Our pioneer ancestors loved animals, finding most of them delicious. Basically, the settlers divided critters into three categories – wild (dangerous, to be killed and/or eaten), domesticated (utilized, then killed and/or eaten) and pets. Today deer, elk, mountain lions and bears still encroach on Front Range neighborhoods. Denver is the quintessential cowtown, having derived much of its income from the livestock industry for decades. Some of that legacy can still be found at regional county fairs and Denver’s annual Western Stock Show.
But pets have personalities. Whether they are vital assistants, unexpected heroes or “just” companions, they make an impression, get into our hearts in ways that make us memorialize them. Here are the stories of ten remarkable Colorado animal friends.
1. Jenny Lind Rock
Dinosaur National Monument
Civil War veteran Pat Lynch came out west and settled in one of the most remote areas of the country, at the juncture of the Green and Yampa rivers, in what is now Dinosaur National Monument in northwestern Colorado. The hermit lived there in crude huts off his soldier’s pension until his death at the age of 98, in 1917. One acquaintance asserted that Lynch “had beaver and deer as tame as cattle and hogs.” Lynch claimed that he had befriended a nearby mountain lion, who occasionally brought dead deer for him to eat. For visitors, Lynch would demonstrate by emitting a piercing wail, and a mountain lion would indeed yowl in answer from the distance. Making reference to the famous Swedish soprano of the day, Lynch would then say: “Jenny Lind never sang a sweeter note.” Today Jenny Lind Rock still commemorates the story.
2. Prunes the Burro
A prospector named Rupe Sherwood bought Prunes, a baby burro, for $10, and they spent fifty years roaming the then-wilderness of South Park, scratching for gold together. Prunes was dependable – Sherwood would send him to town with a shopping list tied to his harness, and the grocers would fill the order and send Prunes back. When man and donkey got too old, they retired. Prunes was adopted by the town of Fairplay (he loved pancakes) and lived happily until he was taken ill from exposure during a blizzard. A heartbroken Sherwood paid for the monument that stands in Fairplay today – and when he died in 1930, per his wishes, he was cremated, and his ashes were added to it.
3. Dizzy the Lightbulb-Carrying Dog
In 1935, B.E. Jack, regional manager of Mountain Utilities, thought it would be a good idea to construct a 500-foot electrical holiday “star of Bethlehem” on the side of Sundance Mountain in Palmer Lake. He told his friend Bert Sloan, who owned the cafe in town. The two organized a crew and spent three months building the Star of Palmer Lake, which has been lit from December 1 through January 1 every year since. Bert’s dog Dizzy, named after then-major league pitcher Dizzy Dean, pitched in as well. Sloan made a pack for him, and Dizzy carried small tools and supplies to the construction teams on the mountain. In 2006, the town memorialized Dizzy with a twice-life-sized statue of him in front of Town Hall.
4. Sergeant Geronimo
Paratrooper Kenneth Williams adopted a half-German shepherd, half-coyote pup and named him “Geronimo” after the emblematic yell made when World War II parachutists leaped from airplanes. He became the mascot of the 507th Paratroop Infantry Regiment stationed at Alliance Army Air Field in Nebraska. Geronimo loved to jump, and he and Williams made many exhibition jumps to raise money for the war effort. Geronimo was made a sergeant by order of President Franklin Roosevelt. In combat in Europe, Williams was severely wounded during an attempt to destroy a bridge; Geronimo was there and alerted others, who rescued him.
After a year of rehab, Williams was given an honorable discharge – and so was Geronimo. They settled in a home on Race Street in Denver, where Geronimo lived happily until he was killed in 1947 by a hit-and-run driver. An impressive monument to him sits in the Denver Pet Cemetery in Commerce City, with a lovely bas-relief and the inscription “Down to Earth.”
5. Mike the Headless Chicken, aka Miracle Mike
Ah, the vagaries of showbiz. On the morning of September 10, 1945, Mike was just an ordinary rooster kicking it in the Fruita hen yard of Lloyd Olsen. Then Olsen grabbed Mike to prepare him as the main course for dinner that night and decapitated him. Kind of. Olsen left Mike’s brain stem intact, and it turns out that not only can a chicken run around with its head cut off, but it can thrive. Mike soon became a national celebrity. Going on tour across the country, the Olsens and Mike made a splash — and some badly needed cash. The Olsens carefully fed Mike liquid food through his neck with an eyedropper and cleared the passage with a syringe. But tragedy struck in Phoenix in the spring of 1947, when Mike choked to death (they’d left the syringe at the sideshow). Years later, the town of Fruita introduced its Mike the Headless Chicken Festival, which is still going strong. The plucky chicken is also remembered by the Radioactive Chicken Heads’ memorial ballad, “Headless Mike.”
6. Annie the Railroad Dog
Workers at the Colorado and Southern Railways’ Mason Street depot in Fort Collins adopted a sick pup in 1934, naming her Annie. She lived there for the rest of her life, greeting passengers and railroad men alike. Annie has two monuments: a statue in front of the library at 201 Peterson Street, and her grave site, at Mason and LaPorte Streets. A fundraising Annie Walk and Pet Fest was held every August from 1987 to 2010.
7. Shorty and Bum
Like Prunes (see above), Shorty was a miner’s mule. He was much less dependable, though, being the four-legged equivalent of the town vagrant. Fortunately, he befriended a mutt named Bum, who was the donkey’s constant companion, herding him around as Shorty’s eyesight failed and begging for scraps for him. After Shorty was killed by a car in 1951, he was buried on the courthouse lawn. Bum lay down on his friend’s grave, refusing food and water, and died soon after. The grave was reopened, and now the two pals lie together under a commemorative headstone.
8. Shep the Turnpike Dog
When U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder was constructed in the 1950s, it used tolls for funding. Toll-booth workers at the Wadsworth Boulevard interchange in Broomfield adopted Shep, a stray, in 1950, and Shep lived there until his death in 1964. He was so well loved that his grave stood at the toll-booth site along the highway, carefully tended for 52 years. Finally, highway expansion forced the move of Shep’s grave to the Broomfield Depot Museum this spring. And the tolls, which had ended when the project was finished, have recently been reinstated to pay for the expansion.
9. Hambone, aka Hamilton T. Bone
Mules were an essential part of Army life for decades, carrying supplies and equipment where no other animal could go. The Fort Carson base outside of Colorado Springs used them extensively. The most famous of these was Hambone, a rare white mule with marvelous jumping abilities, which became “the pride of the 4th Field Artillery Battalion.” After thirteen years of service, Hambone and the other beasts were retired in 1956 when the Army made a definitive move to motorized vehicles. Hambone joined the Pikes Peak rodeo and lived happily until his death in 1971. He was buried with full military honors in front of Division Artillery Headquarters, where a stone monument to him still stands.
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10. Samson the Elk
Everybody loved Samson. The 1,000-pound elk with a magnificent set of antlers wandered freely through the Estes Park area for years, unafraid of humans, amazing tourists and inspiring photographers. He lived primarily on the grounds of the YMCA of the Rockies, where people assumed he would be safe. Then, on November 11, 1995, a trophy-hunting poacher killed Samson with an arrow to the heart. Much of the town gave testimony at the culprit’s sentencing hearing a year later, which resulted in massive penalties for the miscreant. Two years later, the town erected a statue of Samson at the intersection of U.S. 36 and Highway 7, at the town’s southern entrance. Samson's head was mounted and now hangs above the fireplace in the administration building at YMCA of the Rockies.