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November 21, 2013

The lost man who ate his dog

Canadian outdoorsman Marco Lavoie spent three months stranded in the wilderness of the Nottaway River in Western Quebec. His plight began when a bear attacked and wrecked his boat, ravaging his supplies. Lavoie's pet German shepherd apparently helped drive off the bear. Eventually Lavoie, starving and dehydrated, struck his dog on the head with a rock and ate him.

Lavoie's actions earned him a torrent of criticism when he was finally found, 90 pounds thinner and dogless, earlier this month. While survival experts supported his decision, Lavoie told authorities immediately after the rescue that he wanted another dog, and this wish provoked particular ire. On the Huffington Post, for example, one commenter wrote "I would rather eat my own limbs than my dogs."

I wrote a master's thesis on dog-in-the-wilderness stories, so the Lavoie tale, and the outraged public reaction, piqued my interest. Of the "Man and Dog vs. the Wild" genre, popular at the turn of the 20th century, we mostly remember the works of Jack London, a writer so loved that a new biography merits a long review in the New Yorker. Parents may be familiar with the real-life tale of Balto the sled dog, who brought diphtheria medicine to snowbound Nome, Alaska, in 1925 and has been memorialized in children's books, animated movies and a statue in Central Park.

But many of the "Man and Dog" stories from the 1900s to 1930s now reside on the lower layers of the cultural landfill. Ever heard of Arthur Bartlett's "Spunk: Leader of the Dog Team" (1926), Ernest Harold Baynes' "Polaris: The Story of an Eskimo Dog" (1924), Esther Birdsall Darling's "Baldy of Nome" (1916)? Probably not. Even John Muir's story "Stickeen," about a dog who traversed a dangerous Alaskan glacier at the explorer's side, is now relatively unfamiliar.

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