Admiral Richard Byrd’s Dog, Igloo
The animals taken on polar expeditions are almost invariably powerful sled dogs that will be put to good use, getting the exploration team and equipment over the snow and ice. So what was Admiral Richard Byrd (1888-1957), one of the last of the great explorers, thinking when he took along a recently-acquired, short-haired fox terrier?
Here’s the story:
Finding a Stray
Maris Boggs, a woman in her mid-thirties, who lived in Washington, D.C. waited in the rain for a bus on her way home from work. She noticed a young collarless terrier hovering in a doorway with others waiting for the bus. She asked around to see if anyone owned the dog. When no one spoke up, she felt compelled to pick up the dog and take it home.
Her apartment building maintained a “no dogs” rule, so that first night she carried him up the fire escape and entered her apartment through a window. For a week or so, the two existed in this manner while Maris determined what to do. As she got to know the pup, she saw that he had a lot of energy and was filled with curiosity. She began to dream that he belonged on a “grand adventure.”
A Dog for an Explorer?
In months passed, Maris Boggs had attended a reception honoring then Lieutenant Commander Richard Byrd. From reading about him, she knew he loved dogs. What better home for her dog than with an explorer?
Based on this slight acquaintance with Byrd, she approached him (perhaps by letter and then phone?) telling him he must take the dog.
Byrd was deeply involved in preparations for his trip to the Arctic where he aspired to be the first to fly over the North Pole. He was making arrangements for men, the necessary supplies and gear, as well as putting an airplane on the ship that was to take them north.
He said no. But Maris was persistent. For some reason, Byrd relented and wrote back: “Rush him to New York. Our ship is nearly loaded.
Richard Byrd’s Dog On Way
Because the dog needed to be in New York the next day, Maris Boggs took him herself, though the terrier rode in a wicker basket in baggage. In the bottom of the basket, Maris packed a small bulky sweater, thinking that a fox terrier might need extra warmth at the North Pole.
During the hustle and rush of final packing, the men had no time for a dog. Igloo—as the men soon named him–spent his first few hours in the galley where he was tethered to a table leg. Every now and then the cook snuck him something to eat, so all was not lost.
Anyone who knows terriers knows that they never hesitate to announce themselves. Tom Mulroy, Chief Engineer of the ship, the Chantier, remarked that day: “It was ridiculous that a mere atom of dog should be able to make so much noise.”
Commander Byrd stopped to say hello to the dog shortly after the ship left port. It was the first greeting of two who would become fast friends. (While Igloo’s first loyalty was to Byrd, he also made back-up buddies for the times when Byrd was too busy for him.)
This, of course, was Igloo’s first experience on a ship. One of his favorite activities was racing up and down the deck.
“A panther could be no swifter,” one of the men told Jane Brevoort Walden, a friend of Admiral Byrd’s who became Igloo’s biographer.
Igloo soon encountered an opinionated cat who lived on board; he and the cat divvied up the ship so that they each had their own territory.
Igloo enjoyed the men in the galley for there was always food available for him. His nights were spent near Commander Byrd, and his favorite daytime visit was to the radio room. That was the room commanded by his friend, Tom Mulroy.
Travel for polar exploration did not prohibit dog toys. Igloo played with a toy that was described as a rag Navy goat. It was likely a sailor-made imitation of the Navy mascot. (The goat became the Navy’s mascot in 1893 when a live goat, El Cid, was presented to the Navy prior to the Army-Navy game. Navy won the game, sealing the goat’s status as a good luck charm.) Igloo turned to the goat often but as a last resort. He seemed to find it frustrating that he had to put so much energy into animating it.
Terrier in the Arctic
Tom Mulroy always kept an eye out for Igloo. Once they landed in the Arctic, it was Mulroy who noticed if Igloo was shivering. When that happened, one of the men would find something to wrap him in, and Igloo would be left near a warming stove until he thawed out.
The men remained focused on the goal of flying over the North Pole. (Robert Peary and Matthew Henson journeyed to the Pole on foot in 1908.) The plane was too heavy the first time, and Byrd had to bring it down in an unplanned landing. A few days later, the men took off in a re-packed plane. They made lift-off. It took almost a full day to fly to the Pole and return. They were exhausted but happy. Their instruments reflected a successful flight over the North Pole.
Later, there was a disagreement as to whether or not they actually flew over the Pole, but by that time, Byrd and his men were back on board the ship preparing to return to New York harbor.
Byrd and Igloo Return
Byrd and Igloo were greeted as returning heroes, but far more important to Igloo was life at the Byrd home in Boston. The Byrd family consisted of four children, so if his master was too busy for a walk, Igloo joined the playful foursome.
When Admiral Byrd was around, however, he and Igloo loved their walks. At first, Igloo was spared wearing a collar or leash. A narrow escape with a car sent the admiral out in search of city restraints for his fellow polar explorer.
Most of Admiral Byrd’s days were filled with speaking engagements and fundraising for his next expedition. He planned to explore Antarctica. The continent was first discovered in 1841, but few had been able to withstand the brutal temperatures to explore much more than isolated areas. Byrd was planning for an 18-month-journey where he would have three airplanes with him. That would widen the possibilities of what he could document and what he could map.
Departure for Antarctica
The ship bound for Antarctica was departing in late 1928 from San Pedro, the port near Los Angeles. Commander Byrd and Igloo were to take the train cross-country to meet up with the men and the equipment Byrd was shipping west. Train rules stipulated that dogs ride in the baggage car, but Admiral Byrd was a master negotiator. After conversations with several people of authority, it was resolved that if conductors did not see a dog in a compartment, then there was no dog. That was how Byrd and Igloo began their trip cross-country.
As they traveled, Byrd stepped out at various stations to allow Igloo a bit of exercise—something he couldn’t do on the train since Igloo was in “hiding.” In Albuquerque, they encountered a great game (Igloo’s opinion) or a great challenge (Byrd’s view.)
As they got off the train, Igloo saw a little animal head poking out of the ground in the desert not too far from the train station. It turned out, an entire prairie dog village was right there—waiting for someone like Igloo to bring it to order. Igloo became convinced that he could chase all the heads and get them to stay in the ground at the same time. The prairie dogs had other ideas and continued their popping up and down.
By this time, the engineer signaled the conductor that it was time to go. The railroad personnel not feel that “Igloo Plays the Prairie Dog Game” merited a train delay. Whistles and calls from Byrd simply made Igloo more frantic as he raced to try to win whatever prize he felt he deserved for his actions.
As the conductor fussed and the engineer fumed, Commander Byrd mustered his companions, and a group of large men set about to capture a small but speedy dog.
The train finally continued its journey with all aboard, just 10 minutes behind schedule.
Igloo’s Adventures Continue
Once Byrd and Igloo and the men boarded the Norwegian ship, the C.A. Larsen in December of 1928, there was plenty to do. Byrd was attending to all the details that required attention, and Igloo was finding his way around the ship.
Unlike the Arctic expedition where equipment and all of the sled dogs shipped on a separate transport, the C.A. Larsen was carrying the bulk of the sled dogs—about 80 of the 129 dogs that would be needed. The dogs were crated and lived on the deck. They hated sitting in water, so all the crates were mounted on platforms that permitted deck water or rain to drain out of their crates.
No one explained to Igloo that there were other dogs on board, but one trip down the deck, and he soon learned all he needed to know. The moment Igloo came into sight, there was wild barking. Big bodies lunged against the crates hoping to break free and have a tasty little bite of Igloo.
While one might think Igloo learned a lesson, the only message this conveyed to a terrier was “if things get boring, wander down near the big dogs.”
Generally, Igloo went all over a ship, but Byrd soon noticed that Igloo refused to go below deck. Even when his beloved master went below, Igloo would have none of it. Eventually Byrd determined the answer: The Norwegian cook kept a live cow in the hold. This permitted him to provide fresh milk for the men. It may have been the scent of the cow in close quarters that kept Igloo on the deck.
Igloo’s New Clothes
The ship had on board a tailor named Martin Ronne. He was there to be certain the men had what they needed for the temperatures that range from -10 to -60 degrees C. While the request for a coat for Igloo had to be of the “when you can” variety, Martin Ronne eventually got around to making him a coat, trousers, and shoes.
Because a film crew was along to document the exploration, they were also there to document poor Igloo’s humiliation. (Some sources say that Igloo grew a particularly thick coat, but he was a short-haired terrier, so even if his coat was thicker than most terriers, it would still never equal the warmth the sled dogs had from their inner and outer coats.)
When Ronne completed the outfit and the moment of reckoning came, Igloo was lifted on to a table where he was stuffed into the camel hair jacket and trousers. There were also lined boots that laced up so they wouldn’t come off.
Once dressed, Igloo stood absolutely still. One of the men lifted one of his legs, and Igloo held it up, as if he were a toy and someone lifted his leg in place. Another fellow tried lifting a rear leg, and with some adjustment, Igloo held that pose, too.
Finally, Admiral Byrd suggested they all ignore him to give him a chance to work out how to move in his new suit. A little while later, Igloo was back to his old tricks, dashing around the deck and visiting everyone. No one knows exactly how he figured it out, but figure it out he did. (A viewing of the film captured Igloo toward the end of the trip. Those who have seen it report that by then the suit was ragged. Igloo found it worthy to wear.)
Igloo in Antarctica
Finally, the Larsen reached Antarctica. The ship then had to push through and break as much ice as it could until the captain felt the men could make safe passage inland where they wanted to set up their Southern version of Little America. (Their camp in the Arctic had been Little America.)
The unloading and travel inland meant hard work for the dogs, but first, when the sled dogs could finally be released, the dog drivers simply turned them loose. They ran and they rolled and barked, enjoying the fact that they were finally free.
Then it was time to harness up for what would be several days of hard labor.
During this time, Igloo was busy elsewhere. He discovered penguins, which were abundant. While his first ventures were to play, he soon couldn’t resisting grabbing a penguin or two by the tail and giving them a good shake. It turned out that penguins could give as good as they got, and Igloo was soon being whomped by strong flippers. After that he became somewhat more cautious.
At first, the penguins kept Igloo busy enough that he stayed away from the dogs, but as he raced back to join the men, he didn’t realize the nature of running on ice. Instead of stopping when he intended, he careened into the center of some of the dogs. Barking and squeals of pain soon came from the pack of dogs surrounding Igloo. Admiral Byrd and a few of the men stepped in to bring order. When they could, they retrieved a not-too-injured Igloo. (That would come later.)
In the meantime, the dogs had hours and hours of work to do to get the men and equipment transported to what would be their new home for two years.
When the dogs weren’t working, they were chained near their crates in an area known as Dog Town. Igloo easily could have avoided the area, but he often felt compelled to sneak out of the door where the men lived just to visit the big dogs.
On these occasions, there would be clanking and rattling of chains. If one or two of the dogs managed to lay a paw on Igloo, there was n a shrill note of terror. The men always knew what that meant. Chairs were flung back and the men would dash to the rescue to separate Igloo from the pack.
According to Jane Brevoort Walden’s book, Igloo, there were at least a half dozen times when Igloo was carried in and had to be stitched up. He would then behave for a time, but eventually, his inner demon would reappear.
Byrd’s expedition and the exploration of Antarctica provided more information than any explorer had yet been able to gather. Their two-year trip was a success. Byrd was an international hero.
Byrd and Igloo returned and were on the award circuit. While most of the honors were to Byrd and the men, the Tail Waggers Club of New York presented a gold medal to Igloo at a big banquet in late June 1930. (New York Times June 25, 1930.)
For the first year or so, Igloo was with him for parades and speeches and banquets. But over time, as the crowds continued, Byrd saw that Igloo—who could navigate rolling ship decks and penguins and sled dogs—was anxious when in crowds where he sometimes lost sight of his master.
Byrd decided that four little children would welcome having Igloo back. On future trips, Byrd went alone.
Byrd was giving a lecture in Springfield, Illinois in mid-April 1931, when he received word that Igloo was sick. He cancelled his schedule for the next few days and took the train to Chicago where he chartered a plane to take him to Boston. By the time he arrived home, however, Igloo died. Byrd was heartbroken. (Later it was speculated that Igloo got into rat poison that was used around the city.)
Igloo was buried in a pet cemetery in Dedham, Massachusetts. The gravestone inscription is: “He was more than a friend.”
A Return to Antarctica and a Reminder of Igloo
In 1934, when Byrd made a second trip to Antarctica, a reporter accompanied the men on their return to Little America. The reporter wrote that the men had to break through the ice that had engulfed it. The previous group must have left in some haste as there were partially eaten meals (now frozen) and a radio that they were able to hum back into existence.
Most poignant, however, was the reporter’s mention of a rubber ball on the floor that had a cat face painted on it. It belonged to Igloo. Igloo had delighted in having the men hide a ball for him at least three or four times a day. (A ball was much easier to animate that a rag goat.)
Byrd and all the explorers who were with him on the first expedition must have paused for a moment, remembering that one of their most joyful members would not be coming back.
I am deeply indebted to author Jane Brevoort Walden, who in 1930-1931 tracked down the men who traveled with Admiral Byrd and Igloo, so that Igloo’s story could be told. I hope that my profile of Igloo honors Walden’s hard work in a fitting way. Walden’s book, Igloo, is out of print, but it is possible to locate copies. If you have a terrier, the additional stories she tells are well worth your time.
And on a personal note: About four years ago, we adopted what is now our third terrier. I’d asked for a mellow dog, but this dog—recovering from a broken leg– looked so desperate for a home…
Reading Jane Brevoort Walden’s book about Igloo and scanning the newspaper articles about the dog made me feel like I knew Igloo all too well. My terrier, Teddy, can go from zero to about 100 miles an hour in the blink of an eye. He assumes that when we are out for a walk that the two of us, accompanied by our elderly dog, should be able to zip up the side of trees in pursuit of those pesky squirrels.
One day a rat escaped to our yard from a house under construction. Teddy knew his job and launched his attack with lots of high-pitched yipping. Fortunately, my husband—a true hero—was able to bonk and kill the rat (with a pooper scooper!) and rescue Teddy. They are both still with me today. I probably don’t thank George often enough for that… Thank you, George, that was an amazing feat!