Let's hear it for Stumpy, Keano and the zorse

Animals are the unsung heroes of the news agenda

We moan a good deal (or at least I do) about the way empty-headed celebrities fill our newspapers, but in the season of Shambo, Oscar and Brian, perhaps the time has come to acknowledge the debt journalism owes to some even dumber creatures.

Shambo you know: the holy Welsh bullock with tuberculosis which, having troubled what seemed like every court in the land, eventually had to go to his maker. Oscar is the "cat of death", which will curl up charmingly on your bed in Steere House nursing home in Rhode Island - but only if you are about to die.

And Brian is the hamster that was dumped, still in his cage, by fly-tippers in Burnley, then rescued by a pest control officer, Brian Ramsden, and finally adopted by the council contact office. ("He's been a very popular addition to the team," said a spokeswoman.)

So far as I know, no one has ever written a PhD thesis about the animals that make the news, and media columns such as this one tend to be just as neglectful of the subject, yet week in and week out animal stories may well occupy an even greater acreage of newsprint than, say, Wales or even the Liberal Democrats.

Sceptical? Well, remember Knut, the Berlin polar bear that has been in the news ever since his mother rejected him and some animal rights people with no PR sense suggested he should be put down. Cute Knut is now growing into Big Knut, but his many credits to date include an appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair alongside Leonardo DiCaprio.

Then there is Stumpy, the four-legged duck born on a farm in the New Forest last February. Alas, he has since lost one of those legs after snagging it on some wire, but even with three legs Stumpy remains a duck of distinction and he is, well, taking celebrity life in his stride.

And perhaps you recall Robert, the 23lb German über-rabbit whose appearance in the press prompted inquiries from North Koreans interested in breeding such monsters for food.

One big star didn't have a name - the Magellanic penguin that made headlines in May when he took a wrong turning while swimming off the coast of southern Chile and ended up in Peru, an impressive 5,000km from home.

More? How about Henry, the Tamworth hamster who became stuck in a pipe and, after refusing to climb up a ladder made of Curly-Wurlies, had to be sucked out with the aid of a vacuum cleaner?

And Keano, the Hampshire husky that got his head stuck in an ornamental hole in the wall, and Bosun, the dachshund rescued from wild boars on Dartmoor? And speaking of Dartmoor, there is the Mail's shadowy "Demon of Dartmoor" - bear? Wolverine? Er, pony? - snapped lately "yards from a party of schoolchildren".

I could go on and on. So common are these stories, and so popular (watch how they top the "most-read" charts), that editors must sometimes need to ration them. "With the albino tiger on page three and the bionic Alsatian on seven," they must tell news conferences, "I don't think we can get away with the kidnapped Gaza lioness on foreign as well."

There are hoary regulars such as the kitten in the washing machine and the dog that makes an incredible journey to find its master. Another is the strange fruits of interbreeding, of which a recent example was the Penrith "zorse". Half Shetland pony, half zebra, it inspired someone on the Sun to ask: "How will its mum live with the shame of one mad night of lust with an exotic stranger in a muddy field?"

Rejected baby animals are sure to tug at heartstrings, and rejected babies adopted by unlikely mothers, such as the cat that suckled baby Rottweilers, are even better. Foolish hamsters are common, as are plucky pets - you may recall Jack, the New Jersey tabby that chased a bear up a tree.

What, if anything, does all this tell us? A future PhD student will note, no doubt, that these stories are usually picture-led, that they are shamelessly anthropomorphic, that they vary the usual news diet of fear and horror, that animals can't sue for libel and that readers like to say aaaaah.

One other thing: animal stories give journalists the chance to get their very worst puns into print. Sheep that patrol at night in search of burglars thus comprise a "thin ewe line", a cat with its head stuck in a jam jar has to be a "Tom and jarry" story, and Oscar, the Rhode Island cat of death, must also be "the grim reapurr".

Diana to Madeleine

The Daily Express famously has a Diana obsession, and puts her on its front page on the flimsiest excuse. A few months ago it also found a weather obsession, giving more prominence to forecasts of rain or sun than any other paper. This was smart in its way, and a welcome break, but it seems to have been washed away in the recent deluge. And now - now - the Express has developed a new fixation: Madeleine McCann. Baffling.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

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