Elena Passarello’s column is about famous animals from history. This week: Barry the Saint Bernard.
From the day he was born, before he was given his name or opened his eyes, even as a tiny puppy, Barry heard the alarm.
—Barry of the Great Saint Bernard, 1977
Just where it drifts, a dog howls loud and long,
And now, as guided by a voice from Heaven,
Digs with its feet.
—Samuel Rogers, “Barry,” 1850
After his death, which was but recent, his body was carefully buried, and his skin stuffed to imitate nature, and with an action resembling life, stands in this state, decorated, with his collar, in the Museum of Bern.
—Ladies’ Literary Cabinet, 1820
Species: Canis familiaris
Years Active: 1800–1812
Habitat: A snowy cloister eight thousand feet above sea level
Skills: Surefootedness, loyalty, the ability to smell humans buried deep in snow
Distinguishing Features: Up for debate
The monument to Barry, “Saint of Saints,” at Paris’s Cimetière des Chiens could use a fact-check. Erected in 1900, nearly ninety years after the Alpine rescuer’s heyday, the marble slab features a relief carving of what looks like a stocky golden retriever with a lion’s ruff and a hound’s mouth. A hard little child holds tight to his neck.
BARRY THE SAINT BERNARD, the stone says. HE SAVED THE LIVES OF 40 PEOPLE. HE WAS KILLED BY THE 41ST.
But this epitaph does not match the life of the Saint of Saints. Barry died in 1814, in Bern, a hundred miles from his home on the Saint Bernard Pass. He was gray and fatted and enjoying a comfortable retirement. If any one person did the dog in, it was the taxidermist who stuffed him a year later, mangling his cold skin and shaving down his skull so it might appear more pious. Barry, or what’s left of him, has since been reconstructed for display in Bern’s Natural History Museum, but even that prouder animal looks nothing like the Barry of myth: a giant, perfect Saint Bernard, the emblem of Switzerland that still cavorts for tourists at Saint Bernard’s monastery today.
We also can’t confirm the exact number of lives that Barry actually saved. The monks at the Saint Bernard hospice, high in the Pennine Alps, didn’t keep official tallies of their dogs’ heroic acts, though it’s certainly possible that at least forty souls would need saving in one dog’s career. The fifty-mile stretch on which the hospice sits was treacherous in every season, with oft-blinding snowfall, potential avalanche, and a persistent stream of Alpine marauders.
It was all this peril that led tenth-century monk Bernard de Menthon to establish a snowy shelter that would feed and protect pilgrims on the road to Rome. Some say that Saint Bernard fought a devil to get the hospice built on top of the rock, as depicted in the centuries of iconography that puts him against a snowy backdrop, holding a demon on a leash. Though he chained the demon above the Pass, thus controlling its mayhem, the demon did not disappear. Instead, it clung to the mountain, bringing its “White Death” down on any passerby for eternity.
Seven hundred years later, the monks of Saint Bernard began breeding companions to advance their mission. They picked the largest farm dogs from nearby villages—a mongrel assortment of cart-pulling mastiffs, French hounds, and Asiatic bulldogs descended from those imported in Roman times. Pairs of canines would pad ahead of travelers so their thick paws tamped the snow into paths, their superior noses able to sniff the sweating body of any off-piste traveler. In 1800, they assisted Napoleon’s troops—a quarter-million soldiers—over the pass, a journey stretching across the month of May. By then, the monks at Saint Bernard were serving up to four hundred daily meals to those who came through. Together, the men and dogs had turned Alpine rescue into an art.
One story claims that Barry’s forty-first human charge—the body that did him in—was one of these snow-blind Napoleonic soldiers. Supposedly, he mistook Barry for a wolf and bayonetted him. But Barry was only a pup in 1800, watching older dogs drag scores of frozen Frenchmen into the hospice to drink hot broth, pray the devil out, and thaw under thick palates. Once fully grown, Barry rose to the challenge of his elders, saving several travelers every year and avoiding the many perils that await avalanche rescue dogs.
His heroism probably came in varied forms: leading a party through a whiteout or tracking a fallen pilgrim. Barry might have saved overturned carriages that were set to pitch into ravines or lay atop frozen bodies, warming them back into consciousness. Although he likely sported a saddle pack stocked with bread and water, he never trudged the pass with a cask of brandy around his neck—that’s one of the many enduring myths, invented long after the fact, that surround his legend.
It’s also doubtful that Barry ever hoisted a toddler on his back, as depicted on that Paris memorial. In real life, he was too small to lift a child or carry it any distance in the snow. This is difficult to understand when we picture Saint Bernards—a hundred fifty pounds, with heads the size of hubcaps. But Barry’s line was brittler, redder, with a longer tail and body closer to the size of an Airedale, ill-equipped to bear the weight of a young human.
In the 1820s, several mountain accidents all but eliminated Barry’s line; no one at the hospice had ever thought to give a specific breed name (they were called either “cowherd’s dogs” or Alpenmastiffs, if anything at all). Trying to replenish their kennels, the monks crossed Barry’s type with Newfoundlands, thinking the extra size would make them even heartier. What resulted was a huge, jowly dog with awkward feet, thick fur prone to snow clumps, and significantly reduced stamina. Dogs like these were of no use to the rescue teams, but a savvy breeder slowly turned these new traits into a profitable leisure dog—the galumphing specimens we know from picture books and children’s movies. When he registered the new breed with the Swiss Kennel Club in 1880, he gave it the name of the saint that chained the devil to the mountain. But this was never Barry, who was a Saint Bernard before Saint Bernards existed.
In truth, no dog that looks like the pooches in the Beethoven movies did any real rescue work on the Pass, and the brave, well-trained “avi-dogs” of today are usually some stripe of shepherd or retriever. The closest thing to Barry in our world might be the Saint Bernard “breed standard” for facial expression and disposition, which requires pedigreed Saints to display a “noble, steadfast, and benevolent temperament” and “a desire to please his owners.” Though incompetent as rescue dogs, today’s Saints must at least act saintly.
So what exactly do we memorialize when we visit the Saint Bernard hospice today? When we buy tickets for a tour led by a fluffy, gentle giant that never would have made it up there in olden times? What do we look for when we make our pilgrimages to Barry’s erroneous Parisian memorial or to his compromised hide in Bern? If we debunk all the “facts” of this heroic dog—his appearance, his career, even his death—what are we really remembering?
Perhaps we aren’t remembering at all. Maybe Barry represents nothing that happened on the Pass, and rather what happens in our own homes. We see Barry in every dog that might be unfit for Alpine rescue, but that—in her devoted tail and affectionate tongue and concerned eyes—saves us every day. For among the many creatures that share our domestic lives, dogs are the animals most likely to run to us. To smell our panic and react. To warm our hearts until we can feel them beating in our chests again. These are the saintly beasts that, in sharing their lives with us, work to keep the demons at bay.
Elena Passarello is a Whiting Award winner and the author of Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses, which will be released by Sarabande Books in February. She is one of the Daily’s correspondents.