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St. Guinefort, the Dog Venerated as a Saint

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For hundreds of years, residents in the Dombes region of eastern France worshipped a saint who was said to help protect infants from illness and danger. They prayed to his name, and brought sick infants to his shrine for healing.

Such tales aren't very unusual for a saint—except this one was a dog.

According to a legend that originated some time before the 12th century, St. Guinefort was a greyhound owned by a wealthy knight. One day, the knight and his wife left their infant son for the day in the care of his nurse and their loyal dog. They returned to find a scene of carnage in the child’s nursery—the crib overturned, and blood spattered around the room. Guinefort had blood smeared all over his muzzle.

The knight, believing that Guinefort had killed his son, struck the dog with his sword, killing him. Immediately afterward, he heard the cry of a baby and found his son, healthy and whole, underneath the overturned crib. (It's not clear where the nurse was during this time, but she evidently wasn't doing a very good job protecting the child.) Next to the baby was a snake that had been bitten to bloody pieces.

The knight realized that he had killed the dog unjustly—Guinefort had in fact protected the baby. To make amends, he buried the dog in a well and planted a grove of trees around it as a memorial.

As the story of the brave and loyal Guinefort spread, people began to visit the well and brought their sick children there for healing. There are reports of women leaving salt as an offering, or placing children in the grove with lit candles overnight in hopes they would be healed by morning.

These local rituals had continued for about a hundred years when a friar named Stephen of Bourbon heard of the legend and the local custom [PDF]. He declared that the veneration of a dog was heathen—the people who were asking for intercession from the saint were really invoking demons, he said, and the women leaving their children at the shrine overnight were trying to commit infanticide. He had the dog’s body dug up and burned, and the trees cut down.

But the cult of St. Guinefort lived on, and the locals continued to pray to him. A folklorist found that the well and grove still existed in the late 1870s, while a historian discovered evidence that people were still venerating the dog-saint after World War I. Reverberations of his legend—that of a dog-healer living in the forest—seem to have lasted as late as the 1960s.

A stylized illuminated manuscript-type illustration of a greyhound
Wikimedia // Public domain

St. Guinefort was never officially recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church—or anyone else. In order to recognize someone as a saint, the Vatican requires evidence that the person led a holy life and performed miracles. (They also usually require evidence that the individual was human.) But the legend of St. Guinefort dates to before this process of sainthood was formalized, when individuals of great holiness were often spontaneously acclaimed by the people in their local areas.

As it turns out, the Guinefort legend has parallels around the world. There are similar legends elsewhere in Europe and beyond of loyal dogs that are killed after being accused of endangering a child they had in fact protected. One legend from 13th century Wales concerns a dog named Gelert, who saved a child from a wolf but was killed when his master misunderstood the bloodied scene (and thought he'd killed his child instead of the wolf). There is a more modern echo of the story in the film Lady and the Tramp (1955), when Tramp defends a baby from a rat and is hauled off by the dogcatcher for his trouble. In India, a similar story is told about a woman who kills a mongoose who has defended her son from a snake; in Malaysia, the protector is a tame bear who defends a child from a tiger. Folklorists think the tales are told as a caution against acting too hastily in the heat of the moment.

By some accounts, August 22 is St. Guinefort's feast day (although this may be a confusion with an earlier, human saint). And while there's no official dog saint, if you need heavenly intercession for any canine problems, the patron saint of dogs and dog owners is St. Roch—who is also the patron saint for those, like Guinefort, who were unjustly accused.

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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