still on the porch, patiently waiting. "If Digger had barked or done anything but sit silently, I never would have heard those faint cries," Oney says. Today, Digger, once just a pup abandoned in a Walmart parking lot, has been inducted into the Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association's 2010 Animal Hall of Fame. To Oney, however, he is still just "a big ol' puppy -- one with dogged determination."

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