Esteemed thinker: Matthew A. Henson and working animals

puppies sled team Never has there been a time on earth where we have not relied upon animals to help with our work. No matter the size, large or small, nor the count of legs, two or four… no matter where we live… north, south, east, west… regardless of the climate…. cold or hot, or the location…. above or below land; there has always been the representation of some species that has helped us out or even pulled us out of a jam.

Let us take the mule, a rather interesting high-bred of an animal, the offspring of a female horse and male donkey. (Left under their own natural preferences one must wonder if either would have gotten together without a bit of coercion from humans.) Although often the butt of jokes, it is a most hardworking animal. They plowed fields, worked underground in the mines, and hauled loads through the mountains; the sturdy and reliable mule, never asking for much more than to be fed and watered.

And although we usually think of birds as flighty and not exactly the kind of animal one would rely upon (except to taste good when cooked for dinner), the rock pigeon has given its species a place in “work history”. The homing pigeon is a bird that has been domesticated to work, which includes having provided service to the armed forces. For years they were used as military messengers due to their homing ability, speed, and flying altitude. And who would think that those pesky birds we all shoo away from sitting aloft would be heroes!

As far back in time as the Roman Empire the camel too has paid its military duty; it has been saddled and ridden into battle right up into modern days. Known for their endurance, this desert dweller was first domesticated around 3,000 BC and has been working ever since; transporting people and goods in some of the world’s driest and hottest regions. Its broad flat feet enable it to walk in the sand without sinking (and without much complaining)!

Yes, there are countless animals that work for peanuts…like the elephants! So the next time we find ourselves bemoaning about work, just remember, there is some tired dog that has just come home from working at the airport having sniffed all day through luggage stuffed with dirty laundry… such a thankless job, and all it wants in reward is a gentle pat on the head.

Matthew henson_2 Today’s blog returns the esteemed thinker: Matthew A. Henson, the renowned African American explorer who in 1890 joined Admiral Peary’s first Arctic expedition across the northern tip of Greenland. From June 1891 to August 1902, Henson spent seven years in the Arctic with Peary, covering 9,000 miles (14,500 kilometers) on dogsleds across northern Greenland and Ellesmere Island, in Canada. Henson was a man that was well-liked by those who came in contact with him; being admired by the Inuit population for his hunting and sled-driving skills, as well as his ability to speak their language.

I now present to you a bit of insightful observations snipped from his autobiography, A Negro Explorer of the North Pole. Here are the words of the illustrious, Mr. Henson and his thoughts about ‘man’s best friend’, dogs!

“….I had a much livelier time with some members of the Peary Arctic Club’s expedition known as “our four-footed friends”—the dogs.

The dogs are ever interesting. They never bark, and often bite, but there is no danger from their bites. To get together a team that has not been tied down the night before is a job. You take a piece of meat, frozen as stiff as a piece of sheet-iron, in one hand, and the harness in the other, you single out the cur you are after, make proper advances, and when he comes sniffling and snuffling and all the time keeping at a safe distance, you drop the sheet-iron on the snow, the brute makes a dive, and you make a flop, you grab the nearest thing grabable—ear, leg, or bunch of hair—and do your best to catch his throat, after which, everything is easy. Slip the harness over the head, push the fore-paws through, and there you are, one dog hooked up and harnessed. After licking the bites and sucking the blood, you tie said dog to a rock and start for the next one. It is only a question of time before you have your team. When you have them, leave them alone; they must now decide who is fit to be the king of the team, and so they fight, they fight and fight; and once they have decided, the king is king. A growl from him, or only a look, is enough, all obey, except the females, and the females have their way, for, true to type, the males never harm the females, and it is always the females who start the trouble…

Next to the Esquimos, the dogs are the most interesting subjects in the Arctic regions, and I could tell lots of tales to prove their intelligence and sagacity. These animals, more wolf than dog, have associated themselves with the human beings of this country as have their kin in more congenial places of the earth. Wide head, sharp nose, and pointed ears, thick wiry hair, and, in some of the males, a heavy mane; thick bushy tail, curved up over the back; deep chest and fore legs wide apart; a typical Esquimo dog is the picture of alert attention. They are as intelligent as any dog in civilization, and a thousand times more useful. They earn their own livings and disdain any of the comforts of life. Indeed it seems that when life is made pleasant for them they get sick, lie down and die; and when out on the march, with no food for days, thin, gaunt skeletons of their former selves, they will drag at the traces of the sledges and by their uncomplaining conduct, inspire their human companions to keep on…”

First image 1900s photo of puppies bred for pulling Arctic sleds

4 thoughts on “Esteemed thinker: Matthew A. Henson and working animals

  1. And then there was Alex, the African Gray parrot who was the subject of an experiments on language and reasoning over a 30 year period by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg. Alex’s ability to figure things out, make up new words and use language creatively changed the way the scientific community thinks about communication and linguistics.

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