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Dogs in Antarctica: Tales from the Pack

When we think of the heroic era of Antarctic exploration, it is names like Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton that come quickly to mind.

But there were an equal number of unsung heroes - that went by names like Osman, Deek and Joe. Pre-1950s, these sled dogs - who could cover 20 - 30 km per day - were the vital transport that made exploration of the great unknown continent possible.

And amongst the bleak landscapes and trying conditions, the dogs also became much-loved companions. In the bleakest moments, the dogs became food.

Dr Jill Haley is Curator Human History at Canterbury Museum. She owns two huskies and has been a dog sledge driver herself.

“When I started learning about Antarctica, this link with my own dogs really captured my attention,” Haley says. “And I think dogs have really become part of the Antarctic imagination generally.”

Dogs in Antarctica: Tales from the Pack, is an exhibition curated by Haley that opens at Canterbury Museum on 21 September to time with the annual Antarctic Season Opening Festival. The photographs tell stories ranging from the first dogs to arrive on the Southern Cross expedition to the last dogs removed from Scott Base in the 1987.

“I hope this exhibition will help people think more about the roles dogs played in Antarctic exploration. There are light-hearted stories, good stories, bad stories and complex stories.”

Like Antarctic exploration in general, Christchurch had a huge role to play for the dogs. They were quarantined on Quail Island, where trainers used makeshift sledges with tiny wheels to simulate dog trains before Scott’s Terra Nova exhibition.

Haley says the dogs were probably separated more because of fear than biosecurity.

“There was probably a bit of fear that these dogs were more like wolves and would be a threat to New Zealand livestock,” she says.

The last use of Quail Island as an animal quarantine station was for 15 huskies destined to be reinforcements for Richard E Byrd's first Antarctic Expedition. They were quarantined on the island between March and July 1929 following protests from the Canterbury Sheepowners' Union.

During this time, a litter of puppies was born on Quail Island. In the photographs, these fluffy pups make a stark contrast to the hardened explorers who cared for them. These pups were granted special leave by the government to move to Aoraki/Mt Cook, where their paws could be toughened up in the snow.

Some dogs came back to Christchurch as pets. Scott’s favourite, Osman, was leading the pack one day when a snow bridge collapsed beneath them. With the team dangling from their harnesses over the crevasse, Osman held firm at the other side. Scott insisted on being lowered into the crevasse to rescue every last dog.

When Scott set out for the pole, he chose not to take and eat the dogs, as his rival Amundsen did. Instead, Scott’s men pulled their own sleds. So when the Terra Nova returned in 1913 without Scott, Osman was safely onboard. He lived in Christchurch with Joseph Kinsey before retiring to Wellington Zoo.

Deek was another dog who returned safely to Christchurch. Deek had come to join the Terra Nova expedition from Eastern Siberia. He was referred to as “the hardest working dog of the lot.” In 1912, he was part of the search team that located the bodies of Scott, Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers. The next year, he was given a home with Christchurch surgeon Sir Hugh Acland. When Deek died in 1920, Dr Acland had his head mounted and presented to Canterbury Museum.

Deek’s head is on display along with other items from the Canterbury Museum collection from 21 September.

Find out more at Canterbury Museum.