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Why Amundsen Killed His Dogs- a lesson from the Heroic Age

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Author Contact Information

Larry Rose, Pleasanton Middle School, Pleasanton,California.

Students use Internet, video and text resources to gather information about the Amundsen/Scott “race” for the South Pole in 1911-12, dog sledding, and the ethical treatment of animals for science. Using this information the students set up a debate (:: Resolved: It was right and expedient for Roald Amundsen to use and kill sled dogs to reach his goal.) to determine the efficacy, rightness, wrongness, morality if you will, of the decisions made by Amundsen- to kill his dogs progressively in a pre-determined fashion to provide food and an anti-scorbutic agent for his men and the remaining dogs- and the decisions made by R.F. Scott- to use motorized sledges, Siberian ponies and finally manhauling for his tragic journey to the Pole.

Subjects : History of Science, Philosophy of Science, Nutrition, Development of Technology, AA travel and technology, Indigenous peoples (Inuit technology)


  • Students will discuss the ethics of the use of animals for different societal goals.

  • Students will examine attitudes toward the role of animals in society; have they evolved through time?

  • Students will be able to recount the history of the race for the pole and debate the reasons for Amundsen’s victory and Scott’s failure in being the first humans to achieve the South Pole.

    Grade Level/Discipline
    Seven - 12 Science - biology or earth science.

    National Standards

  • history of science
  • bioethics

    Pre-activity set-up
    Prepare copies for distribution of printed material from the internet or from the Roland Huntford book. (Consider Fair Use of printed copyrighted materials. Obtain permission from the producer to show the video adaptation.)


  • Access to the Internet

  • Optional reproductions of pages from “The Last Place on Earth” by Roland Huntford the PBS video based on the book Info from the Internet on Scott and Amundsen

    Time Frame
    One week for preparation and the debate- longer perhaps.

    Engagement and Exploration (Student Inquiry Activity
    To begin, generate a series of open-ended thought questions asking, for example, “Is it ever right to kill dogs for science or exploration? How about rats in a laboratory? Suppose that by killing ten thousand animals a cure for some dreaded disease might be found? Is it right then?

    In terms of animals, R.F. Scott, leader of the British expedition in competition with Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition, killed his ponies as part of his plan of transport and travel. His motorized sledges proved not to work. He also, through his lack of planning and general incompetence most agree, killed himself and four of his men. The underlying cause of his death was scurvy.

    Scurvy as we now know is a disease of the connective tissue of the body when deprived of Vitamin C. Vitamin C itself was discovered in the 1930’s. Prolonged Vitamin C deficiency leads to death. Most mammals can manufature vitamin C in their tissues, but not humans. After living with the Inuit and seeing them free of scurvy, Amundsen surmised that their diet (which included raw meat) contained some active antiscorbutic (anti-scurvy) agent. He had had scurvy on an earlier expedition to the Antarctic (“Belgica”). Raw and undercooked seal meat cured him. The Inuit were known to eat dogs when other food was running low or when they were cut off from hunting seals. Amundsen’s plan for reaching the South Pole required keeping his men scurvy free. He needed a source of fresh meat. So he planned to reduce his number of sled dogs in a very metculously planned fashion as they were no longer needed along the way -- because of the gradual reduction of supplies to haul. His calculations proved perfect. His men returned successfully and healthy, in fact they gained weight on the 1400 mile round trip. See the web pages above and Roland Huntsford’s book The Last Place on Earth for details. For an excellent discussion of scurvy and sailing in general see Below the Convergence by Alan Gurney.

    Roald Amundsen killed many of his dogs to feed his men and the remaining dogs on their trip to the South Pole. Was that right?”

    Make sure all students understand Amundsen’s successful plan for achieving the Pole. Students may use web site at http://magic.geol.ucsb.edu/~geol10/students/race.html as a resource. Another good website for background is http://www.south-pole.com (Antarctic Philately).Be sure that they understand that without dogs and the sacrifice of the dogs such an achievement would have been impossible in 1911-12.

    Explanation (Discussing)
    Research Phase: Lead pre-debate discussions over several days on the following subjects to provide a general background for the debate. A selected bibliography of books, videos, and especially internet resources can be found in the Resources section below.

    For background discussion and research- assign the following subjects to committees -general nutrition and the prevention of scurvy -the views of industry, researchers, and animal-rights groups about using animals for clothing, cosmetics research, and medical research; have the views of these groups changed through time? -the range of conditions in which animals are kept for scientific and industry research, for food and fiber farming, for access by the public (zoos and theme parks, aquaria).....in the house of the student -views of societies other than our own toward animals for food, transportation, and research; what animals are used? -Amundsen’s work with the Inuit in learning how to use dogs for transport in the Arctic during his Northwest Passage expedition.

    During the research phase, have the students periodically (and briefly) share their findings with the class. Encourage class dialog; are there areas groups have overlooked? Are there resources that other groups have found that can be employed?

    Elaboration (Polar Applications)

    Exchange (Students Draw Conclusions)
    Set up a debate between two halves of the class. Resolved: It was right and expedient for Roald Amundsen to use and kill sled dogs to reach his goal.

    Periodically, assess student understanding of the issues by stopping the debate and requesting that each student summarize the disucssion points to that time. Ask the students to write their prediction of what may happen next in the debate.

    During pilot tests, issues discussed in the debate have included:

    1) it was somehow more sporting, manly, all-in-all attuned with the age that man-hauling was somehow preferred by the British to all other methods of Antarctic transport.

    2) from a total lack of experience on the part of Scott with dogs came the pronouncement that dog sledding was not feasible in the Antarctic.

    3) dog meat is anti-scorbutic. It was scurvy that did in the Scott expedition.

    4) motor technology in 1911 was extremely poor even as used in temperate climates.

    5) reliance on the “technology” of native peoples is worthwhile- Amundsen’s time spent with Inuit on his “Gjoa” Northwest Passage expedition and specified the use of the finest Greenland dogs and Eskimo clothing for his expedition. He built his dog sleds to Inuit specification.

    6) the morality of the use of animals for scientific research - or in this case sacrificing them to reach some goal- cruelty in science and exploration- Scott’s ponies died too ( as did he and four of his men).

    7) Modern methods of transportation in polar regions, Scott’s pioneering attempts with motorized sledges - environmental impact of Sprytes, snow mobiles,C-130s, Otters, icebreakers.

    8) Dogs are forbidden in Antarctica today. Why? (Protection of native pinniped species from canine diseases.)

    An alternative lesson, or one which will precede the debate and strengthen it, will be a position paper form each student on the issues raised in her/his research.

    Evaluation (Assessing Student Performance)
    Grading a debate is an ideal vehicle for peer-grading on the actual performance in the debate. This peer grade can be added to the major segment of the assessment, which can be a required “summary” from each member of the class. The summary can be used by the debators as amicus briefs to help with their arguments. The teacher then assesses the debate and materials written by students.

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