The Fate of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party Dogs

History portrays the early days of Antarctic exploration as being something heroic. It took brave men indeed to face the great expanse of the great white southern continent those of the early days of the 20th Century knew little or nothing about. Expeditions of such magnitude were to be held in awe and with that there came a high cost both financially and in the loss of life. A high price to pay to set foot on that great vastness at the bottom of the globe. Yet men did and still do today.

On the 9th of February 1917, the Aurora berthed at Wellington Harbour to a warm welcome by the people of New Zealand. The Aurora had been on a rescue mission with Ernest Shackleton on board to retrieve the men of the Ross Sea Party. Many are aware of the Shackleton Expedition to the Weddell Sea and the harrowing experience Shackleton and his men went through with the loss of the endurance. Eventually Shackleton and the survivors ended up on Elephant Island.

On the other side of the story the men Shackleton had tasked to lay supply depots at the Ross Sea for the planned trans-Antarctic crossing were having trials and tribulations of their own.

The ten men of the Ross Sea Party had with them 18 dogs. Ten of the dogs were dead within two months of the expedition's landing at the Ross Sea. By the time rescue came at Cape Royds only seven men and five dogs (possibly 6?) had survived. In his diary Ernest Joyce had noted the heroism of the four dogs that had survived the march across the inhospitable Antarctic terrain.

"Without the aid of four faithful friends, Oscar, Con, Gunner, and Towser, the party could never have arrived back. These dogs from November 5 accompanied the sledging parties, and, although the pace was often very slow, they adapted themselves well to it. Their endurance was fine. For three whole days at one time they had not a scrap of food, and this after a period on short rations. Though they were feeble towards the end of the trip, their condition usually was good, and those who returned with them will ever remember the remarkable service they rendered." - Ernest E. Joyce

The dog Con (Conrad) did not return alive. Towser, Gunner and Oscar had in fact killed him during a fight during August of 1916. Shackleton had noted in his book South! that the dogs were poorly trained, and in poor condition at the beginning of the expedition. The dogs treatment had not been any better. They had suffered ill treatment and starvation. That any returned at all was a small miracle.

When the Aurora returned, Shackleton opened the ship to the admiring Wellington public. The Evening Post of 17 February 1917 reported

Today the people of Wellington were able to make the personal aquaintance of "Gunner," "Funny Face," "Teddy," and the rest of the dogs that have become famous owing to their association with the Ross Sea Party of the Shackleton Expedition. The occasion was the throwing open of the vessel for inspection by the public, and the visitors were numerous. On board all the dogs were displayed, including the mother dog with a family of eight puppies, who did not seem to like having her domestic affairs so unceremoniously intruded upon, and looked suspiciously at all who went near her. Chalked above her was the sign "Dangerous."

On the 27th of February 1917 an advertisement appeared in the Evening Post advising that six of the puppies were to put up for auction on behalf of the Shackleton Expedition



This sale presents to one and all an opportunity for securing a souvenir of the remarkable South Polar Expedition just returned, as the various lines will be sold in lots to suit buyers... George Thomas & Co (Auctioneers)

What happened to the missing two puppies is unknown.

One would have thought the older dogs might have ended up living quiet lives somewhere. Sadly it wasn't to be. Fascination with exploration and anything associated with it created a want by the adoring public to see the surviving dogs.Thus they, like Captain Robert Falcon Scott's famous dog Osman, became attractions at the Wellington Zoo.

The Evening Post reported on 19 May 1917 of the dogs in the care of the Wellington Zoo, with perhaps, a hint of adventurous curiosity.

From the blizzard-swept trails of the Antarctic wastes to an uneventful existence in the Wellington Zoo is the lot of the dogs that helped to make history with Shackleton’s expedition.

Towser, Gunner, Oscar and the animal whose physiognomy has earned him the appellation of Funny Face, the last named still healthy if not good-looking, are all there.The lady-dog, who in the wilds of the Ross Sea added to the family party eight little bundles of fur, of which any canine father might feel proud, is also at the Zoo.

She is now childless, her pups having reached the age when they leave their mother’s apron strings. Apparently, however, she is taking her return to single blessedness very philosophically, and does not wear a “Where are my children?” look.

A Post reporter who made the acquaintance of the dogs when the Aurora was coming up the harbour on her return from the Far South renewed his friendship with them yesterday afternoon, and received a cordial welcome.

The visit was made with a view to seeing the environment of the dogs, certain criticisms of their treatment having been published in the newspapers. The animals have a strong strain of wolf in their composition, and, in view of the fact that they still at intervals feel the call of the wild, are kept on the chain in the day time.

An enclosure with a strand of wire round it has been set aside for them, and in this compound they are at home every fine day to visitors. In the wet they are kept under cover, Gunner and Towser each having a spare cage alongside a bear.

The other dogs are quartered elsewhere, Funny Face being in a separate enclosure and quartered at night in a large barrel. The dogs are all in the pink of condition, and when spoken to wag their tails with canine happiness. They appear to be contended with their lot.

It has been suggested that the dogs should be placed in the large wire-netting cages where pretty birds display their gorgeous plumage, but it is pointed out that the netting would not be strong enough for the purpose.

As compared with the privations of their terrible sledge-journeys – on one dash in a blizzard with three sick men on sledges they were five days without food – they are living almost luxuriously. A plan to give them proper exercise by means of sledges is at present under contemplation.
Some of the histories that mention the Ross Sea Party dogs have stated that only three dogs returned on the Aurora. However, my investigations have revealed at least 5 adult dogs with a possible sixth dog being named as well as 8 puppies that were born on the Aurora on the voyage back to Wellington.

So far the names of the dogs I have found are as follows

Oscar (dog)

Towser (dog)

Gunner (dog)

Funny Face (dog)

Teddy (possibly female )

Bitchie (possibly female)

‘Bitchie’ was referred to in a report of a meeting of the Wellington Zoological Society in the Evening Post 16 July 1917
Mr Joyce, who had charge of the dogs in Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition, wrote expressing a desire to receive a report on the condition of the two dogs Oscar and Bitchie, presented to the Society as a donation to the Zoo. The meeting decided to meet Mr Joyce’s wishes, and also to ask the City Council to provide more worthy accommodation for the dogs.

A report on 8 December 1917 in the Evening Post mentions that four of Shackleton's dogs as being resident at the Wellington Zoo, plus Osman, Scott's dog, were being exercised daily and appeared to be 'quite contented'.

A brief check of a Wikipedia article on the Ross Sea Party mentions the following:

This time, Mackintosh favoured man-hauling while Joyce wanted to use the four fit dogs—of the six dogs that had survived the winter, two were pregnant and could not work.

The Footnote on this references to Kelly Tyler-Lewis' 2007 Book The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party.

It is a remote possibility that six adult dogs 4 males and two females, plus the 8 puppies came back to Wellington on the Aurora.

Death of Oscar

Sometime near the 17th Of June 1918 Oscar the most noted of the Shackleton dogs abruptly dropped dead. The Ashburton Guardian of the same date noted

One of Sir Ernest Shackleton's dogs the big fellow called "Oscar" dropped dead at the Wellington Zoo the other day whilst being exercised. Apparently the strenuous months on the Antarctic ice had broken the animal's constitution, for a post-mortem showed that much of his liver was diseased, and his heart was enlarged. The skin is to be handed over to the museum to be stuffed and exhibited.

Of what happened exactly to the taxidermied remains of the dog is still being looked into. Despite the writings of many Antarctic histories that Oscar had lived to a great age the truth is otherwise.


A report in the Evening Post 6 November 1919 brought news of a new Expedition to the Antarctic under Dr J. L. Cope on the Terra Nova had been planned to commence in November of 1920. Ernest Joyce a survivor of the Ross Sea Party decided to take Gunner with him.

Mr Joyce, who is accompanied by Mrs E. M Joyce (a daughter of Mrs E. M Courlett of Hastings), will on arrival in England, organise the expedition. He is also accompanied by "Gunner," a dog who has won fame in previous expeditions. "Gunner" has to his credit a long sledge journey of 2000 miles. The animal weights 125 pounds.

However Cope's expedition was a failure due to lack of funding. No mention of Joyce being amongst the personnel.

In a report Cape Evans - Dogs at Cape Evans prepared for the Antarctic Heritage Trust by David L. Harrowfield the skin of Gunner after his death was preserved and used as a door mat. No sourcing however has been stated for this.

The fate of the other remaining dogs at the Wellington Zoo is at this stage still unclear.

Shackleton's Dogs at J. J. Boyd's Royal Oak Zoo then Auckland Zoo

On the 25 May 1917 the following Advertisement from J. J. Boyd’s Royal Oak Zoo appeared :-


Just arrived from SOUTH POLE, via Wellington.
Come and See Them.”

(Advertisement, Auckland Star, 25 May 1917)
- Sourced ‘The Zoo WarJ.J. Boyd’s Royal Oak Zoo (2008) Author Lisa Truttman

This is only speculation and slightly off the timeline, but it is possible that J.J. Boyd may have obtained the two unaccounted for puppies (I'm most likely way off the beaten track on this) for his Royal Oak Zoo. Or Boyd may have obtained the female dog, plus one other not long after the Evening Post report of 19 May 1917 (see below). From a letter written by Boyd to the Mayor Auckland City Council dated 15 August 1922, two dogs were listed amongst the animals he was transferring to the new Auckland Zoo. They were described as
1 “Esquimaux dog” (male) and 1 Wolf Dog (female)"

According to Lisa Truttman, Boyd's letter had stated that the dogs were the property of the New Zealand Government and were on loan.
(Sourced 'The Zoo War" J.J. Boyd's Royal Oak Zoo (2008) Author Lisa Truttman)

Further on after the establishment of Auckland concerns were raised about the conditions the male dog had been kept in. No mention was made of the female 'wolf dog' I can only assume that it had died sometime between 1922 and 1923.

The welfare of the male dog became a concern after reports that the animal was by itself and inadequately housed as would be expected for a dog used to the open expanses of the Antarctic. The dog was taken in by the Zoo caretaker and former Boyd Zoo employee Mr Hurley, who took the dog the home in late September 1923. How long the animal lived after its removal from the Auckland is unknown.

In writing this blog post I have found there are stories within the story. Most of my research has been from contemporary newspaper reports of the time. The tragedy in all of this is the fact that most of the dogs if not all ended their days cramped in a small zoo enclosure instead of being treated as they deserved. As icons of the great days of Antarctic exploration they deserved to end their days in quiet retirement not on display at a municipal zoo.

*Note this is not to be taken as a complete and total history. I have tried to be as accurate as possible however there may be errors or omissions.


  1. As I understand it, Oscar, Gunner, & Towser are the only 3 from the actual sledging journeys to survive and make it back to NZ (and why some seem to believe only 3 dogs made it back at all. However, Bitchie had been sent back to Cape Evans when pregnant as sledging began and gave birth to one or two litters while all the drama was going down on the ice shelf. Joyce remarked on them all being nearly full grown when he finally returned. Another female was left behind and birthed pups, but was put down after she killed most of her litter before she could be stopped. I'd imagine the higher numbers (8 or so)quoted are most likely the accurate counts. Not sure that any pups were born on board the Aurora, but any dogs born from the initial core seem to generally be referred to as pups even as they matured into adulthood.

  2. I've been trying to get to the bottom of just how many dogs were actually at Wellington Zoo. It seems they were breeding them as late as 1925. We do know that J.J. Boyd obtained two dogs which he had advised the Auckland City Council were the property of the NZ Government. What we've worked out is these two dogs were most likely pups from one of the litters. Both were destroyed in 1923 and in the same year another dog was presented to the Auckland Zoo by Captain White. The dog was rehomed later with Head Keeper Hurley.

    Any information is useful thanks Justin for the help much appreciated!


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