Spring 2012 Magazine

Casa Canine

Revisiting Old Yeller
"The best doggone dog in the west"

By Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

As are millions of Americans, I am an avowed dog lover. Dogs are a part of my family. They are part of my profession. I write stories, articles, children's books and this column about dogs. I can't imagine my life with out a dog. If you are a dog lover, you understand completely.

Where does it come from - our love for dogs? My parents loved dogs and I am sure that their attitude passed to me. We did not have a dog in our family until I was 12 years old yet my obsession with dogs began long before that. Books, television shows and films about dogs filled in the years before my first dog, Cocoa, entered my life.

A recent visit to Walt Disney World with my grandchildren stimulated several conversations about classic Disney movies. Their curiosity about the older movies led me to think about my favorite Disney movies. Several came to mind, all of them Disney dog movies familiar to baby boomers like me: Old Yeller (1957), Big Red (1962) and The Incredible Journey (1963). I hadn't seen any of these films since my childhood. Yet I remember them with great affection and can conjure up the emotional tug of critical scenes in those movies as if I'd watched them yesterday. But for me, Old Yeller stands out as awakening my compassion and empathy for dogs.

Disney Studios has produced over forty feature-length animated and live-action films with dogs as the central characters. These span 56 years from Lady & the Tramp in 1955 to Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2 in 2011. Old Yeller was released in 1957. Unlike the animated and the more recent live-action dog films, Old Yeller does not feature talking animals. Only the human actors speak. The character of the dog is conveyed through his behavior.

The movie Old Yeller is an adaptation of the 1956 book of the same name by Fred Gipson. The story takes place in the hill country of post-Civil War West Texas. The title character is a large, yellow mongrel (Labrador retriever/mixed breed). Lop-eared with graying brows and face, the dog is called Old Yeller. He strays onto the property of a small cattle ranch. The father is away on a cattle drive. His wife, Kitty and two sons, the elder Travis and the young Arliss, remain. Travis has to bear the responsibility for the survival of the ranch in his father's absence. The dog steals some food and 15-year old Travis is hell-bent on driving the dog away. The crux of the movie is the change in Travis's feelings for Old Yeller as the dog time and again comes to the aid of the family. Toward the end of the movie, Yeller saves Kitty and a neighbor girl from attack by a rabid wolf. Yeller is injured in the fight. Unwilling to destroy the dog, Travis confines Yeller to a pen for a month with the hope that Yeller has not been infected with the incurable disease. On the next to the last day of confinement, Yeller develops rabies. The parents are compassionate with Travis as they tell him that Yeller must be relieved of his suffering, which at that time and place meant being shot. With no hope for Yeller's recovery, Travis accepts the responsibility and puts Yeller out of his pain. A gunshot rings out but the shooting of the dog is tactfully not shown. Even though I knew what to expect, the scene still had the power to move me to tears. The themes of loss, suffering and grief are handled with sensitivity. Travis is at first inconsolable and his parents allow him time to grieve. The movie ends with Travis finally accepting a puppy that had been sired by Old Yeller.

The emotional affect of Old Yeller is palpable even today. My attitude toward animal suffering and the humane ending of pain has surely been affected by this movie. I have not let my own dogs suffer. I have written on this topic with the hope of helping other people choose humane options. As difficult as the topic is, the movie handled it well and was ahead of its time in allowing the humans to feel grief over the loss of a beloved dog without judgment. In comparing the movie to other animal films of the era, the sensitivity of the movie was recognized by the New York Times movie critic A. H. Weiler (9/3/1962):

"Walt Disney and his loyal confreres probably are the world's most rabid animal adorers, barring the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the anti-vivisectionists. His admiration, while bestowed on a variety of fauna, is notable in his cinematic treatment of dogs, as in "Old Yeller."

Old Yeller is portrayed as an intelligent, loyal, brave, thinking being capable of feeling pain, affection and joy. The dog is loved and valued by Travis and his family. He is deemed worthy in his death of the grief felt by the humans in his life. To me there is no doubt that my love, respect and humane concern for dogs are due in large part to the early influence of this movie. I would bet I am not the only one. Old Yeller remains a canine film classic.

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is a writer and columnist for PETroglyphs and an author of children's books about dogs. She lives with her husband and her two canine companions, Gus and Etta.

Further information: Old Yeller is available for purchase online from Disney. The DVD can be rented from from Netflix and is available for online viewing from Amazon Video On Demand. The book Old Yeller by Fred Gipson is available from Amazon and other book outlets. The book is rated for ages 10 years and up.

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