Joe Elliott

Joe Elliott lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

Culture: DogPatch
Laika—Her Legacy the Power of the Small

November 3 marks the anniversary of the first animal in orbit.

Sixty years ago, on November 3, 1957, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics placed a little dog named Laika into space orbit. An authentic pioneer, she traveled in true Star Trek fashion where no sentient being had gone before (the Soviets had sent other animals into space, but Laika was the first to achieve full orbital status). The accomplishment, while impressive, came at a very high cost, one that was almost certainly not worth paying. Nonetheless, it taught us some valuable lessons, both about space and our fellow creatures.

Space research exploded following the end of WWII, and by the early 1950s, there was talk of one day putting a man on the moon. However, researchers first needed a better grasp of just how well a human might fare in space.

The scientific world was still puzzling over the conundrum when, in October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite. The news sent shock waves throughout the United States, which was stunned to discover that our arch Cold War foe had bested us. We were further amazed when less than a month later, they launched a second craft, Sputnik 2, this one carrying a small dog.

A Samoyed/terrier mix, Laika was reportedly around three years old when she was found wandering the streets of Moscow. It is said she was chosen in part because it was assumed that strays, inured as they supposedly were to the harsh Russian climate, would be physically stronger and more resilient than their sheltered counterparts. Among other things, her training involved a series of rigorous endurance trials and medical examinations. Many animals—and humans, for that matter—subjected to such treatment might have buckled under the pressure.

But Laika turned out to be no ordinary dog. By all accounts, she stood up well, maintaining her composure, cooperative with her trainers and eager to learn new things. Described by one of her handlers as “quiet and charming,” she got along well with the other lab dogs and sometimes spent weekends in staff homes. It’s hard to say what these individuals felt, knowing that this well behaved, lovable little dog faced almost certain death.

Blissfully unaware of the fate that awaited her, she was strapped into the Sputnik spacecraft that cold fall day (it is easy to imagine her nuzzling the hand of the last person to touch her). Once she was aloft, the ground crew was able to monitor her vital signs for a time. In one heartbreaking detail, it was reported that in early telemetry, she was somewhat agitated but still eating her food. In other words, in the most extreme, terrifying conditions imaginable, this fearless little soul attempted to normalize her experience by doing what all healthy dogs do: eat her dinner. It was so very characteristic of her, exemplifying as she did what Ernest Hemingway called “grace under pressure.” Laika was all about grace, and love.

Perhaps the most regrettable thing about this tale is that, despite giving up her life for the cause of space research—she died from overheating within hours of launch, a fact not revealed until 2002—little useful information was gained from the experiment. Years later, a Russian scientist close to the project was quoted as saying, “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it [sent her into space].”

Today, a small statue stands in Laika’s honor at the Russian cosmonaut training facility in Star City. An acclaimed 2007 graphic novel titled Laika introduced her to a new generation, and her image has appeared on postage stamps. However, Laika’s greatest legacy can be found in the worldwide attention she brought to issues surrounding the ethical treatment of animals in medical and scientific research. Her story is a testament of the small and powerless to speak with a large moral voice, and to make the world listen.

Culture: Tributes
Beau: Through every season, he was there

He died peacefully cradled in my arms, the last sound he heard being my voice speaking to him softly: “It’s okay, buddy, it’s okay…” We had been inseparable for almost 20 years and in those years experienced a lifetime together.

Like so many good things often do, he came into my life unexpectedly. Arriving home from work one day, my wife announced she had something she wanted to show me. From the car she produced a small black furry bundle and sat it down in the floor. The bundle, a black puppy.  She told me she had found him that afternoon wandering outside the school where she taught. “He was running around with some other stray adult dogs, just like he was one of them,” she said hopefully. Unsure if I was ready for another dog, I watched dubiously as the energetic pup set about inspecting the place, sniffing legs of chairs and peering into the kitchen. When he came over to inspect my shoe, I reached down and shook him playfully; he immediately latched onto my pant leg and began to pull vigorously. “OK”, I thought to myself, all doubts immediately swept aside, “I guess you’ll do.” 
Thus began a new, sometimes stormy chapter in our lives as a family. Beau would be a house dog by necessity, spending a great deal of time indoors. This took some adjustment. Not liking to be left alone, he frequently took his revenge by attacking various inanimate objects in the house. Always an inveterate hater of stuffed toy animals – the mere sight of them brought blood to his eyes - he once decapitated the head of a large decorative fabric rabbit belonging to my wife, ghoulishly arranging the ears and eyes around the living room floor. Mostly, though, he went after my things. Having already eaten several of my sweaters that first year, he decided one day to go straight for the jugular by dragging out a box of my favorite paperbacks, ripping it open, and vigorously chewing up several volumes, presumably those titles he most disliked. Gave a whole new meaning to “dog-eared.” Weighing less than 15 pounds and no bigger than a breadbox, he was nonetheless always up for a fight, regardless the opponent’s size. As such, I was forced on more than one occasion to quite literally drag him from the field of battle before being mauled to death.  On another occasion, I had to pull his head out of a hole as he attempted to follow a rodent into its den, his jaws snapping and a crazed look on his clay smeared face.

With all that said, I now come to what I really wanted to say at the start. Never was there a more faithful companion or better friend than this little mixed breed terrier we called Beau. Through the many years we spent together, through the ups and downs of living, the illnesses, the accidents, the happy times and the sad, he was always there for me. Regardless of my mood or the season, blind to the vicissitudes of my sometimes selfish and thoughtless behavior, he remained steadfastly committed to me, seeing me through every crisis and every disappointment. Days when things weren’t going well, his antics, like the black birds in the Robert Frost poem, had a way of lifting my spirits and so “has given my heart/A change of mood/And saved some part/Of a day I had rued.”  That was my dog Beau, always coming to my rescue, far more than I ever came to his. In providing him a home and shelter, he returned the favor a thousand times over through his devotion, his patience, and, above all, his good company. After all this time I still miss him and sometimes dream we are together again walking in some green open space. Humorist Will Rogers once said that if dogs don’t go to heaven, then he wanted to go where they do. Oh yes. Yes.