The true story of Barry


The most famous animal hero produced by this colonization of the animal kingdom was a dog called Barry who worked at the monastery on the Great Saint Bernard Pass. As early as the eighth century, the Saint Bernard dogs had been  trained to find travellers who were lost in the fog and snow, which makes their paramedical profession one of the oldest in Europe. All but one were wiped out by an epidemic in 1820. The sole survivor was mated with a breed related to the Pyrenean sheepdog. Unlike most dogs, the Saint Bernards yearned to go outside when a storm was brewing and when drifting snow was reinforcing the grey walls of their fortress. They not only patrolled the past and sought out helpless travellers, they also took preventive action: they had been known to set off people who passed the monastery and who seemed, in the dogs' estimation, to be unlikely to complete their journey.

Most engravings show the Saint Bernard dogs carrying a neat little brandy-cask on their collar. In fact, they carried a complete survival kit; a basket of food, a gourd of wine and a bundle of wool ets. They had a precise knowledge of the whole region long before it was accurately mapped by humans and were capable of running for help to the nearest village if the monastery was further away.
Strictly speaking, Barry, whose name means 'bear', was Swiss-Italian, but he was born in the French empire and became a French national hero. He had saved a mink by warning him of an avalanche; he had rescued a small child by persuading it to climb onto his back and carrying it to the monastery; in 1800, he came close to changing the course of European history by refusing to allow Napoleon's soldiers to pass until they put away their muskets. In 1900, eighty-six years after his death, he was given an impressive memorial at the entrance to the dog cemetery at Asnières-sur-Seine on the edge of Paris. The inscription says, 'He saved the life of 40 people abd was killed by the 41st!' The story of this forty-first rescue turned him into a canine martyr. One wintry night, an exhausted man was struggling up the mountain when a huge, powerful animal suddenly bounded toward him through the blizzard. The man managed to crack its skull with his stick, and although Barry was taken to the hospice, he died soon after.
This was the legend of Barry the Saint Bernard. In reality, he retired happily to Berne in 1812 and died of old age two years later. To honour his extraordinary career, he was stuffed and given pride of place in Berne Museum where he stood in a glass cabinet filled with stoats and topped with a spread-eagled owl. Later, his skull was modified to make him look like a modern Saint Bernard, just as his acts were altered to make him as human as possible. Barry had worked in the wild but after his death he became a hero of the pet age. He showed that, like savages and peasants, animals could be trained to accept the moral values of French civilization.


The true Barry

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