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November 21, 2013

The lost man who ate his dog

(Continued)

Sourdoughs in any number of stories contrasted white kindness to animals with native cruelty. At a time when the anti-animal cruelty movement gained traction nationwide, the stories embraced this particular emblem of "civilization" as one that differentiated white from native in the frozen North.

In a 1905 story by Addison Powell in Alaska Magazine, "The Alaska Partners," a prospector's dog, Summit, is kidnapped by native Alaskans, who have covetously observed his hunting prowess. Summit's fate, "tied to a post with no food except an occasional raw salmon that a squaw threw to him," shows the inferiority of native treatment. In Katherine Reed's story "The Klondike Nugget," published in Alaska Yukon Magazine in 1907, the heroic Prospector Dave's very character is tied up in this difference. The narrator observes: "'Go to Hell yourself but be white to your dogs' was one of [Dave's] favorite proverbs."

Dog-eating, an extreme form of this kind of cruelty, was in these fictions a practice observed only by native Alaskans. In the 1933 film Eskimo, for example, Mala, the Inuit star, eats his dogs one by one when he's lost on the ice. In a 1930 skit in which he played a sourdough, W.C. Fields made a joke at Balto's expense, telling an inquirer that he "just et Balto," and adding "Right good he was with mustard, too." That joke worked because white prospectors were not supposed to eat their heroic companions, no matter how hard things got.

People angry at Marco Lavoie aren't explicitly mad that he wasn't "being white to his dogs." But the long history of the "Man and Dog vs. the Wild" story can shed some light on the fury his action provoked. Taboos about the treatment of particular species, as Dana Goodyear explored in her recent story about eating and loving animals in the New Yorker, are wrapped up in a lot of cultural baggage. In the case of Marco Lavoie, we have years of stories telling us that we should starve rather than violate the man-dog bond.

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