BOOKS: Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1997:

Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition:
The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton’s Polar-Bound Cat
by Caroline Alexander
Harper Collins Publishers (10 East 53rd St., New York, NY 10022-5299), 1997.
148 pages, hardcover, $16.00.

Read with clear eyes, the saga of
Antarctic exploration is––like most sagas––a
dismal record of vanity, cruelty, stupidity and
greed, whose protagonists exhibit heroic
attributes chiefly after their own foolishness
puts them in peril of their lives.

Had the pursuit of scientific knowledge
mattered more than the gold and glory of
attaining firsts, far more information might
have been had with less suffering, even with
the limited technology of the time. The nature
of anthropoid ape males, however, is that
those who most extend the range of their
troupes are those with the most desperate need
to win status while avoiding direct challenge to
the powerholders. This was not understood,
however, until young women of a later generation,
Jane Goodall et al, followed up the
finds of adventurers with quiet ethological
study. What was known before was that relatively
young men could rapidly earn admission
to the exclusive Royal Society by going where
older scientists couldn’t or wouldn’t, to find
gorillas or the magnetic poles.
Animals drew little consideration in
the early history of Antarctic exploration, but
for the value of their remains. Sealers and
whalers ventured into the Antarctic in 1790,
exhausting the commercial potential of the
Antarctic within 30 years, until the advent of
steel-hulled, steam-powered ships made working
Antarctic waters profitable again relative to
risk. The second wave of Antarctic exploration,
1899-1915, was likewise sustained by
mass slaughters of seals––and now penguins––while
the Norwegian and German
expeditions of the 1930s were not only sustained
by sealing but motivated by the hope of
setting up permanent whaling stations.
Domestic animals fared no better.
After Robert Falcon Scott, E.H. Shackleton,
and Edward Wilson lost their sled dogs to cold
and starvation in 1901, Shackleton similarly
sacrificed 14 Manchurian ponies in 1907, then
killed 69 more dogs in 1914. Racing to the
South Pole and back, the rival Scott and Roald
Amundsen expeditions of 1911-1912 cost the
lives of as many as 100 dogs; Amundsen and
crew ate theirs, to the disgust of the British
press, while the remains of some of Scott’s are
still chained to the hut where he died.
The misery of dogs in the Antarctic
––a far colder environment than their Arctic
environs––finally ended with the evacuation or
dispatch of all teams circa 1988, as agreed
under the 1980 Antarctic Treaty.
Japan continues to kill minke whales
within the Southern Oceans Whale Sanctuary
(ringing Antarctica since 1994), overfishing in
Antarctic waters is reportedly worse instead of
better, and penguin chicks are starving e n
m a s s e through the effects of global warming,
but Antarctica may now be the first continent
free of intentionally inflicted cruelty to land
animals––if only because none are there,
either under human control or to be hunted.
Precious little of this comes through
in Caroline Alexander’s account of the 1914-
1915 Shackleton expedition, as ostensibly narrated
by the cat Mrs. Chippy. In truth a “very
fine” striped tom, according to a September
1914 diary entry by commander Frank
Worsley, Mrs. Chippy was brought aboard
Shackleton’s ship E n d u r a n c e by carpenter
Henry McNeish, of Cathcart, Scotland. The
cat was highly valued, as on September 13,
1914, when he inexplicably leaped overboard
through a cabin window, navigator Hubert
Hudson immediately put the ship around to
recover him. Mrs. Chippy survived despite a
10-minute immersion. Stowaway Perce
Blackborow, later accepted into the
Shackleton crew, was reputedly especially
fond of Mrs. Chippy, and the cover photo
showing him with Mrs. Chippy on his shoulder
attests to his affection.
On October 28, 1915, however, 11
months after the Endurance was entrapped and
eventually crushed by ice, the 29 crew members
and the dogs who had lasted that long
began a 363-day trek that would save all the
humans at cost of the dogs’ lives, while Mrs.
Chippy was apparently abandoned to freeze or
starve as a purported superfluous possession.
This fate the cat accepted with good
cheer, according to Alexander, because the
parting included a last meal of canned sardines,
and because, after all, Shackleton
showed the need for sacrifice by also leaving
two gold coins and most of his Bible.
To her credit, Alexander does not
have the ill-fated cat emulate the much celebrated
last memoir of Scott. But neither does
the cat observe the certainty that most of her
human companions had their heads where the
sun didn’t shine, even before the onset of the
long Antarctic night.

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