By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Mike Boris
America is a dog obsessed nation. Jack London, in “Call of the Wild”, sets the pace for hundreds, if not thousands, of well-trodden stories about dogs.
London’s story was published in 1903.
Dogs are imbued with qualities like loyalty, unconditional love, and fierceness that make human hearts beat faster, lungs gasp for air, and eyes fill with tears. Jack London tells the story of Buck, a mixed breed St. Bernard-Scotch shepherd that begins life in California and is hijacked to become an Alaskan sled puller.
London’s story is set in the time of Alaska’s gold rush. Dog sledding and the value of dogs increased in proportion to a ballooning Alaskan population. Buck, after being dog-napped, is sold to various owners in Alaska to serve the burgeoning demand for improved transportation. Buck is described as a big, growing fierce, intelligent dog. He learns how to deal with sub-zero temperatures by observing and copying the habits of other dogs. London describes how Buck learns to dig a hole in sub-zero temperatures and curl into a ball to protect himself.
From carefree days of hunting and playing in the sun of California’s Santa Clara Valley to beatings and hard labor in the frigid climate of Alaska, Buck experiences the best and worst of a dog’s life. In a mind’s eye, dogs are not humans. However, images of abuse vibrate in our conscience when an animal is mistreated by an owner. Jack London’s story of Buck shows how admired qualities in man like loyalty and affection are exhibited by domesticated dogs. At the same time, London illustrates how a dog remains something less and more than a man; less with a dog’s instinct to kill and more by unconditional affection.
London shows humans to be ethnocentric users of the animal kingdom. (This is not a surprise based on sentient beings’ history of abuse and slavery.) On a literal plane, Buck is a dog that is exploited by humans to drive sleds across the snow and ice of Alaska. Buck competes in the animal kingdom for supremacy by defeating or cowering other dogs to become a pack leader. However, Buck is chained to a life of toil by man’s domination of the non-human animal kingdom. These two forms of existence meld into one when Buck is saved by a human from abuse by his last owner; i.e. Buck becomes free to choose; free to return to the wild or stay with his human savior, not as a subject of domination but as a companion. Buck chooses to stay until his savior is murdered by a fictional tribe of Alaskan Indians. The “Call of the Wild” tears Buck away from humans because the wild is ironically more predictable than human civilization.
London’s story is about a dog but it is also a story about the best and worst of human beings. Whether dogs have human feelings, or humans project their feelings on dogs, or dogs are just other sentient beings is not important but freedom to choose is shown by London to be a preeminent condition of all sentient life.