On arrival at Bern Railway Station on Monday evening (18th) the first poster to catch my eye (well, it’s quite a big one) was this :
“Barry, the most famous rescue dog in the world, died 200 years ago but remains a legend to this day. Barry can be admired at the Natural History Museum Bern, where a new exhibition explores the heroic deeds attributed to this extraordinary St Bernard from the Great St Bernard Pass. The question is, which of the stories surrounding him are fact and which are myths? The exhibition tells the whole truth.”
I knew Barry was a popular dog’s name in Switzerland. I have a children’s picture book which tells his story. So on the Wednesday morning I took the short stroll from Barbara’s house to the Natural History Museum of Bern to find out more. The excellent display is on the second floor of the museum.
Trusty Barry Diorama
Trusty Barry, cask at the ready. Left to his own devices for days on end, Barry patrols paths and ravines looking for travellers who are lost or buried in the snow. Wherever he goes he carries a cask of wine round his neck. The victims he finds are first offered a good strong drink. The faithful dog then runs back to the hospice to fetch help.
The Real Barry reworked by Georg Ruprecht in 1923.
Barry had been stuffed in 1814 using the primitive techniques of the time. Ruprecht used modern techniques at the time to create a plaster model of Barry’s body and clad it in the dog’s skin.
Barry was born in 1800 at the hospice on the summit of the Great St Bernard Pass. At almost 2500m altitude cold, fog and snow posed a danger to travellers and, accompanied by dogs, clerics and lay brothers from the hospice would go out each day looking for lost and weary travellers. Barry was to become their most tireless assistant he is said to have saved over 40 people from an icy death.
In 1812 a servant from the hospice brought the old and weary dog to Bern and he died there in 1814. After his death his body was handed over to a taxidermist so “that after his death this loyal dog will not be forgotten” [F. Meisner, 1815]
The Great St Bernard Pass in Winter
The Hospice of the Canons Regular of St Augustine at the summit of the Great St Bernard Pass has been a place of safety and shelter for travellers for almost 1,000 years. In the 11th century, in order to help wayfarers, Bernard of Menthon founded a simple monastery at the highest point of the pass, and so the hospice was founded.
Nice to see the modern-day monks (clerics) enjoying a tasty meal with wine
By providing shelter, food and a bed for the night the hospice vanquished the perils of the frightening, seemingly infernal, mountain world outside. Exhausted travellers and victims of bandits knew that they would be safe as soon as they reached its doors. For this Bernard was widely revered, and in 1123 eventually made a saint.
In addition to the story of Barry and the hospice high up on the pass the exhibition moved on to tell about the real dangers of avalanches today and to dispute the exaggerated stories of Barry. Even the best trained and strongest St Bernard dog could not have carried a child on his back as the story is told. But dogs still do important work in the field even today.
The Story of Barry
Finally, we could listen to the shocking stories told by the fortunate survivors of avalanches; as a clock ticked away the number of minutes that are needed in order to achieve a successful rescue. The chance of survival declines dramatically after just 15 minutes.
“Around 70% of avalanche victims survive if the remaining members of their party manage to dig them out straightaway. This is only possible if everyone is carrying a detector device and knows how to use it. If an external rescue party is required the survival rate drops to 30%.”