Jackie marched with his company in a special uniform and cap complete with buttons, regimental badges, and a hole for his tail.
In 1915, Albert Marr and his family lived at a farm called Cheshire just outside Pretoria, South Africa. It was there that he found a small Chacma baboon and adopted the monkey, as a pet. He called the animal, “Jackie”.
The Great War had not yet reached it second year when Marr was sworn into the 3rd (Transvaal) Regiment of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade. He was now Private Albert Marr, #4927.
Private Marr asked for permission to bring Jackie along. Mascots are good for morale in times of war, a fact about which military authorities, were well aware.
To Marr’s great surprise, permission was granted. It wasn’t long before Jackie became the official Regimental Mascot.
Jackie drew rations like any other soldier, eating at the mess table, using his knife and fork and washing it all down with his own drinking basin. He even knew how to use a teacup.
Jackie drilled and marched with his company in a special uniform and cap complete with buttons, regimental badges, and a hole for his tail.
He would entertain the men during quiet periods, lighting their pipes and cigarettes and saluting officers as they passed on their rounds. He learned to stand at ease when ordered, placing his feet apart and hands behind his back, regimental style.
These two inseparable buddies, Albert Marr and Jackie, first saw combat during the Senussi Campaign in North Africa. On February 26, 1916, Albert took a bullet in the shoulder at the Battle of Agagia. The monkey, beside himself with agitation, licked the wound and did everything he could to comfort the stricken man. It was this incident more than any other that marked Jackie’s transformation from pet and mascot, to a full-fledged member and comrade, of the regiment.
Jackie would accompany Albert at night, on guard duty. Marr soon learned to trust Jackie’s keen eyesight and acute hearing. The monkey was almost always first to know about enemy movements or impending attack, sounding an early warning with a series of sharp barks, or by pulling on Marr’s tunic.
The pair went through the nightmare of Delville Wood together early in the Somme campaign, when the First South African Infantry held its position despite eighty percent casualties.
The third Battle of Ypres, known as the battle of Passchendaele, began in the early morning hours of July 31, 1917. The pair experienced the sucking, nightmare mud of that place and the desperate fighting, around Kemmel Hill. The two were at Belleau Wood, a mostly American operation in which Marine Captain Lloyd Williams of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, was famously informed he was surrounded, by Germans. “Retreat?” Williams snorted, “hell, we just got here.”
Through all of it, Marr and Jackie come through World War 1 mostly unscathed. That all changed in April, 1918.
Withdrawing through the West Flanders region of Belgium, the South African brigade came under heavy bombardment. Jackie was frantically building a wall of stones around himself, a shelter from the hammer blow concussion of the shells and the storm of flying metal buzzing through the air, as angry hornets. A jagged piece of shrapnel wounded Jackie’s arm and another all but tore off the animal’s leg. Even then, Jackie refused to be carried off by the stretcher-bearers, trying instead to finish his wall as he hobbled about on the bloody stump which had once been, his leg.
Lt. Colonel R. N. Woodsend of the Royal Medical Corps described the scene: “It was a pathetic sight; the little fellow, carried by his keeper, lay moaning in pain, the man crying his eyes out in sympathy, ‘You must do something for him, he saved my life in Egypt. He nursed me through dysentery’. The baboon was badly wounded, the left leg hanging with shreds of muscle, another jagged wound in the right arm. We decided to give the patient chloroform and dress his wounds…It was a simple matter to amputate the leg with scissors and I cleaned the wounds and dressed them as well as I could. He came around as quickly as he went under. The problem then was what to do with him. This was soon settled by his keeper: ‘He is on army strength’. So, duly labelled, number, name, ATS injection, nature of injuries, etc. he was taken to the road and sent by a passing ambulance to the Casualty Clearing Station”.
No one was quite sure that the chloroform used for the operation, wouldn’t kill him. When the officer commanding the regiment went to the aid station to check on him Jackie sat up in bed, and saluted.
As the “War to End All Wars” drew to a close, Jackie was promoted to the rank of Corporal and given a medal, for bravery. He may be the only monkey in history, ever to be so honored.
The war ended that November. Jackie and Albert were shipped to England and soon became, media celebrities. The two were hugely successful raising money for the widows and orphans fund, where members of the public could shake Jackie’s hand for half a crown. A kiss on the baboon’s cheek, would cost you five shillings.
On his arm he wore a gold wound stripe and three blue service chevrons, one for each of his three years’ front line service.
Jackie was the center of attention on arriving home to South Africa when a parade was held, officially welcoming the Regiment home. On July 31, 1920, Jackie received the Pretoria Citizen’s Service Medal, at the Peace Parade in Church Square, Pretoria.
All thing must come to an end. The Marr family farm burned to the ground in May 1921. Jackie died in the fire. Albert Marr lived to the age of 84 and passed away, in 1973. There wasn’t a day in-between when the man didn’t miss his little battle buddy Jackie, the baboon who went to war.
“Chips, a German shepherd, collie, husky mix, was the most famous and decorated sentry dog in World War II, one of 10,425 dogs that saw service in the Quartermaster Corps’ new “K-9 Corps.” Prior to the K-9 Corps, dogs such as Admiral Wags on the carrier Lexington and World War I canine hero Sgt. Stubby were mascots and had no official function in America’s military.” H/T Defense Media Network
By the last year of the “Great War”, French, British and Belgian armed forces employed some 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, the Germans, 30,000. General Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Forces recommended the use of dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals in the spring of 1918. However, with the exception of a few sled dogs in Alaska, the US was the only country to take part in World War I with virtually no service dogs in its military.
US Armed Forces had an extensive K-9 program during World War II, when private citizens were asked to donate their dogs to the war effort. One such dog was “Chips”, a German Shepherd/Collie/Husky mix who ended up being the most decorated K-9 of WWII.
Chips belonged to Edward Wren of Pleasantville, NY, who “enlisted” his dog in 1942. Chips was trained at the War Dog Training Center, Front Royal Virginia, and served in the 3rd Infantry Division with his handler, Private John Rowell. Chips and his handler took part in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. He served as a sentry dog for the Roosevelt-Churchill conference in 1943, and the team was part of the Sicily landings later that year.
The Allied invasion of Sicily was a large scale amphibious and airborne operation, beginning this day in 1943 and lasting through the 17th of August. Six weeks of land combat followed in an operation code named “Operation Husky”.
During the landing phase, private Rowell and Chips were pinned down by an Italian machine. The dog broke free from his handler, running across the beach and jumping into the pillbox. Chips attacked the four Italians manning the machine gun, single-handedly forcing their surrender to American troops. The dog sustained a scalp wound and powder burns in the process, demonstrating that they had tried to shoot him during the brawl. In the end, the score was Chips 4, Italians Zero.
Platoon commander Captain Edward Parr recommended Chips for the Distinguished Service Cross for “courageous action in single-handedly eliminating a dangerous machine gun nest and causing surrender of its crew.”
He helped to capture ten more later that same day.
Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart but his awards, were later revoked. At that time the army didn’t permit commendations to be given to animals. His unit awarded him a Theater Ribbon with an Arrowhead for the assault landing anyway, along with eight Battle stars. One for each of his campaigns.
Chips was discharged in December, 1945, and returned home to live out his days with the Wren family in Pleasantville. In 1990, Disney made a TV movie based on his life. It’s called “Chips, the War Dog”.
Today, some sharks are known to be capable of living for a time, in fresh water. Bull sharks have been known to travel as much as sixty miles up the Mississippi River. Researchers report that the Neuse River in North Carolina has been home to bull sharks, possibly arrived in pursuit of young dolphins. That information was unavailable in 1916.
As Spring gives way to Summer, kids of all ages exchange school bags for beach bags. Sports practices and homework are over, for now. We grown-ups can enjoy the last hours of the weekday, under the warmth of the sun.
Gone are the days when the warmth of summer brought with it, the horrors of polio. We have no idea how fortunate we are.
In pre-1955 America and around much of the world, Summer was a time of dread. TIME Magazine offered what solace it could, in 1946: “for many a parent who had lived through the nightmare fear of polio, there was some statistical encouragement: in 1916, 25% of polio’s victims died. This year, thanks to early recognition of the disease and improved treatment (iron lungs, physical therapy, etc.) the death rate is down to 5%.”
Polio is as old as antiquity but major outbreaks are all but unknown, until the 20th century. The 1916 outbreak was particularly severe. Nationally, some 6,000 died of the disease that summer. New York City alone suffered 9,000 cases of polio, forcing a city-wide quarantine.
“Polio was a plague. One day you had a headache and an hour later you were paralyzed. How far the virus crept up your spine determined whether you could walk afterward or even breathe. Parents waited fearfully every summer to see if it would strike. One case turned up and then another. The count began to climb. The city closed the swimming pools and we all stayed home, cooped indoors, shunning other children. Summer seemed like winter then.”
Richard Rhodes, A Hole in the World
To make matters worse, the epidemic took place during one of the hottest Summers in memory, the twin threats of heat and disease driving millions to seek relief at nearby lakes, streams and beaches.
On July 1, 1916, twenty-five-year-old Charles Epting Vansant of Philadelphia was vacationing with family, at the Engleside Hotel on the Jersey shore. Just before dinner, Vansant took a swim with a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, who was playing on the beach. Vansant began to shout and bathers thought he was calling to the dog, but shouts soon turned to screams. As lifeguard Alexander Ott and bystander Sheridan Taylor pulled the man to shore, they could see the shark, following.
Charles Vansant’s left thigh was stripped to the bone. He was brought to the Engleside hotel where he bled to death on the front desk.
Despite the incident, beaches remained open all along the Jersey Shore. Sea captains entering the ports of Newark and New York reported numbers of large sharks swarming off the Jersey shore but such reports received little attention.
The next major shark attack occurred five days later, on July 6. Forty-five miles north of Engleside, Essex & Sussex Hotel bell captain Charles Bruder was swimming near the resort town of Spring Lake. Hearing screams, one woman notified lifeguards that a red canoe had capsized, and lay just below the surface. Lifeguards Chris Anderson and George White rowed out to the spot to discover Bruder, legless, with a shark bite to his abdomen. The twenty-seven year old Swiss army veteran bled to death before ever regaining the shore.
Authorities and the press downplayed the first incident. The New York Times reported that Vansant “was badly bitten in the surf … by a fish, presumably a shark.” Pennsylvania State Fish Commissioner and former director of the Philadelphia Aquarium James M. Meehan opined that “Vansant was in the surf playing with a dog and it may be that a small shark had drifted in at high water, and was marooned by the tide. Being unable to move quickly and without food, he had come in to bite the dog and snapped at the man in passing“.
Response to the second incident was altogether different. Newspapers from the Boston Herald to the San Francisco Chronicle ran the story front page, above the fold. The New York Times went all-in: “Shark Kills Bather Off Jersey Beach“.
A trio of scientists from the American Museum of Natural History held a press conference on July 8, declaring a third such incident unlikely. Be that as it may, John Treadwell Nichols, the only ichthyologist among the three, warned swimmers to stay close to shore, and take advantage of netted bathing areas.
Rumors went into high gear, as an armed motorboat claimed to have chased a shark off Spring Creek Beach. Asbury Park Beach was closed after lifeguard Benjamin Everingham claimed to have beaten a 12-footer back, with an oar.
New Jersey resort owners suffered a blizzard of cancellations and a loss of revenue estimated at $5.6 million in 2017 dollars. In some areas, bathing declined by as much as 75%.
Scores of people died in the oppressive heat. Newspapers reported twenty-six fatalities, in Chicago alone. Air conditioning, invented in 1902, would not be widely available until the 1920s. Rural areas had yet to be electrified.
Today, some sharks are known to be capable of living for a time, in fresh water. Bull sharks have been known to travel as much as sixty miles up the Mississippi River. Researchers report that the Neuse River in North Carolina has been home to bull sharks, possibly arrived in pursuit of young dolphins.
That information wasn’t available in 1916.
As the heat wave dragged on, lakes and rivers crowded with bathers from Gary, Indiana to Manchester, New Hampshire. In New Jersey, ocean beaches remained closed with the exception of the 4th Ave. Beach at Asbury Park, enclosed with a steel-wire-mesh fence and patrolled by armed motorboats.
Eleven miles from the ocean, Matawan New Jersey had little to fear, from sharks. Locals sought relief from the heat in Matawan Creek, a brackish water estuary in the Marlboro Township of Monmouth County. With fresh waters flowing from Baker’s Brook down the salinity gradient to the full-salt waters of Keyport Harbor, Matawan Creek seemed more at risk for snapping turtles and snakes, than sharks.
On July 12, several boys including eleven-year-old epileptic Lester Stilwell were swimming near Wykoff Dock when the boys spotted an “old black weather-beaten board or a weathered log.” The boys scattered when that old log turned out to have a dorsal fin, but Lester Stilwell wasn’t fast enough.
Many dismissed the rantings of five naked, hysterical boys, believing that no shark could be this far inland. Twenty-four year old tailor Stanley Fisher came running, knowing that the boy suffered from epilepsy. Arthur Smith and George Burlew joined in the effort, by now clearly a recovery and no longer a rescue. The trio got in a boat and probed with an oar and some poles, but…nothing. They were about to give up the search when Fisher dove in the water. He actually found the boy’s body, and began to swim to shore.
Townspeople lining the creek looked on in horror, as Fisher now came under attack.
Stanley Fisher made it to shore though his right thigh was severely injured, an eighteen-inch chunk of his thigh gone, and an artery severed. The man would bleed to death at Monmouth Hospital, before the day was over.
The Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 claimed a fifth and final victim thirty minutes later, when 12-year old Joseph Dunn of New York city was bitten a half-mile from the Stilwell and Fisher attacks. A savage tug-of war ensued between Dunn’s brother Michael and sixteen-year-old Jeremiah Hourihan, with local attorney Jacob Lefferts jumping into the water, to help. The boy survived but the damage to his left leg, was severe. He wouldn’t be discharged from the hospital, until September 15.
Based on the style of the attacks and glimpses of the shark(s) themselves, the attacks may have been those of Bull sharks, or juvenile Great Whites. Massive shark hunts were carried out all over the east coast, resulting in the death of hundreds of animals. Whether all five attacks were carried out by a single animal or many, remains unclear.
At the time, the story resulted in international hysteria. Now, the tale is all but unknown, but for the people of Matawan. Stanley’s grave sits on a promontory at the Rose Hill Cemetery, overlooking Lester’s grave, below. People still stop from time to time, leaving flowers, toys and other objects. Perhaps they’re paying tribute. A small token of respect. Homage to the courage of those who would jump into the water, in the face of our most primordial fear.
The Westminster dog show is the longest continuously held sporting event in the United States with the sole exception of the Kentucky Derby which began, only a year earlier.
For years, a group of hunters would meet at the Westminster Hotel at Irving Place & 16th Street in New York, “to drink and lie about their shooting accomplishments”. At one such meeting the group decided to hold a dog show, “to compare dogs in a setting away from the field.
The Westminster Kennel Club was formed, for the purpose. The most famous dog show in the world was first held on May 8, 1877 called the “First Annual NY Bench Show of Dogs.” At that time the event was mostly sporting dogs, primarily Setters and Pointers with a few Terriers.
That first show featured two Staghounds belonging to the late General George Armstrong Custer. Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, entered two Deerhounds. Two years later, Russian Czar Alexander III entered a Siberian Wolfhound. German Emperor Wilhelm II entered his own Wolfhound, a year later. American journalist Nelly Bly entered her Maltese in 1894, four years after her record-breaking trip around the world, in 72 days.
The event was held at Gilmore’s Garden at the corner of Madison Avenue and 26th Street, a location which would come to be known as Madison Square Garden. In those days, another popular Gilmore Garden event was competitive boxing, a sport which was illegal in New York at that time. Events were billed as “exhibitions” or better yet, “Illustrated Lectures.” (I love that one).
“Westminster gets its name from a long gone hotel in Manhattan. There, sporting gentlemen used to meet in the bar to drink and lie about their shooting accomplishments. Eventually they formed a club and bought a training area and kennel. They kept their dogs there and hired a trainer.
“They couldn’t agree on the name for their new club. But finally someone suggested that they name it after their favorite bar. The idea was unanimously selected, we imagine, with the hoisting of a dozen drinking arms.”
– Maxwell Riddle, from a newspaper story quoted in “The Dog Show, 125 Years of Westminster” by William Stifel
Prizes for that original show included pearl handled revolvers. Amusing when you think of the 2nd amendment purgatory that is Warren Wilhelm’s (Bill DiBlasio’s) New York.
1,201 dogs arrived for that first show in an event so popular, the originally planned three days morphed into four. The Westminster Kennel Club donated all proceeds from the fourth day to the ASPCA, for the creation of a home for stray and disabled dogs. The organization remains supportive of animal charities, to this day.
The Westminster dog show is the longest continuously held sporting event in the United States with the sole exception of the Kentucky Derby which began, only a year earlier.
Not even two World Wars would stop the Westminster Dog Show, though a tugboat strike cut two days down to one in 1946. Even so, “Best in Show” was awarded fifteen minutes earlier than the year before. I wonder how many puppies went by the name of “Tug” that year.
The Westminster dog show was first televised in 1948, three years before the first national broadcast, of college football.
When the American Kennel Club (AKC) was founded in 1884, Westminster was the first club to be admitted. Breed parent clubs such as the German Shepherd Dog Club of America developed breed standards, extensive written descriptions of what the perfect specimen looks like for any given breed. Some of the traits which distinguished the original working dogs of 1877 are still apparent, while other elements are seemingly arbitrary, such as tail carriage, eye shape and color.
Dogs are judged first against others of their own breed. The best of each goes forward into one of seven groups: Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non-Sporting, and Herding. In the final round, the winners from each group competes for “Best in Show”. In the end, there can be only one.
Mixed breeds have been permitted since 2014, to compete in an agility event.
A Smooth Fox Terrier named Ch.(Championship) Warren Remedy won the top award in 1907, 1908 and 1909, the only dog to ever win three Best in Shows at Westminster. Seven dogs have twice taken the top award. Five owners have won Best in Show with more than one dog. A Sussex Spaniel named Stump became the oldest winner in dog show history in 2009, at the age of 10. Judge Sari Tietjen said she had no idea the winning dog was a senior citizen. “He showed his heart out,” she said. “I didn’t know who he was or how old … I just couldn’t say no to him”.
Madison Square Garden generally sells out for the event, the WKC issuing up to 700 press credentials for media attending from no fewer than 20 countries.
This year, the Westminster dog show runs two days and nights in June. The 2021 event will be held at the Tarrytown estate known as Lyndhurst, in order to be held outdoors. No spectators are allowed for the 2021 event due to New York state Covid diktat.
Since the late 1960s, winner of the Westminster Best in Show has celebrated at Sardi’s, a popular mid-town eatery in the theater district and birthplace of the Tony award.
And then the Nanny State descended, pronouncing that 2012 would be the last. There shalt be no dogs dining in New York restaurants. Not while Mayor Bloomberg was in charge.
Suddenly, Westminster found itself in good company. The Algonquin, the historic hotel at the corners of 59th Street West & 44th, had taken in a stray cat, sometime back in the 1930s. Ever since, one of a succession of felines have had the run of the place. The males have all been called “Hamlet”, the females, “Matilda”.
And then his Lordship Mayor Yourslurpeeistoobig’s Board of Health descended on the Algonquin, requiring that the cat be kept on a leash. There ensued a tempest in a cat box, until a compromise was reached, later that year. An electronic pet fence was installed confining the cat to non-food areas of the hotel, in return for which city bureaucrats returned to whatever it is they do.
Back to the dog show. Not wanting another such drama, Nanny Bloomberg pulled his health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, aside. By the end of the week, the health department had found a loophole to defuse the standoff: Dr. Farley would issue a waiver. Since then, the winner at Westminster is free to enjoy the traditional celebratory luncheon of diced chicken and rice from a silver platter.
Provided that it’s eaten in the back room.
Feature image, top of page: German Shepherd dog “Rumor” wins best in show at the 141st Westminster dog show in 2017.
The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took the small dog home to play with his kids. “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”
At the dawn of the space age, no one knew whether the human body could survive conditions of rocket launch and space flight. The US Space program experimented with a variety of primate species between 1948 and 1961, including rhesus monkeys, crab-eating macaques, squirrel monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and chimpanzees.
On May 28, 1959, a squirrel monkey named “Miss Baker” became the first of the US space program, to survive the stresses of spaceflight and related medical procedures. A rhesus monkey called “Miss Able” survived the mission as well, but died four days later as the result of a reaction to anesthesia.
Soviet engineers experimented with dogs on a number of orbital and sub-orbital flights, to determine the feasibility of human space flight. The Soviet Union launched missions with positions for at least 57 dogs in the fifties and early sixties, though the actual number is smaller. Some flew more than once.
Most survived. As with the early US program, those who did not often died as the result of equipment malfunction. The first animal to be sent into orbit, was a different story.
Three dogs were plucked from the streets of Moscow and trained for the purpose. “Laika” was an 11-pound mutt, possibly a terrier-husky cross. In Russian, the word means “Barker”. Laika was chosen due to her small size and calm disposition. One scientist wrote, “Laika was quiet and charming.”
First, were the long periods of close confinement, meant to replicate the tiny cabin of Sputnik 2. Then came the centrifuge, the highly nutritional but thoroughly unappetizing gel she was meant to eat in space, and then the probes and electrodes that monitored her vital signs.
The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to play with his kids. “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”
Laika was placed inside the capsule for three days, tightly harnessed in a way that only allowed her to stand, sit and lie down. Finally, it was November 3, 1957. Launch day. One of the technicians “kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight”.
Sensors showed her heart rate to be 103 beats/minute at time of launch, spiking to 240 during acceleration. She ate some of her food in the early stages, but remained stressed and agitated. The thermal control system malfunctioned shortly into the flight, the temperature inside the capsule rising to 104°, Fahrenheit. Five to seven hours into the flight, there were no further signs of life.
There were official hints about Laika parachuting safely to earth, and then tales of a painless and humane, euthanasia. Soviet propaganda portrayed “the first traveler in the cosmos”, heroic images printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers. Soviet authorities concealed Laika’s true cause of death and how long it took her to die. That information would not be divulged , until 2002.
In the beginning, the US News media focused on the politics of the launch. It was all about the “Space Race”, and the Soviet Union running up the score. First had been the unoccupied Sputnik 1, now Sputnik 2 had put the first living creature into space. The more smartass specimens among the American media, called the launch “Muttnik”.
Sputnik 2 became controversial, as animal lovers began to question the ethics of sending a dog to certain death in space. In the UK, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals received protests before Radio Moscow was finished with their launch broadcast. The National Canine Defense League called on dog owners to observe a minute’s silence.
Protesters gathered with their dogs in front of the UN building, to express their outrage. In the Soviet Union, political dissent was squelched, as always. Of all Soviet bloc nations, it was probably Poland who went farthest out on that limb, when the scientific periodical Kto, Kiedy, Dlaczego (“Who, When, Why”), reported Laika’s death as “regrettable”. “Undoubtedly a great loss for science”.
Sputnik 2 and its passenger left the vacuum of space on April 14, 1958, burning up in the outer atmosphere.
It was not until 1998 and the collapse of the Soviet tower of lies, that Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists who had trained the dog, was free to speak his mind. “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us”, he said, “We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it…We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog”.
As a lifelong dog lover, I feel the need to add a more upbeat postscript to this thoroughly depressing tale.
“Belka” and “Strelka” spent a day in space aboard Sputnik 5 on August 19, 1960 and returned safely, to Earth. The first Earth-born creatures to go into orbit and return alive.
Strelka later gave birth to six puppies fathered by “Pushok”, a dog who’d participated in ground-based space experiments, but never flew. In 1961, Nikita Khrushchev gave one of them, a puppy called “Pushinka,” to President John F. Kennedy.
Pushinka and a Kennedy dog named “Charlie” conducted their own Cold War rapprochement, resulting in four puppies. JFK called them his “pupniks”. Rumor has it their descendants are still around, to this day.
Tip of the hat to the 2019 Vienna Film Award winning “Space dogs” for the artwork at the top of this page.
About a week after Confederates first fired on Fort Sumter a female bald eagle laid a clutch of eggs, somewhere in Wisconsin.
In 1861, leader of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe band O-k-ma-key-sik, “Chief Big Sky” captured an eaglet, and sold it for a bushel of corn to saloon keeper Daniel McCann of Chippewa County, Wisconsin.
Captain John Perkins, Commanding Officer of the Eau Claire “Badgers”, bought the young bald eagle from Daniel McCann.
The asking price was $2.50.
Militia members were asked to pitch in twenty-five cents as was one particular civilian: tavern-keeper S.M. Jeffers. Jeffers’ refusal earned him “three lusty groans”, to which he laughed and told them all, to keep their quarters.
Jeffers threw in a single quarter-eagle, a gold coin valued at 250¢, and that was that. From that moment onward, the militia unit called itself the Eau Claire “Eagles”.
Perkins’ Eagles entered Federal Service as Company C of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. It wasn’t long before the entire Regiment adopted the bald eagle, calling themselves the “Eagle Regiment”, in honor of their new mascot. Much deliberation followed as to what to name him, before it was decided. The bird would be called “Old Abe”.
Old Abe accompanied the regiment as it headed south, travelling all over the western theater and witness to 37 battles. David McLain wrote “I have frequently seen Generals Grant, Sherman, McPherson, Rosecrans, Blair, Logan, and others, when they were passing our regiment, raise their hats as they passed Old Abe, which always brought a cheer from the regiment and then the eagle would spread his wings”.
Abe became an inspirational symbol to the troops, like the battle flag carried with each regiment. Colonel Rufus Dawes of the Iron Brigade recalled, “Our eagle usually accompanied us on the bloody field, and I heard [Confederate] prisoners say they would have given more to capture the eagle of the Eighth Wisconsin, than to take a whole brigade of men.”
Confederate General Sterling Price spotted Old Abe on his perch during the battle of Corinth, Mississippi. “That bird must be captured or killed at all hazards”, Price remarked. “I would rather get that eagle than capture a whole brigade or a dozen battle flags”.
Old Abe was presented to the state of Wisconsin at the end of the war. He lived 15 years in the “Eagle Department”, a two-room apartment in the basement of the Capitol, complete with custom bathtub, and a caretaker. Photographs of Old Abe were sold to help veteran’s organizations. He was a national celebrity, traveling across the country and appearing at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the 1880 Grand Army of the Republic National Convention, and dozens of fundraising events.
A small fire broke out in a Capitol basement workshop, fed by cleaning solvents and shop rags. The fire was quickly extinguished thanks to the bald eagle’s cries of alarm, but not before Old Abe inhaled a whole lot of that thick, black smoke. Abe’s health began to decline, almost immediately. Veterinarians and doctors were called, but to no avail. Bald eagles have been known to live as long as 50 years in captivity. Old Abe died in the arms of caretaker George Gilles on March 26, 1881. He was 20.
His remains were stuffed and mounted. For the next 20 years his body remained on display in the Capitol building rotunda. On the night of February 26, 1904, a gas jet ignited a newly varnished ceiling, burning the Capitol building to the ground.
Since 1915, Old Abe’s replica has watched over the Wisconsin State Assembly Chamber of the new capitol building.
In 1921, the 101st infantry division was reconstituted in the Organized Reserves with headquarters in Milwaukee. It was here that the 101st first became associated with the “Screaming Eagle”. The Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne participated in the D-Day invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Market Garden, and Bastogne and late became the basis of the HBO series “A Band of Brothers”.
After WWII, elements of the 101st Airborne were mobilized to Little Rock by President Eisenhower to protect the civil rights of the “Little Rock Nine”, a group of black students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in September 1957, as the result of the US Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the historic Brown v. Board of Education case.
For 104 years, Old Abe appeared in the trademark of the J.I. Case farm equipment company of Racine, Wisconsin.
Winston Churchill once said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” We all know how stories change with the retelling. Some stories take on a life of their own. Ambrose Armitage, serving with Company D of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry, wrote in his diary on September 14, 1861, that Company C had a “four month old female eagle with them”. Two years later, Armitage wrote, “The passing troops have been running in as they always do to see our eagle. She is a great wonder”.
Ten years after his death, a national controversy sprang up and lasted for decades, as to whether Old Abe was, in fact, a “she”. Suffragettes claimed that “he” had laid eggs in the Wisconsin capitol. Newspapers weighed in, including the Washington Post, Detroit Free Press, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Oakland Tribune, and others.
Bald eagles are not easily sex-differentiated. There are few clues available to the non-expert, outside of the contrasts of a mated pair. It’s unlikely that even those closest to Old Abe, had a clue as to the eagle’s sex.
University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center Sequencing Facility researchers had access to four feathers, collected during the early days at the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall. In March of 2016, samples were taken from the hollow quill portion (calamus) of each feather, and examined for the presence of two male sex chromosomes (ZZ) or both a male and female chromosome (ZW). After three months, the results were conclusive. All four samples showed the Z chromosome, none having a matching W.
After 155 years, Old Abe wasn’t about to lay any eggs.
Handler Beval Austin Stapleton was on-hand to receive Lucky’s award. “Every minute of every day in the jungle” he said, “we trusted our lives to those four dogs, and they never let us down. Lucky was the only one of the team to survive our time in the Malayan jungle and I’m so proud of the old dog today. I owe my life to him.”
Mitochondrial DNA analysis of Felis silvestris catus, the common house cat, suggests two great waves of expansion. First came the dawn of agriculture, when grain stores attracted vermin. Genetic examination suggests all cats descend from one of five feline ancestors: the Sardinian, European, Central Asian, Subsaharan African or the Chinese desert cat.
The second “cat-spansion” occurred later, as man took to water. From trade routes to diplomatic missions and military raids, men on ships needed food, and that meant rodents. The “ship’s cat” was a feature of life at sea from that day to this, first helping to control damage to food stores, ropes and woodwork and, in modern times, electrical wiring.
A Viking site in North Germany dating ca 700-1000AD, contains the remains of one cat with Egyptian mitochondrial DNA. Once driven nearly to extinction, the Norwegian Forest cat (Norwegian: Norsk skogkatt) descends from Viking-era ship’s cats, brought to Norway from Great Britain sometime around 1000AD.
Who knew? Vikings had cats!
Not without reason, were cats seen as good luck. The power of cats to land upright is due to extraordinarily sensitive inner ears, capable of detecting even minor changes in barometric pressure. Sailors paid careful attention to the ship’s cat, often the harbinger of foul weather ahead.
Clockwise: 1. Ship’s cat, HMS Queen Elizabeth, Gallipoli Peninsula, 1915, 2. USS Flusser’s cat, “Wockle” 3. Ship’s cats “inspect” the breech of a 4-inch gun aboard an unidentified US ship. 4. Togo, ships cat aboard the HMS Dreadnought,
And if you’re ever in Vicksburg, you can stop and visit the grave site of Douglas, the Confederate camel.
When the “Great War” arrived in 1914, animals of all kinds were dragged along. Cats performed the same functions in vermin infested trenches, as those at sea.
1. Gunner with the regimental cat in a trench in Cambrin, France, February 6th, 1918. 2. Officers of the U.S. 2nd Army Corps with a cat discovered in the ruins of Le Cateau-Cambrésis 3. Trench cat, Gallipoli Peninsula, 1915
Tens of thousands of dogs performed a variety of roles, from ratters to sentries, scouts and runners.
“Mercy” dogs were trained to seek out the wounded on battlefields, carrying medical supplies with which the stricken could treat themselves.
The French trained specialized “chiens sanitaire” to seek out the dead and wounded, and bring back bits of uniform. Often, dogs simply provided the comfort of another living soul so the gravely wounded, should not die alone.
With the hell of no mans land all but impassable for human runners, dogs stepped in, as messengers. “First Division Rags” ran through a cataract of falling bombs and chemical weapons. Gassed and partially blinded with shrapnel injuries to a paw, eye and ear, the little guy still got his message where it needed to be.
Other times, birds were the most effective means of communication. Carrier pigeons by the tens of thousands flew messages of life and death importance for Allied and Central Powers, alike.
During the Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918, Cher Ami saved 200 men of the “Lost Battalion”, arriving in her coop with a bullet through the breast, one eye shot out and a leg all but torn off, hanging by a single tendon.
Even the lowly garden slug pitched in. Extraordinarily sensitive to mustard gas, “slug brigades” provided the first gas warnings, allowing precious moments in which to “suit up”.
The keen senses of animals were often the only warning of impending attack.
Private Albert Marr’s Chacma baboon Jackie would give early warning of enemy movement or impending attack with a series of sharp barks, or by pulling on Marr’s tunic.
One of many gut wrenching episodes of the Great war took place in April, 1918. The South African Brigade withdrew under heavy shelling through the West Flanders region of Belgium.
Jackie was seen, frantically building a stone wall around himself as jagged splinters wounded his arm and all but tore off the animal’s leg.
Even with all that Jackie refused to be carried off by stretcher-bearers, instead hobbling about on his shattered limb, trying to finish his wall
Constituted on June 13, 1917, British Aero Squadron #32 kept a red fox, as unit mascot.
German soldiers in Hamburg, enlisted the labor of circus elephants in 1915.
The light cruiser Dresden was scuttled and sinking fast in 1914, leaving the only creature on board to swim for it. An hour later an Ensign aboard HMS Glasgow spotted a head, struggling in the waves. Two sailors dove in and saved the animal, a pig they called “Tirpitz”, after the German Admiral. Tirpitz the pig served out the rest of the war not in a frying pan but as ship’s mascot, aboard the HMS Glasgow.
No beast who served in the Great war was as plentiful nor as ill used as the beast of burden and none so much, as the horse. Horses were called up by the millions, along with 80,000 donkeys and mules, 50,000 camels and 11,000 oxen. The United States alone shipped a thousand horses a day “over there” between 1914, and 1917.
Horsepower was indispensable throughout the war from cavalry and mounted infantry to reconnaissance and messenger service, as well as pulling artillery, ambulances, and supply wagons. With the great value horses contributed to the war effort and their difficulty in replacement, the loss of a horse was a greater tactical problem in some areas, than the loss of a man.
Few ever returned. An estimated three quarters died of wretched working conditions: Exhaustion. The frozen, sucking mud of the western front. The mud-borne and respiratory diseases. The gas, artillery and small arms fire. An estimated eight million horses were killed on all sides, enough to start a line in Boston and make it all the way to London and back, twice, if such a thing was possible.
The United Kingdom entered the war with only eighty motorized vehicles, conscripting a million horses and mules, over the course of the war. Only one in sixteen, lived to come home.
Neither knowing nor caring why they were there, the animals of the Great War suffered at prodigious rates. Humane organizations stepped up, the British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) processing some 2.5 million animals through veterinary hospitals. 1,850,000 were horses and mules. 85% were treated and returned to the front.
The American Red Star Animal Relief Program sent medical supplies, bandages, and ambulances to the front lines in 1916, to care for horses injured at a rate of 68,000 per month.
The century before the Great War was a Golden age, mushrooming populations enjoying the greatest rise in living standards, in human history. The economy at home would be dashed to rags and atoms by the Great War. Trade and capital as a proportion of the global economy would not recover to 1913 levels, until 1993.
World War 2 wasn’t quite as ‘motorized’ as you might imagine. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union alone deployed no fewer than six million horses.
In the north, Reindeer proved far more successful than either horses or motorized transport.
Camels were extensively used in WW2 and not just in north Africa. Following the battle of Stalingrad, the Red army took to using camels in the southern theater. One thousand-animal “camel battalion” carried some twelve thousand tons of cargo across the primitive Kalmyk Steppes, a job which would have required 134 trucks.
The 308th Rifle Division used a Bactrian camel called “Kuznechik”, Russian for “grasshopper”, for transport of food and other equipment. Kuznechik followed this mostly Siberian unit all the way to Berlin, where his handler taught him to spit on the ruins of the Reichstag building.
Animals were even combatants during WW2 though hardly, by their own choice. The Soviet Red Army used dogs as suicide bombers, trained to seek out and destroy enemy tanks. The problem was that dogs were trained using Soviet diesel-powered tanks and not the gas-fueled tanks of the Wehrmacht. It didn’t take long to figure out. Dogs were going after the wrong tanks.
The US even experimented with “bat bombs” and pigeon-guided munitions. Both projects were scrapped without ever going into use as the weapon system’s lethality, was limited to taxpayer dollars.
Not so with the Soviet’s use of Tularemia-infected rats. Following General von Paulus’ surrender after the Battle of Stalingrad, some fifty percent of German soldiers were found to be sick with the disease.
Unseen amidst the economic devastation of the home front, was the desperate plight of animals. Turn-of-the-century social reformer Maria Elizabeth “Mia” Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals in 1917, working to lighten the dreadful state of animal health in Whitechapel, London. To this day, the PDSA is one of the largest veterinary charities in the United Kingdom, carrying out over a million free veterinary visits, every year.
The “Dickin Medal” was instituted on December 2, 1943, honoring the work performed by animals, in WW2.
The “animal’s Victoria Cross”, the highest British military honor equivalent to the American Medal of honor, is awarded in recognition of “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units.”
The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and a cat. An honorary Dickin was awarded in 2014, in honor of All animals serving in the Great War.
Two Dickins were awarded on this day in 2007, the first to Royal Army Veterinary Corps explosives detection dog “Sadie”, a Labrador Retriever whose bomb detection skills saved the lives of untold soldiers and civilians in Kabul, in 2005. The second went to “Lucky”, a German Shepherd and RAF anti-terrorist tracker serving during the Malaya Emergency of 1949 – ’52. Part of a four-dog team including “Bobbie”, “Jasper” and “Lassie”, Lucky alone survived the “unrelenting heat [of] an almost impregnable jungle“.
Handler Beval Austin Stapleton was on-hand to receive Lucky’s award. “Every minute of every day in the jungle” he said, “we trusted our lives to those four dogs, and they never let us down. Lucky was the only one of the team to survive our time in the Malayan jungle and I’m so proud of the old dog today. I owe my life to him.”
Ship’s cat, Her Majesty’s Australian Ship (HMAS) Encounter, World War I
Marines took him in, this malnourished Iraqi donkey, and built him a stable, and corral. The donkey would stroll into offices where he learned to open desk drawers in search of a goody. An apple, a carrot or some other sweet treat, planted there by some Marine. He loved to steal cigarettes whether lit or unlit and so it was, they called him “Smoke”.
The air strip lies in central Iraq 50 miles west of Baghdad, on the Habbaniya plateau. Originally built by the RAF in 1952, the base was home to several Iraqi Air force units following the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy and ascension of the Arab socialist ‘Baath” party, in 1958. The place was bombed during the Iran-Iraq war and destroyed by American Air forces, in 1991. Reoccupied by the US Army following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the abandoned base was briefly known as Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ridgeway.
In 2004 the name was changed to Taqaddum, Arabic for ‘progress”, to keep a more Iraqi face on the mission. In 2008, camp Taqaddum or “TQ” was home to several United States Marine Corps fixed- and rotary wing squadrons, plus ground support and combat operating units.
Marine Colonel John Folsom was stationed at TQ in 2008, along with the rest of Marine 1st Combat Logistics Battalion, stationed at the base near Fallujah. That was the year the small animal first appeared, wandering the countryside. Starved, emaciated and alone it was a donkey, arrived in hopes of a morsel.Marines took him in, this malnourished Iraqi donkey, and built him a stable, and corral. The donkey would stroll into offices where he learned to open desk drawers in search of a goody. An apple, a carrot or some other sweet treat, planted there by some Marine. He loved to steal cigarettes whether lit or unlit and so it was, they called him “Smoke”.Smoke had his very own blanket, bright red and emblazoned with unit insignia, for the camp’s September 11 parade. On the side were these words, “Kick Ass”.Regulations prohibited keeping the animal on base but Colonel Folsom found a Navy psychologist, willing to designate Smoke a therapy animal. He was good for morale.
Dads would write letters home to their kids, telling stories about Smoke the donkey.
Folsom and his Marines left TQ in 2009. The army unit moving into the base, didn’t want a donkey. Marines found an Iraqi sheikh who said he’d look after the animal, and they said their reluctant goodbyes.After half a life serving the United States Marine Corps, John Folsom returned home to Omaha. He’d often think of his “battle buddy” and those long walks, around the base.
In 2010, Folsom learned that Smoke was out on his own again, wandering half starved and alone. Thus began “Operation Donkey Drop”, Folsom’s 18-month odyssey first to raise the funds and then to wrangle the red tape thrown in his way through multiple jurisdictions, on Smoke’s journey to his new home in Nebraska.
Turkey alone posed a titanic, 37-day ordeal to untie the bureaucratic Gordian knot, with help from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International. Folsom himself grew a beard to help conceal his western identity and flew to Turkey to enlist the aid of the US Departments of State and Agriculture and the United States Marine Corps, with further aid from the German government.Terri Crisp heads SPCAI’s “Baghdad pups”, reuniting US troops with dogs and cats they had once bonded with, while serving overseas. This was her first donkey.
Reuters news service reports, ““He was a great traveler,” Crisp said, noting Smoke posed for hundreds of photos during a six-hour wait in the Istanbul airport parking lot. “Everywhere we went, he’d draw a crowd.””
Smoke was formally released by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on May 18, 2011, arriving at JFK International Airport in New York for the long drive to his new home in Nebraska.
For Colonel John Folsom, USMC (retired), “semper fidelis” (“always faithful”) had become “semper fi(nally).”
Smoke lived out the rest of his days at the Take Flight Farms in Omaha, helping therapists help children come to terms with deployed or war-wounded parents.
Smoke died of natural causes on August 14, 2012 and was cremated, along with that red blanket with the words, “Kick Ass”.
The daily Star Newspaper of Lincoln Nebraska interviewed Sharon Robino-West, a Marine veteran who once worked with the donkey and “still has to bite her lip when she talks about laying a shiny Marine challenge coin on Smoke’s red blanket”.
Today, the ashes of John Folsom’s old battle buddy are on his desk, in his own special urn. As of October 2014 a little donkey filly peered out of the stall, where Smoke’s face could once be seen.
“She doesn’t have the story that Smoke did,” Folsom said, “but I needed to fill the void.”
Midway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox and well before the first crocus of spring has peered out across the frozen tundra, there is a moment of insanity which helps those of us living in northern climes get through to that brief, blessed moment of warmth when the mosquitoes once again have their way with us.
Here on Sunny Cape Cod™, we have a joke about the four seasons. There’s “Almost Winter”, “Winter”, “Still Winter” and “Bridge Construction”.
Midway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox and well before the first crocus of spring has peered out across the frozen tundra, there is a moment of insanity which helps those of us living in northern climes get through to that brief, blessed season of warmth when the mosquitoes once again have their way with us.
The ancient Romans observed a mid-season festival on February 5, the pagan Irish on February 1. For Christians, it was February 2, Candlemas day, a Christian holiday celebrating the ritual purification of Mary. For reasons not entirely clear, early Christians believed there would be six more weeks of winter if the sun came out on Candlemas Day.
Clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter, their length representing how long and cold the winter would be. Germans expanded on the idea by selecting an animal, a hedgehog, as a means of predicting weather. Once a suitable number of Germans had come to America, they switched over to a more local rodent: Marmota monax. The common Groundhog.Groundhogs hibernate for the winter, an ability some people of my acquaintance, would love to master. During that time, the animal’s heart rate drops from 80 beats per minute to 5 as the slumbering rodent lives off stored body fat. Another ability some of us could learn to appreciate, very much.
The male couldn’t care less about the weather; he comes out of his burrow in February in search of a mate. If uninterrupted, he will fulfill his groundhog mission of love and return to earth, not coming out for good until sometime in March.But then there is the amorous woodchuck’s worst nightmare in a top hat, the groundhog hunter.
Groundhogs are something of a regional delicacy, said to taste like a cross between pork, and chicken. In the 1880s, groundhog hunters hosted annual Groundhog day festivals in addition to summer hunts, followed by picnics featuring steaming dishes like Country-Style Groundhog, Groundhog and Sweet Potatoes and Waco Groundhog in Sour Cream, all of it washed down with “groundhog punch” consisting ofvodka, milk, eggs, orange juice “and other ingredients.” Yumm.
One group of groundhog hunters in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, imaginatively called themselves the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. One of them, a newspaper editor, declared on February 2, 1887, that their groundhog “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary“, was the only true weather forecasting rodent.There are those who would dispute the Gobbler’s Knob crowd and their claims to Punxsutawney Phil’s weather forecasting prowess. Alabama has “Birmingham Bill”, and Canada has Shubenacadie Sam. New York can’t seem to decide between Staten Island Chuck and New York City’s very own official groundhog, “Pothole Pete”.
Today, Phil himself is no longer on the menu. Groundhog punch has given way to a magic elixir said to give Punxatawney’s hundred-year-old rodent, seven more years of life. Since 2010, Punxatawney Faithful can get text message alerts concerning the prognostications of their favorite rodent. (Text “Groundhog” to 247365, if you’re interested).
There is no word for groundhog in Arabic. Accounts of this day in the Arab press translate the word as جرذ الأرض or, “Ground Rat”. If that’s not enough to make us all the life of the party, I don’t know what is.
If anyone were to bend down and ask Mr. Ground Rat his considered opinion on the matter, he would probably cast a pox on all our houses. It’s been a long winter. Mr. Ground Rat’s all dressed up for a date. He has other things on his mind.
The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”
It all began as a test. A carefully planned series of events, intending to simulate a station blackout at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.
This most titanic of disasters, began with a series of small mishaps. Safety systems intentionally turned off. Inexperienced reactor operators, failing to follow checklists. Inherent design flaws in the reactor itself.
On the night of April 25-26, 1986, a nuclear chain reaction expanded beyond control, flashing water to super-heated steam. Violent explosions shattered reactor and building alike as reactor #4 belched massive amounts of nuclear material into the atmosphere. For the next nine days, intense updrafts created by the open-air graphite fire spewed vast quantities of radiation into the air, raining radioactive particles over large swaths of the western USSR and Europe. Some 60 percent of the stuff came down in the Republic of Belarus.
It was the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history and yet, this was 1986. The Soviet government didn’t tell its own people for days, what was going on. In the West, the first alert came not from the USSR, but from Sweden.
An estimated 4,000 to 93,000 died in the aftermath of the accident, many of whom, were children.
The death toll could have been higher but for heroic self-sacrifice, by first responders. Anatoli Zakharov, a fireman stationed in Chernobyl since 1980, replied to remarks that firefighters believed this to be an ordinary electrical fire:
“Of course we knew! If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze“.
Work began within three weeks on the design and construction of a concrete sarcophagus, large enough to contain 200 tons of radioactive corium, 30 tons of contaminated dust and 16 tons of uranium and plutonium, trapped inside the twisted wreckage. It was the largest civil engineering project in history involving no fewer than a quarter-million construction workers, every one of whom received a lifetime maximum dose of radiation. By this day in December, work was substantially complete.
Officials of the top-down Soviet state first downplayed the disaster. Asked by one Ukrainian official, “How are the people?“, acting minister of Internal Affairs Vasyl Durdynets replied there was nothing to be concerned about: “Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.”
As the scale of the disaster became evident, civilians were at first ordered to shelter in place. A 10-kilometer exclusion zone was enacted within the first 36 hours, resulting in the hurried evacuation of some 49,000. The exclusion zone was tripled to 30-km within a week, leading to the evacuation of another 68,000.
Before it was over some 350,000 were moved away, never to return.
The chaos of these forced evacuations, can scarcely be imagined. Confused adults. Crying children. Howling dogs. Shouting soldiers, barking orders and herding now-homeless civilians onto waiting trains and vehicles by the tens of thousands. Dogs and cats, beloved companion animals and lifelong family members, were abandoned to fend for themselves.
The government didn’t bother to explain. There would be no return.
There were countless and heartbreaking scenes of final abandonment, of mewling cats, and whimpering dogs. Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich compiled hundreds of interviews into a single monologue, an oral history of the forgotten. The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” There was no mercy. Squads of soldiers were sent to shoot the animals, left behind. Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.” Most of these abandoned pets, were shot. Some escaped notice, and survived.
Later on, plant management hired someone, to kill the 1,000 or so dogs still remaining. The story is, the worker refused.
Today, untold numbers of stray dogs live in the towns of Chernobyl, Pripyat and surrounding villages. Descendants of those left behind, back in 1986. Ill equipped to survive in the wild and driven from forests by wolves and other predators, they forage as best they can among abandoned streets and buildings, of the 1,000-mile exclusion zone. For some, radiation can be found in their fur. Few live beyond the age of six but, all is not bleak.
Since September 2017, a partnership between the SPCA International and the US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit CleanFutures.orghas worked to provide for the veterinary needs of these defenseless creatures. Over 450 animals have been tested for radiation exposure, given medical care, vaccinations and spayed or neutered, to bring populations within manageable limits. Most are released back to the “wild”.
Some have been successfully decontaminated and socialized for human interaction. In 2018, the first batch became available for adoption into homes in Ukraine and North America, some forty puppies and dogs.
To this day, hundreds of dogs eke out a living, in the exclusion zone. The work of rescue is ongoing. A joint press release from the two organizations gives much-needed hope: “This unprecedented event marks an important partnership with the Ukrainian government, which has been reluctant in the past 32 years to allow anything to be removed from the nuclear exclusion zone.”
Believe it or not there are visitors to the area. People actually go on tours of the region but they’re strictly warned. No matter how adorable, do not pet, cuddle nor even touch any puppy or dog who has not been through rigorous decontamination.
For those lucky few the search for good homes goes on, for the lost dogs of Chernobyl.