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The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships - to be published by Key Porter Books February 2009.


One of my aims in The Dog by the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath is to focus on the role in art and literature of dogs as the enemies of serpents. This connects to an old, old story that appears, in some form, in cultures from ancient Persia to medieval Europe.

A greyhound is left alone to guard his master’s baby. When a snake comes to menace the child, the dog kills it in a struggle that overturns the cradle on top of the baby, and spatters the room and the dog with blood. A servant arrives and assumes that the dog has killed and devoured the missing child. Summoned home to this scene, the master concludes the same and slays his beloved dog. Only after the cradle is turned upright is the still-slumbering child discovered, as well as the corpse of the snake—too late to save the dog.

At the Paris Salon of 1827, sculptor Gregoire Giraud exhibited a small, superb portrait in marble called “Hound”. An alert-looking dog reclines on an oval base, around which runs a series of even smaller relief sculptures narrating his life. In one of them, the hound is killing a snake to save a baby’s life.

Not long after encountering a picture of “Hound”, I literally almost bumped into “Bashaw.” This life-size sculpture of a Newfoundland dog trampling an enormous snake has stood in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for more than a hundred years.

The real-life Bashaw belonged to the Earl of Dudley, who offered sculptor Matthew Cotes Wyatt a commission of 5,000 pounds to immortalize his faithful pet. But by the time Dudley died, Wyatt had not yet completed the work. The artist was never paid, and “Bashaw” was eventually sold to the V&A for a mere 200 pounds.

The actual Bashaw did sit (or in this case, stand) for his three-dimensional portrait. But the snake is a boa constrictor—not a type of snake any dog in England would be likely to encounter, much less choose to step on.

It may be that a snake was simply added to the sculpture to help balance the heavy marble body of the dog. Or perhaps the sculptor seized on a serpent as a shorthand way to convey the canine as brave protector of hearth and home. The body of the snake coiling up from the dog evokes images of England’s ever-popular St George, vanquishing the dragon beneath the hooves of his horse.

In her 1893 animal classic Beautiful Joe, Margaret Marshall Saunders uses the real-life biography of a mistreated dog as the basis for a novel narrated by Joe himself. The actual Joe did overcome horrendous abuse, to enjoy a lifetime of happiness with a kindly family. But the novel also includes a probably fictitious encounter between Joe and a snake.

When Joe travels with his mistress, Laura, they are introduced to a man named Maxwell who keeps in his pocket a strange little being that darts its tongue out at the dog.

At teatime, Joe creeps from his assigned place in the hall to a spot under the table to be near his mistress in case the creature reappears. And sure enough, it does.

As the snake glides out of Mr. Maxwell’s pocket and onto the table, Miss Laura cries out. Joe leaps onto the table, plants one hind leg in a dish of jelly and a front paw in a plate of cake, grabs at the snake and worries it. By the time Maxwell intervenes, his pet is wounded and Joe is in disgrace.

“I felt so badly,” Joe tells us, “ that I went and stood with my head in a corner…I would not move till Miss Laura came and spoke to me. ‘Dear old dog’” she whispered, ‘you knew the snake was there all the time, didn’t you?’”

Of course he did. And when Joe interposes his body between the snake and Miss Laura, he sees himself in the role of protector. He is the literary incarnation of Giraud’s “Hound”, and even a bit like “Bashaw,”--the sculpture, if not the real dog. None of these dogs is unusual. In real life, dogs guard cradles and dogs kill snakes, especially when they intrude in the house. In fact, many of us have seen even the most mild-mannered pooch assail a snake with a quality of almost righteous wrath--as if he’s assigned himself the role of watchdog at the gates of some pre-lapsarian Eden.

But in the old, old story of the greyhound who attacks the serpent that menaces his master’s child, there is something that sets him apart from Giraud’s hound, from the Earl’s Bashaw, Marshall Saunders’ Joe, and even your real-life house-pet interposing himself between you and a garter snake: In the story, the dog kills the snake without witnesses.

After worrying the snake to death, the greyhound tosses the body into a corner. Not only does he dispose of evidence that would explain his actions, he knocks over the cradle in the process, thereby also concealing the child he has just saved. When a servant arrives, the scene is damning. An overturned cradle, no sign of the baby, and the family dog with blood on his jaws—and no way on earth to explain his actions. And therein lies the tragedy of the dog, the cradle and the serpent, as well as the central story of animals and us.

To read another excerpt from The Dog by the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath about the dog Beautiful Joe and to learn more about the Beautiful Joe Heritage Society which honours his memory, visit the website