This is a fascinating episode to begin the podcast series with! We discover that huskies have been supporting us humans for up to 15,000 years. What’s more, they’ve saved countless lives and even helped us to make some of the top scientific discoveries of the twentieth century. These days, huskies are most likely to find themselves in living rooms and on Instagram and there certainly are some good and bad things about that.
So, make yourself comfortable and come with me on a journey over 30,000 years that will take us to Siberia, Alaska, Greenland, Antarctica and Ireland.
Disclaimer I am still a newbie to podcasting, so please accept my sincere apologies that sometimes the sound is not perfectly engineered. Practice makes perfect so please do let me know your feedback on it and rest assured I am working to improve my skills!
Dublin Husky Rescue (soon to be renamed as Husky Rescue Ireland): https://www.dublinhuskyrescue.com/
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/dublinhuskyrescue
On Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dublinhuskyrescue/
The story of what happened to Lucky the husky to whom I dedicate this episode. Sleep well little one: https://www.instagram.com/p/BnFBgc-ngcj/?taken-by=dublinhuskyrescue
British Antarctic Survey: https://www.bas.ac.uk/
Mossy Earth: https://mossy.earth/
Geoff Somers: Antarctica: The Impossible Crossing http://geoffsomers.com/
Michael Smith: Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shackleton-Endurance-Conquer-Michael-Smith-ebook/dp/B00O0G17L6/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1536093437&sr=1-1&keywords=shackleton
Keith Walton and Rick Atkinson: Of Dogs and Men: Fifty Years in the Antarctic – Illustrated Story of the Dogs of the British Antarctic Survey https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dogs-Men-Antarctic-Illustrated-British/dp/189781755X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1536093374&sr=8-1&keywords=of+dogs+and+men
Robert Falcon Scott: Journals Captain Scott’s Last Expedition https://www.amazon.co.uk/Journals-Captain-Scotts-Expedition-Classics/dp/0199536805/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1536095866&sr=1-1&keywords=robert+falcon+scott
Julie Karner: Roald Amundsen: The Quest for the South Pole https://www.amazon.co.uk/Roald-Amundsen-Footsteps-Explorers-Quest/dp/0778724689/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1536095921&sr=1-3&keywords=amundsen+antarctica
List of resources this episode is informed by
Germonpré, Mietje & Jimenez, Elodie-Laure & Sablin, Mikhail. (2016). Palaeolithic and prehistoric dogs and Pleistocene wolves from Yakutia: Identification of isolated skulls. Journal of Archaeological Science. 78. 1-19. 10.1016/j.jas.2016.11.008.
Ancient Wolf Genome Reveals an Early Divergence of Domestic Dog Ancestors and Admixture into High-Latitude Breeds
Freedman, A. H., Gronau, I., Schweizer, R. M., Ortega-Del Vecchyo, D., Han, E., Silva, P. M., … Novembre, J. (2014). Genome Sequencing Highlights the Dynamic Early History of Dogs. PLoS Genetics, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1004016
Freedman, A. H., & Wayne, R. K. (2017). Deciphering the Origin of Dogs: From Fossils to Genomes. Annual Review of Animal Biosciences, 5(1), 281–307. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-animal-022114-110937
The full transcript of the episode
Today I've taken on the challenge of covering about 30 thousand years of history at breakneck speed in 20 minutes. Hold onto your seats because you're going to get the highlights from my many, many hours of research into the story of sled dogs from all around the world. You'll then land into the 20th century with a really good understanding of the relationship between Huskies and humans.
Then we're going to dive in to two interviews. First, we'll speak with John Killingbeck one of the very last two people to ever drive a husky team in Antarctica. After that we'll jump forward another century and we'll hop over to Ireland a place where huskies aren't exactly natives. I found out so much while putting this episode together and I really hope you're going to learn a lot too.
Endurance fidelity intelligence.
Those are the words inscribed on a bronze statue in New York City's Central Park. That statue commemorates Balto. Balto rose to fame in 1925 at the age of six by which time he was already an adult, because he was a husky.
Balto's rise to fame was because of diphtheria. Diptheria is a particularly nasty infectious disease. It starts with a sore throat and fever but if you've got a really severe case it can lead to the lymph nodes in your neck swelling making difficult feet to breathe and to swallow and then if you don't treat it the infection can start destroying healthy tissue in your respiratory system. Diphtheria is fatal in five to 10 percent of cases but in young children. the fatality rate is more like 20 percent.
It's a disease that nowadays we're not really likely to suffer. But, back in January 1925 an epidemic of diphtheria swept through the small town of Nome on the coast of Alaska. When the doctors of the town realized its young people were at high risk of dying, they looked at their options for getting medicine into the town that's right in the middle of nowhere. It's cut off by the ocean on one side and and mountain ranges on the other. And yep that's right. That's the kind of place that becomes populous because of the promise of riches.
The only aircraft available to them was out of action. The engine was frozen and it just simply wouldn't start. Nome after all, is two degrees south of the Arctic Circle. Temperatures in January would usually hover around highs onf minus 11 and lows of minus 17 Celsius. So guess what the officials decided was the way to get the medicine into the town over six hundred and seventy four miles of frozen terrain? That's right a husky relay. And what began came to be known as a Great Race of Mercy and what usually took twenty-five days to complete using sled dog teams was travelled in one hundred and twenty-seven and a half hours by 150 dogs and 20 mushers.
The road was not a comfortable one. The teams faced blizzards and temperatures that never went higher than minus 30 degrees Celsius and in fact they dropped to minus 65 at times with the windchill. There's a chain of relays across that distance and that they made it at all was pretty miraculous. Some of the drivers suffered from hypothermia and frostbite. And, sadly, several of the dogs along the road perished. The medicine arrived and lives were indeed saved.
What followed was a media frenzy to celebrate the achievements of the sled dogs and their drivers. Some of this was done in not the most gracious way to be fair. Athabascan another Alaskan native mushers were largely ignored even though they covered two thirds of the routes. Also Balto is really the only dog that has made it into the history books into Central Park and into popular culture. You might remember that Disney film of the same name but he's actually portrayed as a half walk half dog. Of course there were many, many dogs who made that journey possible and some of them ran a much greater distance. Nevertheless I think no one can argue that celebrating the Huskies’ contribution was more than deserved.
Today on the other5billion podcast we're going to talk about Huskies and obviously a Husky is a breed of dog not a species like we would usually cover. But that story of the relay to Nome is just one that convinced me they deserve their own episode. They're an ancient dog breed that's really special to many people and I've seen it with my own eyes. The sight of a husky can melt a grown up's heart. So, let's spend this episode finding out why.
First of all, then what is a Husky? Well, there's more or less consensus that the word Husky is a shortening or a corruption of the word Eskimo. That word itself Eskimo was used by Europeans, Americans and Canadians to describe several distinct groups of people. So, at some point the name went from Huseimaw to Uskemaw to Husky and the first known use of the word Husky in Canadian English was an 1852.
Just a couple of caveats for the episode. Number one. We're going to cover just enough on the origin of dogs to appreciate all that a Husky is today. We're not going to delve far too into the enormous and quite complicated subject of the domestication of dogs which warrants, frankly, an episode in its own right. Number two I'm using husky as a general term for a sled dog. We don't just mean the breed of dog which is very popular around the world at the moment and which in fact is a Siberian husky as labelled by kennel clubs. Yes, the Siberian Husky is indeed a very iconic breed and its excellence at covering vast distances fast.
But do not imagine that a sled dog teams' members all look like a show Siberian Husky. Good sled dogs come in all shapes and sizes because in a team of seven or nine there are jobs to be done and they get done by dogs of different characters and different sizes. Putting all that good stuff aside the question I really want to answer is when how and why did Husky type dogs appear and become our domesticated companions.
You might be surprised to learn that around the world there are hundreds of researchers studying the origin of dogs and there's a lively debate amongst these researchers about the precise dates that dog domestication started. Right now, the best guesses are that it was between 32,000 thousand fourteen thousand years ago. The other best guess is that the earliest domestication of dogs happened in the northern regions of Asia.
Around thirty-five thousand years ago in northern Siberia, there was still a prehistoric species walking around called the Taimyr wolf. The current thinking is that this is the most recent common ancestor of modern dogs and wolves. And what that means is this the wolves and dogs that are alive today don't share a direct lineage. They share this common ancestor and I'll not spend too long there because it does all get a little bit unclear. Scientists studying the origins of dogs are still questioning whether there's another prehistoric wolf that was actually involved in this puzzle.
Right now that doesn't massively matter to us. What we need to do now is imagine that something like 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. There are some wolves roaming around in Siberia and there are some humans wandering around too. They both need to hunt for food to survive. And somehow they begin to reach the conclusion that teaming up is going to help them to hunt better say they do just that because the idea agricultures doesn't yet exist and neither does dog food come in tins and of course we all need to eat.
What that process of teaming up means is domestication. We presume today that the prehistoric wolves who are most open to human contact began living alongside us. That partnership continued and we can assume that hunting together works better than hunting alone. So, the process of domestication continued because the wolves that partnered with us then bred with other wolves that had done the same and presumably also the humans that worked with these wolves were more likely to survive. So as a side note we do have to question whether we domesticated the wolf or whether they domesticated us.
Anyway let's put philosophy aside and say that we were now good friends without wolfie dogs or our doggie wolves and we shared a significant part of our lives with them. When did this idea that a dog could be strapped to a sled and pull it come about. Well until not so long ago, the standard answer was about three thousand years but since 1989 archaeologists have been excavating a small site found on an island called Zhokhov in the Siberian Sea. That island is extremely remote now but it was connected to the mainland before warmer temperatures brought rising sea levels. What researchers have found are remains of dogs genetically indistinguishable from domestic dogs today. What's more they discovered elaborate wooden sled pieces that showed them that the inhabitants of Zhokov were already quite developed in terms of sled dog culture.
The researchers then examined the dogs' skeletons and they concluded their size, or some of them, would have been almost what's considered the ideal modern fast sled dog. The size of the others they found were more like Alaskan malamutes and they reckoned that those were used for hunting polar bears. The researchers concluded that the dogs were clearly being bred for something special.
So, these days in a number of studies it is estimated that sled dogs were certainly being used eight to ten thousand years ago and there are more sites across Siberia but the evidence lies in Kamchatka which is much further east in Russia.
But in the case of these findings on Zhokhov island, because of the position of the tools that they found similarity of the dogs are the modern ones and the knowledge of the rising sea levels that came later, the researchers who analyzed the evidence believe that our reliance on sled dogs could go back to even 15,000 years ago.
Frankly I could spend many hours here telling you all the thing as I found out in the research but we've got several thousand more years to cover. So instead I'm going to be sharing all of the resources I found with you in the show notes so just check them out and I'll list all of my sources. The important takeaway is this sled dogs have been a part of our human lives as long as the concept of agriculture which supposedly appears around 12,000 years ago and that suggest that we needed them and they needed us to survive. So, let's talk more about that idea.
Biologists say that species are successful when they first of all survive and when they thrive. Like when their populations grow and they increase the size of the area they live in. So, humans by that measure are very successful and so are dogs and the partnership between the two species is thought to be a big factor in that success. With the help of their huskies the people of Zhokhov island were able to travel longer distances, explore new lands and find new places to live.
And when you think about the fact that way back all those thousands of years ago we had very little in terms of modern conveniences. You start to see why it is that the husky became such a big part of life at this point. Let's introduce someone new here the Chukchi people.
The Chukchis lived in Northeast Siberia and they tend to get credited with selectively breeding sled dogs with great precision into what we know as the Siberian Husky breed today. They were, and some still are, hunter gatherers. Reindeer, seals and even polar bears are among the prey they went after. Of course the overland journeys to go hunting were only really possible with dog teams and so their lives depended on the Huskies completely.
So, let's just think about the functions a husky performed for the average family.
Huskies could pull a sled for maybe 50 kilometres a day every day. It was their car to get anywhere.
Huskies could withstand temperatures of between minus 50 to plus thirty five degree Celsius. They were better performers than many modern machines.
Huskies could hunt and they could catch their own feed. So we can say that they were incredibly cheap family cars to run. In the summer months they would live free in the steppes of Siberia.
They caught their own food and then they come back to the Chukchi villages when the snow and the ice sets in and they needed to partner up with the humans again for their survival. Husky dogs are also extremely friendly with humans. The dogs would sleep alongside the parents or the children of their human families to keep them warm. A “three dog night” was a saying for a really cold one when you had to bring three dogs onto your bed. And so Huskies were their central heating system too.
And so you can start to see how important these dogs were to the people. They were their lifeline. They were economically and socially important. The Huskies were hunters, trackers, companions and guardians of children alongside just been sled dogs. They were one of the family and they ate together with their human families. They were considered in equal standing or even higher than humans. There's a legend that the Chukchi is believed to Husky's guard the gates of heaven and they can turn away people who have been cruel to their dogs.
So this point about breeding precision, I mentioned earlier. Exactly how pure or impure the Huskies that the Chukchis bred were, we may never know. Legends and theories vary quite wildly and some stories of famines that affected the Chukchis speak of just a few surviving Huskies being the ancestors of all the modern Husky's. Other stories offer the contrasting idea that there were many instances of crossbreeding with other dog types but as we'll see later these dogs were perfect for the purpose of pulling sleds fast, for a long way.
And speaking of long distances, if you've ever wondered what happens to a dog team when one of them needs to poop. Well it's all very cool really. They just poop as they run. But then you as a driver you've got to swerve your sled like a slalom. Because if you don't then poop at minus 30 Celsius is going to freeze onto your sled runners and, let's say, it's going to ruin your efficiency. So you need to be seriously good at poop swerving because in a blizzard that's really bad news
Anyway. The Chukchis pretty much kept themselves to themselves, poop swerving and doing all that other good stuff and they continued their wonderful traditional way of life that for one I would love to experience and they fiercely resisted invasion as the forces of Tsarist Russia moved in and attempted to take over.
As I say for centuries not too much that's relevant to our story happened and we can go pretty much all the way to the nineteenth century when communications, industrialization and colonization brought the Chukchis in direct contact with outside cultures. It turns out that they had engineered a way of life that made them the most challenging tribes of people to conquer. Knowing how to survive in the Arctic terrain and moreover being able to travel fast with their teams of dogs was what earned the Chukchis independence from the Tsarist regime. They were the first tribe to ever get that.
But the Chukchis did starts to build links to the outside world through trade as Europeans and North Americans began to take great interest in these northern territories. In 1867, Alaska was acquired from Russia by the USA and then the gold rush started in 1880 and we do a full circle to where we began this episode in Nome, Alaska. People arrived to make their riches and the town was incorporated in 1901. Apparently, it was the most populous town in the whole of Alaska at one stage because of the rich gold deposits in the nearby river. It was in Nome that Siberian Huskies as we know them now first entered Alaska. Now a brief tangent here. There were already sled dogs in the Americas and they had arrived something like 12000 years ago and they's settled with the Palo Eskimo people and they'd also come over from Siberia. Then the Thule people brough dogs with them from the Bering Strait. But these dogs were much bigger than the Siberian Huskies.
Righty, that's explained. So let's go back to Nome. In 1908 a Russia fur trader called William Goosak brought some Siberian Huskies to run in a sled dog race in the next year, called the All Alaskan Sweepstake. The length of the course was 408 miles and there was a ten thousand dollar first prize. And that's obviously a lot of money back in 1909.
Now, when the people of Nome first saw Goosak's little dogs they mocked him and they called his team the Siberian rats. Despite being the laughing stock of the race the Siberian Huskies, or the rats, won third place.
Very quickly, the attitude towards Siberian Husky turned from amusement to intrigue and to admiration. They became a contender for the favorite dog of Alaskan sled dog drivers. Many more were exported from Siberia. There were also bred in North America amd some of the breeders at that time really closely study the practices that the Chukchis used to pair to rear and keep the dogs. And of course especially after the historic sled dog relay that brought the diptheria medication to Nome in 1925 the humble Husky had earned a permanent place in people's hearts and they spent the rest of the 20th century helping us to achieve even more together.
From the 1930s the Huskies in all their shapes and sizes continued their rise to prominence. They were used for the transportation of goods in World War One in France. They served in the U.S. Army's Arctic search and rescue units. They even worked as parachutists and by this point I am asking myself is there anything a Husky can't do. Well I'll tell you what they can do.
They can help us to explore Antarctica.
Humanity has theorized that something like Antarctica existed as far back as one hundred fifty AD when a super bright Greek Roman chap called Ptolemy floated the idea of Terra Australis Incognita. It took us until 1911 to reach southpole itself when an expedition led by the Norwegian explorer Rauld Amundsen arrived there on December 14th. As did Captain Scott's expedition which arrived on the 17th of January 1912. By now you probably won't be surprised to learn that both these expeditions involved the participation of sled dogs from Greenland.
To square the circle here, Greenland dogs were again connected to the dogs from Siberia. They had traveled with the Paleo Eskimo people and then the Thule people from Siberia to North America. And then they came across to Greenland even before the Vikings had arrived there. Queue a plethora of genetic studies and theories of who came from where and when.
Anyway, the latest conclusions we have is that did all in fact come from the same place because Siberian Huskies and Greenland sled dogs both share what is an “unusually large number” of genes with our good friend the Taimyr wolf.
Righty, back to Antarctica. Those journeys were some of the many that took place during the so-called “heroic age of Antarctic Exploration” where teams of explorers from Britain, Germany, Sweden, France, Japan, Norway and Australia all set foot on Antarctica, many with the aim of reaching the South Pole. On the earliest expeditions, the teams were all learning how to navigate the challenges that Antarctica presented. Some used dogs, some used Manchurian ponies and others even tried the earliest versions of motorised transport. And I really suggest you dig into the books about these expeditions. They’re going to make those commutes into work seem rather stress free.
The so called heroic age ended in 1922 and it became the so called mechanic age, which sounds a lot less romantic. And after World War 2 there was a flurry of activity by several countries to establish a presence in Antarctica. Thankfully, what could have ended up as a big land grab operation by some ended up being the setup of several research operations across the Antarctic continent and an agreement, underpinned by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, that designated the continent as base for peaceful international cooperation and scientific investigation.
By 1959 there were already 50 research stations in Antarctica. And guess what. Huskies were the transportation method of choice.
JOHN: My name is John Killingbeck and I live in Devon in the South West of England beside the river Tamar out in the country. I went down to the Antarctic when I was 23, had a wonderful time. Then came back and was a school master. Went back to University and then a school master. Then a university lecturer and I’ve been lecturing on the polar ships that go down to the Antarctic. And that’s my basic life, I suppose(!)
My basic life indeed! That’s the great British humour of John Killingbeck. He’s being very, very humble because also went back to there for a second expedition and that time he was one of the very last two people to ever drive a husky sled team before the huskies left Antarctica forever in 1994.
I really wanted to speak with John about his unique experience of working in the Antarctic alongside dogs in two very different eras. Happily, he was eager to join us for an interview and his stories exceeded all my expectations. So, let’s transport ourselves to Antarctica back in the 1960s with John.
When you went on two expeditions to Antarctica. Do you mind summarising what you did during the first one for us?
JOHN: Yes, certainly. The first one I went down in 1960 it was with the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey. And that time we were concerned with surveying the Antarctic peninsula and also on the other side of the Weddell Sea at Halley Bay. And our job was to produce the first maps of that peninsula and to carry our reconnaissance geology work to establish bases with meteorological stations.
When I went down in 1960 we were just introducing the first permanent aircraft. We had two little single engine de Havilland Otters and those were there to support the surveying teams taking in dog food, man food on the peninsula. They would fly across the 8,000 foot peninsula to the last ice shelf to places like that.
So that was the basis of it. And we were quite a small number of people, really. All civilians. Yes.
OLGA: For your relatively small number of people at the base, how many dogs were there?
JOHN: For your relatively small number at the base, how many dogs and teams were there?
It varied a lot depending on the numbers at the bases and the work that we were doing, but just as an example, in my last 18 months down there, I was on a little base called Adelaide island and there were 6 of us living in a little wooden hut. There we had 6 teams of 9 dogs so we had 54 dog on that base.
Other bases would be smaller, probably, than that and one or two, perhaps, bigger, more dogs. At one stage I think we had well over 300 dogs on the peninsula working.
OLGA: And so, what role did the dog actually have in helping you during the time?
John: Well, they were absolutely essential when we were working inland from the coast. Our only real means of transport to get into the mountains were dog teams because in that period in the 1960s, right through to the mid-70’s, skidoos had not really been developed. I remember the very first one coming in the ___ .And so the dogs were absolutely essential, they were our only means of transport.
In the summers we had that support of the aircraft, which was superb, because that meant we could use lighter loads with the dogs and they could land at the foots of the mountains and support our journeys. So it was a combination, after the 1960s, of the dog teams plus the use of the aircraft.
OLGA: Do you remember your first day out as a driver on the dogs?
JOHN: I learned to drive the dogs at a little island called Deception island which is an active volcano and it was there we had the two aircraft operating on an ash runway. And we had one dog team plus one or two very old dogs who were in retirement. We had one lovely dog called Spud who lived outside our little kitchen underneath the hut, he wasn’t on any lead, and he had done 15,000 miles and he was aged then 9 or 10 I think.
And then we had these other dogs, but we didn’t really have anyone who knew much about them so we learned just by trial and error and with a few books and a lovely little guide from the Royal Geographic Society called Hinch to Travellers and there were some people who had sledged up in Greenland and they had written notes about driving dogs.
And I had a very good friend, Ben Hodges, and we went out on our very first journey from Deception Island. It’s got a huge inner crater which had been breached by the sea, which is a harbour, and around the edges you have got the hills that rise to 2,000 feet. Mount Pond. Mount Kirkwood. And so we thought that we would sledge around that peninsula, well around the circumference of the island.
We set out with our little dog team, it wasn’t a big dog team, I think we had 7. And they had a fight immediately as we got past the little base hut, so there were 7 dogs fighting. Everybody was laughing. And we sorted that out with one or two helpers and then we had to climb up this very steep hill in deep, deep soft snow. About half way up there was another massive fight. So, at that stage, we decided to camp and all the base could see where we were. We hadn’t done more than about a mile and we were exhausted, if you can imagine.
But, you learn by instinct. In that case, we were traversing up the hill and I think it would have been much better is we’d just gone straight up with the dogs because they always want to go back down the hill. But you learn. And it was a wonderful trip. We discovered huge caverns where the heat of the volcano had melted the ice at the top.
And we came back across the sea ice. It was my first journey and Ben’s first journey. Both of us went on to spend many, many years and thousands of miles driving dogs, really, after that.
OLGA: And did you have your own dog team then?
JOHN: Yes. After Deception Island I’d fallen in love with the idea of driving dogs. And so I opted to leave Deception Island and to go further south to a little base on Adelaide Island where there were six of us as I mentioned.
There I had 9 dogs. The team were called the counties. I had taken them over from another person who had finished his period down in the Antarctic. And obviously all the time we were introducing new pups every now and then to the teams. So, I had two very fine young dogs. My leader was called Peppy. She had actually come from the British North Greenland Expedition to come down to Britain, and from Britain she had come down to the Antarctic.
And you got to know every one. You obviously travelled with them all the time. They lived out of doors all the time, never came in. You would feed them every day when you were working. When you aren’t working on base, you only feed them every other day. Six pounds of seal meat every other day.
And it’s that sort of relationship, the companionship, because their life depends on you and your life depends on them. So you have that relationship with them. It’s wonderful.
OLGA: Do you feel that they can actually communicate with you?
JOHN: Yes. I think they do. I mean yes I mean yes I mean first of all you can tell by by those by the character of the dog wagging the tail by their looks.
They may put their paws great big paws on your shoulders and give you a lick. So you could always tell I think like that when they're happy. When they're miserable, of course, the tail goes down that lovely tail goes down and you know you just know that they are miserable and they're particularly miserable when you get those very wet cold days which you do get in the polar regions.
Yes. There is communication particularly, in that sense, with your dog it's your lead dog who looks back and questions, I think this question of the crevasses and the ice cliffs and if you see that happening and a dog is not wanting to go and then looking back all the time. That does make you question: is there something wrong, you know in front.
I mean you all you’re always communicating in some way with your dogs all the time. So it is and it's as I mentioned that it's that companionship isn't between them. So you do have that communication yes.
OLGA: And then John told me a story that really illustrated that companionship.
JOHN: A very, very good friend of mine who is sad he has died. He was God father to one of my children. He was driving a team up on the plateau in 1962 or 63 and it was bad weather particularly I think it was low cloud and mist and fog and he suddenly looked up and the whole of his team had gone down a crevasse in front of him, the whole lot nice dogs and they were travelling with two, so there was another team behind and they picketed the sledge and the other chap obviously came along to help and they looked over the group down the crevasse and they could see some of the dogs hanging in their harnesses and you try to keep the harnesses fairly tight so they don't fall out.
And so Ben went down on a climbing rope with his prusik loops and he was able to get his, I think the first seven dogs up fairly easily well not easily never is easy. And then there were two other dogs. They realised they were much much, had fallen much further down and I think the story is I'm not quite sure the full details but I think they had to join two climbing ropes together and he must have gone down well over perhaps 100, 150 feet and these two dogs right at the bottom were saved as well. So all those dogs were saved and the moral of that really is that the dogs mean so much to us and are so important and you know our lives depend on them and their lives depend on us. And so generally we would do almost anything to, to look after and save our dogs in a situation like that.
OLGA: And then there was another one that really will warm your heart. Actually John mentioned he wants to share “a few examples”… well he told such wonderful stories that we couldn’t fit them all into the episode. So I’m actually going to make a bonus episode which will feature the full interview soon. But in the meantime, let’s hear from John -
JOHN: The first one is a dog called Stevie and what happened was that we were closing a base called Detaille Island and the ship could only get to about six miles from the base and the weather was changing and so the captain,. Captain Johnston quite rightly said you know we can't stay long we've got to get out. Message went to the base. You've got to come now. Sledge out just with your own possessions and the records, scientific records, but leave everything else. And they sledged out the six miles to the ship and then they put the dogs on the ship and at the last moment one of the dogs slipped a harness and went back onto the sea ice and then ran back following the track. And the young people obviously wanted to follow it and bring it back but by then it had gone some way and the captain said no sorry we've got to go.
It's you know it's dangerous we got to go or else we lose the ship and so he had to leave. And so the young people are obviously really sad that dog was lost. Well the winter came and we had a base called Horseshoe which is about 120 miles away I think and then in the mid-winter period the dogs started to howl. They looked up and they saw a lone dog coming across the ice. And it was Stevie. And so for several months that dog must have lived on its own. There were piles of seal meat so it was able to survive presumably and then it made that journey to Horseshoe and honestly we don’t know how it did that. Could it have heard those dogs over that distance in any way? We think it has done the journey once in a lifetime, a team had sledged down to this other base but it’s remarkable story of survival of a single dog.
OLGA: And then of course I had to ask John about his second trip to Antarctica from 1993 to 1994
JOHN: It was a huge privilege, a sad privilege to go down back to the Antarctic. I met up with John Sweeney who was a young fellow then who had looked after the dogs that last winter and I remember being introduced to them and there were these for 14, 14 dogs left at that stage and we wanted it to be like that we wanted to use his dogs in the traditional way of supporting science. So that’s why we had dogs in the Antarctic to support the science and so we weren’t trying to do any long journey or anything like that. For one reason the dogs were quite old a lot of them and so we wanted to do a meaningful scientific work with them and we took them to a wonderful island called Alexander Island which is about the size of I suppose the size of Wales or nearly as large as Ireland and it had been travelled on, but not much.
So we flew to that island and we were out with them for two months and I was involved with surveying with the modern techniques of using what's called differential GPS and plotting various mountains and John had a really nice glaciological program of digging pits or drilling pits down to 10 metres putting in what's called thermistor themometers leaving it for 24 hours and then that gives you the average temperature for that position.
And so we were building up all over the Antarctic the average temperatures to try and study climatic change down there and we were using the dogs to do that. And John and I and two others were the only people on Alexander Island at that time. So it's a huge island, it was wonderful.
OLGA: And I guess all there is to tell from that trip is about how to dogs left the continent…
JOHN: And then we brought the dogs back to Rothera we had about a fortnight at Rothera with them. All the young people on the base were taken out for rides with the dogs and then finally on the 22nd of February a Dash aircraft was at Rothera. We got up early. The young people took the dogs out for walks on the rock, a runway at another and then we went across and put the dog into the aircraft. And I think I mentioned previously somebody said well why weren't everyone cheering and clapping when they went. But it wasn't like that. Everyone was very very sad to see these dogs leave. These were the last dogs on the whole of the Antarctic continent to leave on that date the 22nd of February 1994 and I could see young people were, you know, shedding tears. And it was all quite sad really.
OLGA: And those last 14 dogs they all went to Canada didn’t they, eventually?
JOHN: They did yes they did. We had them first of all on the Falklands. They were picketed up on the Common and on Stanley in the Falklands. They created enormous interest.
Every day people came up to see them they were allowed to stroke them and so on they were taken for runs behind the skidoo. And they lived there for maybe three weeks and were waiting for aircraft to take them back an RAF TriStar they wanted boxes for the dogs so we had boxes and when we finally left we put them in the boxes. Once we got aboard the Tri-Star they were allowed to wander out of the boxes. It was an empty Tri-Star so it was a big plane and they came up and licked the pilot, I remember.
And then finally we landed. We have to refuel at the Ascension which is very hot so we left them in the aircraft with the cooling system and then we ended up at Brize Norton, RAF Brize Norton, took them across to London airport Heathrow by lorry.
There they spent one night in quarantine and then again they were visited by the press and the stewardesses and then they were taken on a course by British Airways on BOAC across to Boston and then John, John my young friend John Sweeney took them on his own from that moment from Boston up to the bottom of the Hudson Bay to James Bay and then he sledged them up with Canadians to place called Inukjuak which is the old port Harrison on Hudson Bay and the old dogs, my team actually, were sent up by aircraft and then we gave the two teams to the Innuit at Inukjuak.
It was like a circle really because it was 50 years ago where we had started our dogs in the Antarctic and we obtained our dogs from Labrador and west Greenland and so in a way it was like a circle giving them back.
It didn’t work which is so sad really because in the Antarctic we had inoculated them against everything that we were recommended. The inoculations were boosted again in the Falklands and then up in the Arctic when they got there during the first year, the old dogs died of parvovirus and then the second year the young dogs seemed to die from it. We didn't have any representatives left with the Inuit, they were entirely given to the Inuit and the idea was that under a policy which I don’t think anyone understands in the 1950s some of these Inuit settlements they resettle people further north. But it seems that the dogs of this area in Inukjuak were also removed and it was hoped that these dogs would give an opportunity to the young Inuit to be able to train them and then to create a tourist industry of taking people out and being able to earn their living with the dogs. And that was the idea. Sadly, it didn’t work which was a shame.
OLGA: And I understand that it was an international agreement that they would be removed. Was that controversial? Did people agree with this or did some people want them to stay?
JOHN: No it was very controversial. All dog drivers were very against it but I’m a great supporter of the Antarctic treaty it has done a wonderful job in the Antarctic overall.
This was just in addition to that treaty the environmental protocol in 1992 and that was improving an enormous number of environmental issues. Just an example was the removal of waste from the Antarctic. Just one example. And sadly, it was under that that they said dogs are not indigenous and had to leave. Well obviously, we would say that you know human beings were non indigenous and ships with oil and so on are non indigenous.
I’m not speaking for the Antarctic Survey or anyone else just for myself. I would just love to see the treaty being flexible enough to allow adventurers to be able to go down and repeat some of those great dog journeys just for a short period and take the dogs out again. But whether that will ever happen I don’t know. I think that would be a fair compromise, actually.
OLGA: So, looking back - what did the huskies mean to the people working in Antarctica?
JOHN: What do they mean to the people. They mean everything I think. I mean obviously with a base of say 20 25 people not every single person may love the animals, the dogs but most do and it is two things really. One is that when you're living in close proximity as humans it's lovely to be able to get out and relate to the dogs and so on many, many occasions if you are fed up with something on base you, you went out and took your dogs out for a ride. It's a bit like I've just been reading a wonderful book of a fighter pilot in the last war and how he found that relief when he flew his plane on his own from living in the officer's mess or whatever.
And it's just the same really. And then the second reason I think what they did was they linked up with the past and so we obviously were always very interested in the heroic age and what Amundsen had done with his dogs, and Scott and Shackleton. And then in our own British way we had this very close connection through the British Graham Land expedition with the Inuit because all the young men of the British Graham Land expedition a lot of them had been with Gino Watkins up in Greenland and they had learnt the skills from the Inuit and then they put those down to the Antarctic. So those dogs in front of us and even the very last dogs they were that link to that story.
OLGA: And ending on that commentary from John – I do wonder whether that sentiment is the same one that helped to create the bond between us humans and dogs thousands of years ago.
Well what’s life like for a husky in the modern day?
To a certain extent, huskies are still used as real sled dogs by the Chukchi, Eskimo and Iniut people in all the places that we’ve covered in this episode. I’m actually not going to go into this in huge detail because I can’t do it justice in this episode,.
But hopefully I’ll be able to cover it at some point.
But a lot of that admiration for huskies is still evident in, let’ call it “Westen society”. The husky is the mascot for several athletic teams of US colleges:
The Connecticut Huskies has Jonathan the Husky,
The Michigan Tech Huskies has Blizzard the Husky
The Washington Huskies has Harry the Husky.
But Huskies have also become a really popular choice for a regular pet. Now it's completely understandable why people love these Siberian Huskies, they are such sweet characters. But at the same time they need heaps of exercise. They're also very independent and they're famous for being escape artists. Perhaps that last point links back to this idea that they'd spent their summers away from the villages fending for themselves.
Siberian Huskies especially are riding a wave of popularity on the game of thrones on Instagram because of that there's been a real spike in demand. I'd seen a few reports over the years that there's a growing number of dog rescue centres that actually focus on Huskies all around the world because of this problem, upon some investigation. Yep that really was true.
Knowing the history and then these dogs so well I decided to seek out the founder of a specialised rescue centre for Huskies in a place where Huskies are certainly not native. So remember when John Killingbeck spoke about Husky's being unhappiest when its raining. Well, they certainly aren’t natives of Ireland then, where it rains between 150 – 225 days each year.
ANDY: I’m Andy Cullen. I rescue, rehabilitate and rehome abandoned Huskies.
That's Andy Cullen. He's the founder of the Dublin Husky Rescue. Andy was in a very remote location. And so what I've done is done voice overs to explain what Andy said in places where it did get a little bit patchy. Okay here we go. Let's hear from Andy now.
Andy how did you become a husky rescuer?
ANDY: Then I noticed there was huskies in the pound needed help so I used to go to the pound, pay €80 to get a Husky out of the pound and I was helping rehome that husky through other rescue centres that were established.
OLGA: Andy then went on to explain that there was already a husky sharing group down in the south of Ireland and in the north of Ireland but nothing where he was around Dublin and so he took the view that he should start a centre and that would connect the north and the South.
ANDY: Little did I know how the words rescue and husky would take off. Within weeks I was being flooded with calls of people trying to surrender their huskies. I didn’t realise actually how many huskies were in Ireland at the time. I knew it was going to be busy but nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. The amount of huskies was unbelievable.
OLGA: Is it the TV shows? What's causes popularity do you think?
ANDY: People do blame the game of thrones.
OLGA: Okay. And Andy went on to talk about the Lost Boys a movie that was released in the 80s. He said that actually there we had a Malamutes called Nanook but people mistake him for a Husky. So that's also one of the things that leads up to popularity and actually many Wolf type dogs. People think that they are Siberian Huskies too. Andy also said that at the moment one of the biggest influencers of people getting Huskies is Instagram. So there are many celebrities who have got Huskies of course they're very pretty. But that means that a lot of teenage girls as he said would convince their parents to get Husky's. And then at some point the teenagers were leave their parents would be there with their Husky's. And they never really wanted them in the first place. So that would be the end of that.
And do you know who you rescued now by the way?
ANDY: Probably about 700 huskies.
OLGA: So, do people have no idea going back that these dogs were you know they were used in Siberia they would be running kilometres per day that this is the same dog genetically and that really it's not that suitable for just being in the house. No.
ANDY: No and people were very uneducated, people didn't know what these dogs were today when you tell them that are working dog and they're like "a working dog, what does that mean?"
OLGA: Yeah. At this point so I was pretty shocked to see. Imagine you're a husky and your ancestors have been pulling sleds for fifteen thousand years but now your owner doesn't know what a working dog is. Wow. And so I asked Andy to share a couple of stories of some of those 700 Husky's that he's rescued.
ANDY: There are so many and they’ll all popping into my head at the same time. I’m trying to pick one out. I have a really lovely story, it ended and I have his picture picture beside me here beside my bed, it's a dog called shadow.
OLGA: So Andy went on to tell me the story of Shadow. And Shadow had basically been dumped in the pound by his owners, when he was about four or five years old and well this is very strange for a husky he was actually very, very cautious and scared of people and that suggests something happened to him in this previous home that made him like that because that's not a normal reaction for a Husky. Shadow became Andy's very best friend in the rescue and I guess that must be because Andy would have won his confidence in humans again.
OLGA: Shadow was there for a good 14 months because Andy knew that he had to go to the right home. And finally a lovely chap called Mark who had recently lost his own Husky started to walk shadow when he visited the shelter and their bond really grew. So Mark decided to adopt Shadow but unfortunately his mother fell ill. She passed away and so they waited a little bit more until Mark was ready and of course Shadow was so happy in his new home and Mark shared all of his life with him. He would take him out with a family that means lots of socialization for him and he took him to places like the highest pub in Ireland and of course it was all fantastic but within about six months Shadow really sadly developed a brain aneurysm and very soon after he was gone that was really hard for them and for Mark it must have been so difficult. What they gave to that dog was the best few months it was his best 20 months of his life and as Andy said he was loved and cherished.
That's not something that he knew before. And then Andy also told me the story of Bear. Bear had arrived from the pound to two of them weighing just 17 kilos and that means he was obvious in such bad shape. They got him back to full health and Bear is now living a wonderful life out in Sweden.
And then I asked Andy why people do give their Huskies up
ANDY: The reason why most people give them up is because of the exercise that they need, it’s the stimulation they need. Bor people here say it's raining tonight so we won't bring it out tonight, they forget they live in Ireland, it going to rain for the next three days, and then they don't bring the huskies out and the husky starts to become destructive, because they’re bored. And that’s when people go I can’t handle this dog any more. One of the worst excuses I hear it's the first thing the dog. The best thing for the dog is for you to get up off your behind and exercise him, that's the best thing for your dog.
OLGA: What is the thing that makes that person move away. Did they not realise that they have emotion. Certainly not care. I mean what is it that allow someone to do that.
ANDY: Most of them don’t care. There are some genuine cases. There are genuine cases and I've been to homes where the homes have been repossessed by banks. But most of them, I've had people come up to my gate with a dog, beg us to take the dog and they's walked up and handed me the lead through the gate, walked off, got back in the car and drove off.
That that's absolutely heartbreaking for the dog for me I'm glad to see the back of that person because that dog will now see a better life. But the dog doesn't know that. And that person can walk back into their life six months a year later without them and that would be the happiest dog on the planet.
OLGA: And I saw that you were looking for land now. So what is it that you’re working towards. If you had a blue sky what would the organisation be?
ANDY: It will be bigger. An area with some forest with some space so that when we put these huskies in the pen, but they're not into a pen they're into a play area that big enough to house them with that freedom to run whenever they want.
OLGA: Well when he spoke in August 2018 that new place was something of a dream still and just as we were about to publish this podcast episode Andy did find land and they were in the process of moving and they're actually going to be changing their name to their husky Rescue Ireland. So that was good to head because it wasn't by chance. It was down to their hard work.
OLGA: Whether someone is an Ireland or whether in another country how can they get involved. How can they support what you do?
ANDY: Our biggest hurdle I suppose is our vet bills because we've taken as you’ve seen we've took in six really badly emaciated dogs yesterday. I am taking in another dog tomorrow another husky that has been so badly neglected that his color has fused to his skin that has to be surgically removed. We do our own fundraisers, continuously just trying to raise money. You work at a loss in rescue even with a full healthy dog when, by the time I'm finished vaccinating microchipped wormed, neutered our adoption fee doesn't come close to that so you're always working at the loss, fundraising to make up the money that was left over.
And yesterday morning I got a phone call from the vet because my bill is 15 and a half thousand euro.
Like one dog I took in a few weeks ago, immediately he was 11 days straight in the vets he was that ill so that put me bill right back up. But by the time I'm trying to get bit back down I've taken in five more dogs. But yeah, it was 15 and a half thousand yesterday.
One lady done a raffle in aid of a dog called Midnight. Midnight was starved and emaciated so badly that she passed away. And a lady done a painting and she raffled off that painting and raised eleven hundred Euro which was amazing and like that she sent me... like a memorial thing for Midnight that brought me to my knees yesterday because it just brought back all the memories of Midnight, you know it's lovely to remember her but that was really tough.
OLGA: I'd originally found the team at the Dublin Husky Rescue online. Just looking at some of these social media updates they made and I wanted to speak with them because they were somewhere really weird in terms of Huskies and two because the way that they shared everything and spoke about the Huskies they were looking after was really lovely and it gave me a really good feeling. So if you're interested I'd really encourage you to find them. Just search for Dublin Husky Rescue or for Husky Rescue Ireland. Have a look what they're up to. If you live nearby of course and sure they love it if you went in and walked with their dogs from time to time or you could support them from afar either by spreading the word or making some donations from time to time because of course as Andy said that's a thing that they're always chasing their tail on
In between the interview with Andy and this episode being published unfortunately there was another really sad story I am going to write about it in the show notes in light of that.
I would really like to dedicate this episode to Lucky the memory of Lucky and you can find out a lot more about him in the show.
It's it seems pretty ironic that the Husky's are needed less and less in their homelands and they'd become much more desirable across the whole world and they're now in all the places that they have no connection to. You might not need the husky so much but we effectively created them or they created us. I'm still confused about which one it was.
So how does one conclude an episode like the one today day or the first thing is I am not a biologist so if you're one of those and you've got some corrections for me I won't ever take it personally. And it's important to get things right. Secondly these podcasts are a place for me to preach.
There are a place for me to find and deliver facts so you can make your own minds up about the husky . But what I will say is this the more I look up other species the less I feel like we are really that special or alone as humans a huge thank you to John Killingbeck and of course to Andy Cullen for opening our eyes to so much during this episode.
If you'd like to suggest a species for me to cover in a future episode. Just get in touch with me. Perhaps you want to share some of your stories about animals or just want to say hi. You can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find and contact me on Facebook Twitter and Instagram by searching for the other5 billion podcast. Or you can find me, Olga Pavlovsky at Lplatebigcheese .
Please do subscribe to the other5billion podcast on iTunes, the Google podcast app or wherever you get your podcast. Finally I've listed heaps of information all my sources and loads great reads especially about the expeditions to Antarctica in the show notes. If you need any more pointers about where to find stuff than just feel free to give me a shout. And all that left to say is thank you for listening. I really hope you enjoyed it. And until next time.
JOHN: I’m sitting at the moment looking out into the Tamar Valley. We've got driving rain coming down really heavy rain coming along and I can see the waves of rain running past they suddenly remind me of when you're up with the dogs you have a blizzard and you've still got to keep going and that's where… if you've got a good team and you've trained them they… they won't let you down.
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