The sinking of the Titanic continues to fascinate us over 100 years later. On April 15, 1912, the massive luxury passenger ship transformed from a marvel of engineering to one of the most famous tragedies of the 20th century.
The legacy of the doomed ship has captured the public’s imagination ever since, from the events that led to its catastrophe to the lives of those who perished and those (like the Unsinkable Molly Brown) who survived.
The Titanic’s rich history is reflected in indelible stories like the band of musicians who went down with the ship and the division between upper-class patrons in their luxury accommodations and the working-class immigrants bound for New York City who had to settle for meager lodging in the lower decks.
Less discussed, yet still fascinating, are the stories of the non-human passengers on the Titanic. Yes, it’s true: There were a variety of animals on board, including dogs, cats, and even several birds.
Who were these creatures who, through no action of their own, wound up on the Titanic during its ill-fated voyage?
The Story of Rigel
One of the most famous animal anecdotes of the Titanic involves a dog named Rigel. Owned by First Officer William Murdoch, Rigel was a large black Newfoundland who became a hero.
As the story goes, Rigel’s thick coat allowed him to survive the freezing waters while barking for help. His barking led rescuers to the Titanic’s lifeboats, and he was rescued along with the other survivors—one of the happier moments in the wake of tragedy.
Or was it? Because, while it’s a heartwarming story, it may not have ever happened.
“There’s just no evidence of it,” says Alex Klingelhofer, VP of Collections at Premier Exhibitions, the sole legal guardian of Titanic artifacts (which are currently on display at the Mayborn Museum in Waco, Texas).
Rigel the Newfoundland who, according to legend, survived the sinking of the Titanic pic.twitter.com/uhRVT90F7b
— pax (@paxthedog) February 27, 2016
“They said it belonged to the first officer, but officers wouldn’t take their dogs on a voyage with them when they’re working,” she explains. “…And if people were perishing from hypothermia within 20 minutes, I doubt the dog would have survived for three or four hours to signal the Carpathia.”
Connor Bright, paranormal historian and urban legend debunker, confirms the heartwarming tale was merely that—a tale.
“Rigel, who supposedly survived by jumping from the sinking ship and into a lifeboat and barked [himself] and his survivors all the way to their rescue, never existed,” she says. “A sailor on the Carpathia, one of the rescue ships, admitted to making up the heartwarming story.”
The Dogs of the Titanic
So what dogs were actually aboard the ship?
Klingelhofer says, “We don’t know how many dogs were on board, but we can identify about 12 of them. There were probably more, but we just don’t know who they were or who had them, so that’s a little bit lost to history.”
“The British and the Americans are very well-known dog lovers,” she adds. “Many did travel with their pets, so there was quite a variety of dogs on board. There were Airedale terriers, a King Charles spaniel, a French bulldog, a Great Dane, a couple of Pomeranians, a Pekinese, a toy poodle, a chow chow, and a fox terrier, so you can see there was a wide variety of dogs.”
In fact, given the colorful assortment of dogs on board, there were even plans for an impromptu dog show.
“It was in the planning stages, but it would’ve been on the 15th, which is, of course, the day they sank,” says Klingelhofer. “So there’s not much information about what they planned, other than they were thinking about doing that.”
She adds that, of all the dogs traveling on the Titanic, there were only three known survivors.
“One was a Pomeranian named Lady, and there was a second Pomeranian, but we don’t know its name. And then there was also a Pekinese called Sun Yat-Sen, who was owned by Henry Sleeper Harper—a publishing director and conservationist who also survived the disaster. And this was primarily because they were all small dogs and were able to be wrapped in blankets or put in a pocket.”
#Titanic's first lifeboat is lowered – No 7 with 29 First class passengers (and one pomeranian dog) on board.
— Real-Time Titanic (@titanic_live) April 15, 2012
Larger dogs weren’t so lucky, however, as they were too big to be placed on lifeboats. According to some reports, the owner of the Great Dane refused to leave her dog behind, and both were never seen again.
Jenny The Cat
While dogs made up the bulk of animals on the Titanic, felines were also represented, in much smaller numbers. Most notable was one adult cat named Jenny and her kittens. Jenny was the ship cat, in charge of ridding the boat of its smallest passengers: insects and rats.
“The Titanic had, like many ships, a cat on board,” says Bright. “Cats are considered good luck to have on ships since they catch rats. Jenny and her litter of kittens were the resident cats of the ship and liked to keep to the warm corners of the ship. Sadly, no one took the cats with them in their escape.”
But this is just one theory regarding Jenny’s fate. While some accounts do say she and her kittens drowned, others claim they dodged disaster by getting off at a prior stop in Southampton. And according to the Belfast Telegraph, an Irish crew member (who cared for the cats) departed with her, taking her exit as a bad omen of things to come.
But Klingelhofer says Jenny’s story (and existence) is all up to conjecture: “There was supposedly a cat named Jenny, but according to the stories that are told, Jenny left with her kittens in Southampton. …I don’t know if it’s true.”
Birds at Sea
In addition to canine and feline passengers, the Titanic also hosted a variety of fowl. The exact count is undetermined. “There were also shipments of chickens and birds and other pets, as well as stock,” says Klingelhofer. “The chickens were to improve the stock on a farm.”
Four of those livestock (two roosters and two hens) were brought aboard by Ella Holmes White, an American passenger who survived (although her birds did not).
In addition, there were a reported 30 cockerels aboard the ship (the owner has not been determined), along with a canary transported by another Titanic survivor, Elizabeth Nye. But like White, Nye’s bird didn’t survive the sinking.
There was only one bird that made it off the Titanic alive, according to Klingelhofer: “Marian Meanwell, who was a third-class passenger, was transporting a canary from Southampton to Sherborne [a prior stop before it sank] for a relative. So the canary survived.”
The Musical Pig
Beyond dogs, cats, and birds (and rats), were there any other animals aboard the ship?
According to some reports, there was also a pig on board, but this was later debunked, Klingelhofer says: “There was no real pig. It was actually a mechanical toy pig.”
The toy was a music box owned by Titanic survivor and fashion stylist and writer Edith Rosenbaum. It has remained an item of fascination among history buffs for its particularly somber legacy.
According to The Royal Museum of Greenwich, which displays the item, “Edith followed the musical pig into the crowded Lifeboat 11 and, during the seven hours before being picked up by the passenger liner Carpathia, she comforted children on board with the tune, thought to be the Maxixe, from her lucky pig.”
That song served as an unlikely musical elegy for the ship, which the survivors watched slowly sink as they drifted ever farther away to safety.
For years, historians struggled to discern the name of the song that Rosenbaum’s music box played until museum visitors deduced that it was “La Sorella”—a song written in 1905 by Charles Borel-Clerc.
The Titanic Animals’ Legacy
Klingelhofer says the story of the Titanic dogs still resonates with people.
“[It] tells you about the people who were traveling and the types of dogs that were popular at that time,” she explains.
In fact, the boat boasted one French bulldog so popular, it was actually a celebrity: “There was a breeded dog, and her name was Gamin de Pycombe,” Klingelhofer says.
Gamin de Pycombe was the first pied Frenchie to be both a U.S. and UK champion. Sadly, she was never seen again after the ship sank.
Before things went horribly awry, the dogs traveled in comfortable conditions.
“Our understanding was that the kennels were on S deck,” says Klingelhofer. “[The dogs] were walked daily on the poop deck, which is on the stern of the ship, so they were exercised and fed by the staff on the Titanic. And their owners could go down and visit them at any time.”
wow. there was a kennel full of dogs on the Titanic. it never occurred to me that there were animals aboard. heartbroken all over again.
— Christine Munsey (@munseychristine) April 3, 2014
Though not as popular as flying, cruise ships and other boats are still viable travel options. People are no less obsessed with their pets now than they were when the Titanic sailed, and sometimes passengers want to bring their pets along on vacations. This made us wonder: How has boat travel for animals changed since the Titanic?
“I think a number of things have changed since that time,” Klingelhofer says. “At that time, you could take your pets with you when traveling for three or four months at a time. John Jacob Astor and his wife Madeline took their Airedale terrier [Kitty] with them. And so they would take them back and forth. Nowadays, of course, you would have quarantine, so you wouldn’t be allowed to take your animals back and forth as they did. So there are changes to the rules.”
That said, some cruise lines are still happy to cater to their pet-owning clientele, but rules vary. According to a 2017 piece by USA Today, cat and dog owners aboard the transatlantic Cunard Cruise Line’s Queen Mary II can expect to have their pets pampered by a kennel master, but pets can’t stay in their owners’ rooms (although owners are allowed to visit their pets for two-hour blocks of time). Other ship lines offer more flexible accommodations.
People remain intrigued by the story of the Titanic more than 100 years later. Stories like these further humanize the individual lives aboard the ship and inspire empathy.
Klingelhofer agrees: “The story of the dogs, as well as the story of the band, are two of those side stories that are very popular with a lot of different people.”
Perhaps due to their innocence and inability to speak for themselves, the animals of the Titanic remain a point of fascination, providing a new level of depth and humanity to anyone interested in the ship’s history.