The news cycle is usually dominated by human politicians, celebrities, and business tycoons, but every so often, a member of a different species makes it above the fold. Whether their fame lasted for 15 minutes or a lifetime, the notoriety these creatures received was well-deserved. Here are 20 animals who captured the public’s attention.
1. Duke the Dog Mayor
Politicians often make the news, but rarely for the same reasons as Duke. In 2014, the Great Pyrenees was elected mayor of Cormorant, Minnesota—the first mayor of any species to govern the small town in its 140-year history. After serving four consecutive terms, Mayor Duke passed away in 2019.
2. The “Hot” Mandarin Duck
From fall 2018 to spring 2019, a Mandarin duck was the hottest celebrity in New York City. The so-called “hot duck” immediately drew attention when it unexpectedly arrived in Central Park one October day. The waterfowl is native to East Asia, and its colorful plumage was unlike anything local birders had seen in the area. Soon, people outside the birding community were flocking to the park to catch a glimpse of the striking visitor. The hot duck left the park in March 2019, and how it got there in the first place is still a mystery.
3. Murder Hornets
Just when we thought 2020 couldn’t get worse, the murder hornets made headlines in spring of that year. Known officially as Asian giant hornets, the insects are capable of killing humans with their venomous stings when they attack in groups. The invasive species from Asia never become the threat some headlines made them out to be, but they haven’t gone away completely. After months without a sighting in the U.S., a living murder hornet specimen was documented near a paper wasp nest in Washington in August 2021.
4. Laika the Space Dog
One of the pioneers of space travel was a street dog plucked off the streets of Moscow. On November 3, 1957, Laika the canine cosmonaut became the first living creature to orbit Earth. Her journey to space paved the way for Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight four years later. Laika sadly didn’t survive her mission, but she’s remembered in Russia as a hero; there’s even a monument to her in Russia's capital.
5. Pizza Rat
No creature embodied the spirit of New York quite like pizza rat. In September 2015, the rodent was recorded dragging a full-sized pizza slice down the stairs of a subway station. The legitimacy of the video has since been called into question, but staged or not, many commuters still identify with the viral clip.
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6. Narwhal the Puppy Dog
In 2019, the world was introduced to Narwhal the Little Magical Furry Unicorn, or Narwhal for short. The tail growing out of the newborn dog’s head instantly made him a star online. Though the abnormality didn’t cause him any pain or medical issues, the puppy was found abandoned. Mac’s Mission, a Missouri-based shelter for animals with special needs, agreed to take in the magical pup and provide him with the care he needed.
7. Fiona the Hippo
Fiona the hippo has been the star resident at the Cincinnati Zoo since she was born in 2017. The premature hippo calf started life dangerously underweight at 29 pounds, but thanks to the work of the dedicated caretakers at her zoo, the baby survived and grew to an impressive 1000 pounds in two years. Fiona remains a celebrity today; she has inspired a children's book, and she even makes appearances on Cameo.
8. Lonesome George the Pinta Island Tortoise
Lonesome George may be the most famous endling of all time—as well as the animal to hold the distinction for the longest period. The Pinta Island tortoise was discovered in the Galápagos in 1971 at a time when his species was thought to be extinct. Though conservationists tried finding him a suitable mate, George was unable to produce any offspring. He died in captivity on California's Santa Cruz Island in 2012.
9. The Honey Badger
If you were watching YouTube in 2011, you’ve likely heard of the honey badger. A viral nature documentary spoof from that year depicted the predators as the badasses of the animal kingdom. While it’s hard to prove that honey badgers don’t care, they do partly live up to their reputation. The creatures can bite through tortoise shells, brave bees nests, and survive snake bites.
10. Omo the White Giraffe
Omo is believed to be the only white giraffe out of roughly 23,000 Masai giraffes living in Tanzania. The unique animal gained worldwide recognition after it was spotted in the country’s Tarangire National Park in 2016. The distinct coloring comes from a condition known as leucism, which prevents certain skin cells from producing pigment. The fact that other leucistic giraffes have been targeted by poachers makes Omo an especially rare specimen.
11. The 52 hertz Whale
Though it comes from a social group of animals, the 52 hertz whale is famous for being lonely. The frequency of its call is higher than those of the blue whales and fin whales that follow similar migration paths. It’s believed to be the only whale in the ocean that emits calls at 52 hertz, which has rendered it unable to communicate with others. The “world’s loneliest whale” first made headlines when it was detected via underwater microphones in 1989, and it's now the subject of a new documentary.
12. Koko the Gorilla
Koko the Gorilla made headlines in the 1970s for her groundbreaking communication skills. Adopted from the San Francisco Zoo as a baby, Koko learned over 1000 signs from her caretaker Francine “Penny” Patterson. In addition to memorizing different hand signals, Koko used them to express memories and sophisticated concepts once thought to be reserved for humans. Her intelligence and friendly personality charmed the world; some of the famous friends she met before her death in 2018 included Robin Williams and Mister Rogers.
13. Yvonne the Runaway Cow
After she was sold for slaughter in 2011, Yvonne the runaway cow took her destiny into her own hooves. She escaped from the Bavarian farm where she was being held and lived in the woods for three months. German authorities were able to locate her, but every attempt made to capture the bovine fugitive ended in failure. She was eventually incapacitated with a tranquilizer shot, but Yvonne’s great escape wasn’t for nothing; instead of being sent to the slaughterhouse, she was taken in by an animal sanctuary.
14. Dolly the Sheep
Dolly the sheep was a medical marvel. Born on July 5, 1996, she was the world's first mammal successfully cloned from a single adult cell. In addition to her impact on the world of science, Dolly also made a huge splash in pop culture. She was featured in books, magazines, television commercials, and even inspired an opera. Today her taxidermied body is on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
15. Pinky the Bottlenose Dolphin
Calcasieu Lake in Louisiana is home to a famous albino bottlenose dolphin. First spotted by a boat captain in 2007, Pinky’s albinism is responsible for her vivid, bubblegum-pink coloring. The dolphin quickly became a celebrity among locals and tourists visiting the area. In 2017, she was spotted swimming with a newborn calf that shared her unique looks.
16. Grumpy Cat
The influence Grumpy Cat wielded in her seven years of life rivaled that of many human celebrities. She was born on April 2012 with feline dwarfism and an underbite—which combined, left her with a permanent scowl. The internet quickly fell in love with the dour-looking kitty—whose real name was Tardar Sauce—and propelled her to viral fame. Grumpy Cat passed away in 2019, but her timeless memes live on.
17. Benson the Giant Carp
Though she weighed close to 60 pounds at her peak, catching Benson the giant carp wasn’t too difficult. She was snagged by more than 60 nets and fishing lines during the 15-odd years she resided at the Bluebell Lakes in Peterborough, England. Her impressive size and generosity to the fisherpeople who cast their lines into her lake earned her the title of the UK’s most famous fish.
18. The Coogee Aquarium Shark
A captive tiger shark at Sydney’s Coogee Aquarium launched a whole news cycle when it regurgitated a dismembered human arm in 1935. The limb had been cleanly cut off—not bitten—which made the shark a potential witness in an apparent murder case. Though the shark was innocent, it was killed and cut open shortly after coughing up the piece evidence. Today it remains the best-known player in Australia’s famous shark arm murder.
19. Pedals the Bear
Pedals the bear was easy to recognize. Due to issues with his forepaws, he was often seen walking on his hind legs around the suburbs of New Jersey. The bipedal creature was beloved by locals and fans on social media. He was likely killed by a hunter in 2016, but because his DNA was never collected, the report was impossible to confirm.
20. Jimmy Carter’s Rabbit Attacker
In 1979, a rabbit almost became a national security threat. President Jimmy Carter was fishing near his Georgia home when the animal dove into the water and made a beeline for his boat. Carter shoed it away with his paddle without incident, but photos snapped by the press painted a different picture. News of Carter panicking in the face of a bunny rabbit may have cast him as weak in the public eye. A year later, he lost his reelection to Ronald Reagan.