Some animals have all the luck

Phoenix is only the latest in a long line of creatures to be invested with special, even mythical, status
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What if Phoenix, the snowy white calf, hadn't been cute? What if it was ugly and didn't have an inspiring name? The two-week-old Charollais heifer from Devon would not have become a media star last week, a living symbol of foot and mouth madness in the countryside. It would, in short, be dead.

What if Phoenix, the snowy white calf, hadn't been cute? What if it was ugly and didn't have an inspiring name? The two-week-old Charollais heifer from Devon would not have become a media star last week, a living symbol of foot and mouth madness in the countryside. It would, in short, be dead.

So would Lucky, the lamb whose mud-caked image appeared all over the front pages at Easter. The response was extraordinary: readers were moved to tears. The Government relaxed rules that had stranded the flock in a grassless field. The farmer's four-year-old son demanded the animal as a pet. The other 400 lambs and ewes also waiting for slaughter were not so fortunate. Lucky was different. It had been separated from the rest, named, anthropomorphised, adopted as one of us. It could not then be killed without an outcry.

Sympathy for Porky, the pot-bellied pig from Dumfriesshire, has been lukewarm in comparison. The 18st porker that lives with an elderly couple was at risk of being culled. Not even an appeal for mercy by Brigitte Bardot could hide the fact that Porky was ugly.

Phoenix, on the other hand, was perfect. Found nuzzling its culled mother at Clarence Farm near Axminster, it was nursed with a bottle by the farmer, Michaela Board. She gave it an evocative name and used it to make a point. Reporters were contacted, Ministry of Agriculture officials told to go away and get an injunction if they wanted to kill it. Downing Street had no choice. A government so fond of focus groups was never going to pass up this chance to indulge public sentiment.

"It's because Maff got my back up that all this started," said Mrs Board on Thursday, content that she had caused a U-turn. "I'm very surprised one little calf can do so much."

Impressive as its impact is, Phoenix is just the latest dumb beast to be used for propaganda purposes. Every couple of years, for example, Battersea Dogs' Home invites the press to meet "The Loneliest Dog In Britain" ­ the unclaimed resident who has been there the longest. Last time it was Nova, before that Viva, before that Rebel. The dog gets a new home, the newspaper publishes a human-interest story, and the charity receives publicity. Everyone is happy.

Some animals become political symbols, as the horse Sefton did when it was injured by an IRA bomb blast in Hyde Park in July 1982. Four men died that day, along with seven horses, but few people remember their names. Sefton survived a severed jugular and was back on duty within months. The horse was retired in 1993 aged 30, and then put down.

A pair of giant pandas became, Bond-like, secret international go-betweens during the 1960s. Foreign Office papers published 30 years later revealed that the decision to send the "sex-starved" Chi-Chi from London Zoo to Moscow to mate with an eligible male called An-An was seen as a perfect chance to break the Cold War ice. The plan was leaked to the press and the pandas became world stars. Unfortunately, they were rather less libidinous than Mr Bond and his Soviet lovers, and failed to mate. Both pandas died in 1972. A similar attempt to mate Ming Ming of China with Bao Bao in London in 1991 came to nothing when she spurned him, and he gave her a clip round the ear.

Honeybun the rabbit played an unexpected part in the Libyan crisis of 1984. Diplomatic relations between the two countries broke down fast after WPC Yvonne Fletcher was shot during a demonstration outside the Libyan People's Bureau in London. British diplomats were told to leave Tripoli, and held under guard at the ambassador's residence as they packed. "We were given a week's notice," says Oliver Miles, the ambassador at the time. "It was a complicated business, winding up possessions, baggage, cars, and property."

Honeybun, a wild Libyan rabbit belonging to Mr Miles's five-year-old daughter, was a problem. "We decided the correct thing to do was to let it go free in the walled garden, which had a carrot patch. The Mail on Sunday did not approve."

The newspaper claimed cruelty and launched a rescue bid. "The journalist did not ask about the rabbit," says Mr Miles. "He just captured it from the garden and sent it to a zoo in Norfolk where it subsequently died of cancer. We got hate mail. My wife wished we had eaten the bloody thing."

Now retired and living in Oxford, Mr Miles is still "pretty pissed off" about the rabbit campaign, which seemed to deny the seriousness of what was happening to human beings. "Nobody ever asked me what became of my staff."

A far jollier example of an animal being rescued for propaganda purposes is the donkey war that broke out between rival tabloids in 1987. The Daily Star alleged that a festival in the Spanish village of Villanueve de la Vera involved the fattest local riding a donkey until it collapsed from exhaustion. Children then jumped on the fallen animal and crushed it to death, said the Star; although The Sun printed a denial from the Spanish ambassador.

The Sun acted first, paying £250 to save the donkey chosen for that year's festival. The Star paid more to the same farmer and spirited the animal away. Its local name, El Morinito, translated a little too closely to "Little Darkie" for sensitive British tastes, so it was renamed Blackie instead.

The Star declared that it would send Blackie to a donkey sanctuary in Devon. The frustrated Sun responded by campaigning for it to stay in the Spanish warmth. It arranged for a female donkey to meet Blackie at Portsmouth harbour, hoping passion would cause a bolt, but nothing happened. Coco, the femme fatale, turned out to be a boy. Blackie went to pasture, and died of old age in 1993.

"There was more money, more commitment, more editorial space given to that one f---ing story than there was about Ethiopia," says the Star reporter Don McKay in Shock! Horror!, SJ Taylor's history of the tabloids.

The one thing all these animals have in common is their capacity to appear cute. As for Porky, with a face like that, he must have attracted a huge sympathy vote.