Animal Celebrity and Individuality

Animal Celebrity and Individuality

Trevor Bechtel


One of my favorite stories of the last several months is the story of Gunner, a small Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who lives with Richard Wilbanks in Florida. Gunner is internet famous because of this incredible video which shows Richard wrestling the alligator who sought to snack on Gunner.[1] Gunner gives us a great opportunity to explore the beginnings of a theology of animal celebrity even though Gunner is famous simply for being caught on video. In the video Gunner doesn’t do anything to merit his fame; the alligator and the human do all the work. But Gunner embodies the thesis of this chapter in a profound way. I’ve heard this thesis narrated many times in different ways by different people–most powerfully by a woman who I used to work with who lost her father when he jumped in a frozen lake to save his dog losing his own life in the process. The thesis is, at least in the form it exists between dogs and humans, one of the oldest truths about who we are as humans. It is that we care about what each other cares about. Humans and dogs have been doing this for at least 14,000 years and likely at least three times that long.[2] This care, and the fact that when talking about dogs and humans we are definitely talking about a “we” grounds the possibility that animals have much to teach us about what it means to be human, and that this might be paradigmatically so when we approach the animal celebrity.

The method that I typically use when engaging questions of how humans and animals relate is contemporary, but it is informed by an approach to the natural world that Francis might have resonated with. I expect that the lives of animals are meaningful to me, and that that meaning is part of the meaning which God offers to all of us. I see much of the last two hundred and fifty years as a detour from a proper understanding of the natural world.[3] The late modern concerns with anthropomorphism, the possibility of animal pain, and the reality of animal language are now being disposed of in both science and the humanities, and we have the possibility of returning to a world in which humans and animals meaningfully relate and care about what each other thinks.[4] I do this inside a narrative framework in which we are concerned with good character, the way both virtue ethicists and storytellers are.

The Wolf of Gubbio is an example of both this kind of good character and of animal celebrity. The Wolf’s good character shines forth when, after having terrorized the people of Gubbio for quite some time, he accepts the new world that Francis offers when Francis suggest the Wolf give up terror and accept food from the villagers. The testament to his celebrity is found in the many statues of Francis and the Wolf. As a Mennonite with a Jesuit Ph.D. I have long been impressed with Catholic religious orders and their wolves.

My favorite canine celebrity is Hachiko who began living with a professor at the University of Tokyo in 1924. Every day Hachiko would go down to the Shibuya Train Station and wait for the professor. The professor died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1925 and stopped going to the train station. But Hachiko kept going, although the humans at the train station could be rude to him. In 1932, interested in the Hachiko’s breed (Akita, a dog very closely related to wolves) one of the professor’s former students followed Hachiko back to the professor’s gardener’s home. The gardener explained the story of Hachiko to the student who eventually wrote a story which was published in a Tokyo newspaper. Hachiko became famous in Japan for his loyalty. Hachiko died in 1935. He was stuffed and put in the National Science Museum in Japan. A statue of him was erected. Hachiko became the exemplar of loyalty in Japan. Children, and others, were urged to follow his example. At the Shibuya train station the station gate next to the statue is called the Hachiko gate. There two more statues in Odate, Hachiko’s hometown, and one at the Woonsocket Depot Square in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

There are stories of human loyalty which may meet Hachiko’s example, but none exceed it. The professor and Hachiko connected for a little bit longer than a year, but then Hachiko remained loyal for seven years before even receiving any acclaim. Hachiko is one of the most important creatures you can talk about when you talk about loyalty. He is obviously very famous. Hachiko, the Wolf of Gubbio, and Gunner have a lot in common, at least genetically, but also in that they are defined in our imagination because of their relationships.

There is video and and photographic evidence of these two dogs, but not of the wolf, and some of you might be wondering if the story of the Wolf of Gubbio is as credible as those of Hachiko and Gunner. I’ll leave that to you, but for the purposes of thinking about their celebrity, it hardly matters. Indeed, according to John Blewitt, “In looking at the use, depiction and presentation of non-human others in culture, politics, sport, art, science and so on, we engage in a relational exercise that is as much about us as them. Animal celebrity is a human construct and tells us something about the human socially constructed natural world in the bargain.”[5]

What are some of things we learn? Well we learn about the nature of celebrity and charisma when we realize that these qualities are not limited to humans. Blewitt’s notes that charisma originally denotes a virtuous “gift of grace” that sets an individual apart from the everyday. The charismatic authority of the celebrity and the saint teach us what it means to be human as we imagine how some individuals transcend the everyday or negotiate the sacred and profane. Blewitt continues, “Thus celebrity and charisma, human and non-human, are frequently entwined. If not exactly divine, then celebrity and charisma are arguably twin aspects of symbolic power emerging from something that is a mongrel – a cross between a chimera and a simulacrum. They are both beyond the everyday and, through their cultural pervasiveness, soundly of the everyday”[6]

We also learn about the importance of individual animals. We often think of animals in terms of their species; Akita or Cavalier King Charles Spaniel but even Gunner is decisively an individual. We, as individual humans can’t have relationships with a species. Instead we relate to individual animals, and animal celebrities remind us of the importance of the individual animals we relate to. In fact this relationship to an individual might explain why so many animal celebrities have ended up stuffed. Hachiko was stuffed, Dolly the sheep was stuffed, even Jumbo the elephant famous on two continents at the end of the 19th century was stuffed, perhaps so people could continue to relate to the individual that they had known. We can still visit Hachiko at the National Science Museum in Japan.

And while the Wolf of Gubbio reminds us of the longevity of animal celebrity and Hachiko its moral authority, Gunner’s celebrity illuminates the entire web of relations that we find ourselves caught up in. We know of Gunner’s close relationship to his humans, Louise and Richard. But Gunner is also connected to creatures that live in the more wild areas close to his home. In an interview after Gunner and he had healed, Richard Wilbanks reports, “The alligator is still in the pond. It’s just fine. Gunner is fine, I’m fine and so am I.”[7] The camera that shot the footage belongs to the fStop foundation who use it and hundreds like it to capture images of the deer and bobcats and myriad other creatures which inhabit the ecologies of Northern Florida. One of their goals is to educate the surrounding public of the presence of these animals. Gunner has helped them immensely in this task. His celebrity becomes the charismatic authority of ecological protection and safety. And he has now been recognized for that having been deputized at the end of last year.[8]

I want to push this point just a bit further. The Belgian philosopher Vinciane Despret suggests that when we can engage famous animals and those who relate to these animals as, “seeing themselves just as we would see ourselves if we were in their position” we open ourselves to “a particular form of perspectivism (which is) much better situated to define a certain dimension of self-consciousness, no longer as a cognitive process but as an interrelational process.”[9]

This self-consciousness on the part of both animals and humans is made clear by the stories of two more famous animals who are famous inside a training relationship. Clever Hans was a horse that learned how to do math.[10] His companion, Wilhelm Von Osten, was eager to teach him how to do math and set about to accomplish this. They became very successful. Von Osten would pose math questions to Clever Hans and Clever Hans would answer correctly by tapping his hoof into the ground. Clever Hans could do the regular functions but also some more complicated ones like square roots. He could solve numerical equations but also story problems. The psychologist Carl Stumpf set out to test whether or not Clever Hans was actually doing math or if Von Osten had set up some kind of trick. Von Osten was removed from the space that Clever Hans was performing in. Clever Hans continued to answer correctly regardless of who was asking the question, unless that person was far away from Clever Hans or if they themselves didn’t know the answer to the question. It turned out that Clever Hans was much more clever than someone who can simply answer a bunch of math questions. He could reliably intuit by a host of different bodily tells when the questioner was expecting another hoof tap and when Clever Hans had reached the answer. The questioner didn’t need to try to relay the information to Clever Hans, but the horse had learned how to read the answer anyways. This is a story about a human “training” a horse. My final story is about a sea otter training some humans.

Toola was discovered on Pismo Beach in California on July 21, 2001. A mature adult of at least 5 years, she was suffering from a variety of neurological disorders, likely caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Amongst her problems was a seizure disorder which was brought under control with twice-daily doses of Phenobarbital. Toola's life was saved, but she could never return successfully to the wild. She would live the rest of her life at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. After a month or so at the aquarium, Toola gave birth to a stillborn pup. At around the same time a stranded pup was brought to the aquarium. The humans that make decisions about where the otters live decided to put the new pup in with Toola. And this is when Toola did the thing that has made her such a remarkable person.[11]

In the strange locale of an aquarium she nursed and taught the orphaned pup as if he were her own teaching him how to find and catch food safely. The orphan's training was therefore much more complete than if a human had attempted it. He was released back to the wild and is now the king of a pack at Elkhorn Slough. In showing humans that this could be done Toola pioneered a new way of raising sea otter pups in captivity. Several other foster mothers are now active at Monterey Bay. Toola herself fostered twelve more pups over the next ten years including the pup we are watching now. This is 501, who we know by her designation as the 501st otter to enter the Sea Otter program at Monterey Bay. 501 is the star of Otter 501, a movie about her life which debuted at the Santa Barbara film festival last February. Toola's female foster pups have given birth to 7 pups, 5 of which have weaned successfully. Male pups like the king of Elkhorn Slough will have fathered many pups. Toola inspired Will Jones, the son of state representative Dave Jones to pressure his father to write legislation to protect sea otters. The legislation created a sea otter donation box on tax forms which has yielded more than a million dollars for sea otter research and protection.

Many of the animals I have surveyed in this paper are famous for the things that they did, but they are all famous because of their relationships to humans. With certain adjustments their celebrity could be compared to a kind of sainthood. Internet virality (even the Wolf of Gubbio now has a long line of links attesting celebrity) might replace the miracle, although many of the animals in this survey are quite miraculous. But more seriously, although many will be anxious about ascribing virtue, cardinal or theological, to animals the stories in this essay reveal that in their relationality, animals show us the path to virtue, if not virtue itself. And they do this meaningfully especially when considered inside the rubric of celebrity.


[1] “Sharing the Landscape - Rick, Gunner, and the gator,” fStop Foundation, November 25, 2020;

[2] Luc Janssens et al, “A new look at an old dog: Bonn-Oberkassel reconsidered,” Journal of Archaeological Science 92 (2018), 126-138.

[3] I detail this detour in “A Good Story: Meat Eating for Christians,” in The Craft of Innovative Theology: Argument and Process, ed. John Allan Knight & Ian S. Markham (Hoboken 2022).

[4] These arguments are increasingly well-established but a good source for many of them is Eva Meijer, Animal Languages (Cambridge 2020).

[5] John Blewitt, “What’s new pussycat? A genealogy of animal celebrity,” Celebrity Studies 4 (2013), 325-338 (326).

[6] Blewitt, “What’s new pussycat?, 331.

[7] Carolina Cardona, “Puppy pried from gator’s mouth by his human doing just fine,” November 24, 2020;

[8] Joe Mario Pedersen, “Florida man pulls dog out gator jaws; dog made sheriff’s deputy,” December 10, 2020;

[9] Vinciane Despret, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? (Minneapolis 2016),.32.

[10] The details of Clever Hans’ story are available widely online. The full ebook, Clever Hans, by Carl Stumpf’s assistant, Oskar Pfungst, is available at Project Gutenburg:

[11] I reflect on Toola’s personhood in “Re-Imagining Personhood,” EcoTheo Review 2014;