Australia’s Antarctic huskies

Bruce Kay
Thursday, 7 July 2022

A gift from France

Huskies became a part of Australia's Antarctic expeditions in 1949. Australia inherited the dogs from the French, in a deal brokered by Phillip Law, the then Director of ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions). On the voyage from France to Antarctica the French were unable to get their dogs to Adelie Land in Antarctica due to heavy sea ice. At this point the French asked Australia to take them into care to save the dogs enduring the sea journey back to Europe.  Melbourne Zoo cared for them for a year until the French returned, and Australia kept the 31 pups born in the interim.

These pups were the breeding stock for Australia's Antarctic huskies, and their descendants remained a part of expeditions until 1992. The dogs outperformed the machinery of the day, particularly when it came to sastrugi (wind rippled ice) and creviced terrain, and were invaluable for scouting ahead of heavy machines to find the best route. They also needed no spare parts, and had cheap running costs.

The dogmobile

Before the dogs made it to Antarctica in 1954, they were located on the sub-Antarctic Heard Island station. Here they were bred and trained for sledge pulling duties.

Heard Island lacked ice and snow in the spring and summer, so the dog handlers had to get inventive in their training methods. The expeditioners modified a jeep trailer and christened it the Dogmobile. This helped prepare the intrepid pups for life at Mawson Station.

Human bonds

The dog handling members of ANARE teams compiled detailed reports about the dogs including training, equipment, feeding, breeding, housing, photographs and medical care. Notes from handlers show the value of the dogs as workers and companions, and celebrate achievements.

In the Dog Report of 1961 from Mawson station, dog handler G Smith concluded his report:

I should like to wish the new dog-handlers every success in their coming year, Remember, it is the hardest and most uncomfortable means of Antarctic Travel. Don't take it on unless you are prepared to accept this. However, if you love dogs, if you want adventure and interesting work, if you are prepared to become a dog fanatic, in fact if you are prepared to look, think and even smell like a dog, then you will find it the most rewarding and memorable year you have ever spent. I wouldn't have missed a minute of it.

G A Knuckey summarised his 1959 Mawson report with:

This year the dogs proved to be of great value for the transport of a survey and geology party through mountain areas. They also provided a means of mental relaxation to members of the camp whose jobs normally kept them indoors. The men who trained them felt a great sense of achievement to see them combine as a team, and finally to successfully complete a long sledging journey.

The dogs also provided plenty of entertainment for the expeditioners. William (Bill) Young Officer-In-Charge of Davis station reported on frequent runaway 'Kerneg' in the station logbook June 6 1963:

Kerneg still loose, a very tired Dog, in an effort to catch him we kept him on the move from 1000 Hours until darkness at 1600 Hours today, All In, Davis Mob' 63, Snow-trac and Motorbike over the Sea-Ice, we finally lost him on Gardner Island, he has started to lie doggo [stay motionless in order to hide] in the rocks making it quite hard to spot him, the latest report is he is back at the dog lines

End of an era

In 1991, huskies were removed from the Antarctic to comply with the new environmental policies introduced with the Madrid Protocol. Advances in Antarctic mechanical transportation had already made them less useful as transport, but their psychological importance to expeditioners wasn't so easily replaced.

These reports are a part of the National Archives' collection of Antarctic records.