Laika: Space Mutt

“I don’t understand. Dogs are supposed to be eaten, not carted around through space.”

 A Vietnamese Farmer.

LaikaOn October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into orbit. It was called Sputnik I and if you were a fan of the Soviets, it was a great moment. For everybody else it was the start of what would come to be called the Space Race. And a race it was. Within a month, the Soviets launched Sputnik II with a two-year-old mutt on board named Laika. As the first terrestrial put into orbit, Laika was an instant celebrity. Even if you didn’t like the Soviets, folks everywhere could share a warm feeling for the gutsy little dog. But those initial good feelings wouldn’t last.

While the U.S. relied on monkeys for their initial forays into space, the Soviets used dogs. It was a big mistake. Unless you’re talking about Bonzo or J. Fred Muggs, monkeys aren’t adorable. What’s more, they make lousy pets. They have to wear diapers, chatter incessantly and tend to steal your spare change. On the other hand, dogs are expressive, unfailingly loyal and always glad to see you—even when your human companions seem less inclined. That proved a problem for the Soviet rocket scientists. Even though their muttly cosmonauts were recruited from strays wandering Moscow, they couldn’t help but become attached. In fact, they’d become so fond of the pooch originally slated for the flight that they went in search of a replacement. Nine days before launch they found one— a stray they named Laika.

Laika proved just as winsome as her predecessor. Described as, “charming and quiet,” she quickly won their hearts. For Laika’s part, she must have thought she’d won the doggy lottery—one minute freezing her tail off looking for scraps, the next well-fed, comfortable and a hero.  It wouldn’t last. Just prior to launch, one of the scientists took her home to play with his kids. He later commented, “I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live.” That’s right. Laika had been given a one-way ticket.

When folks realized what was happening, the reaction was immediate. London’s Daily Mirror headline screamed: THE DOG WILL DIE, WE CAN’T SAVE IT. Soviet Embassy switchboards were swamped with angry calls. The Stuttgarter Zeitung editorialized, “For a few days, black and white, democrats and communists, republicans and royalists in all countries, islands and continents have one feeling, one language, one direction…our feeling of compassion for this little living being twirling helplessly over our heads.” And the farmer had his own, somewhat different, take on it.

Everyone from the Soviet scientists to the farmer in the field felt badly about Laika’s fate. But why? Would anyone have cared if the little pooch froze to death in a Moscow winter? Did anyone care as Laika wandered the streets hunting scraps? Nobody cared until they noticed. So we might ask ourselves, “what are we missing?” Apparently a lot. But it isn’t until abuse, neglect, violence and injustice hit the news that our eyes open. Then our sympathy overflows and our wallets open wide. It’s a noble and generous impulse, but should we have done something before the situation became horrific? Ask yourself, “what am I missing?’ And then do something about it before it’s breaking news—and too late.     —Ebert

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