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Toys Are Made for Dogs to Rip: the Wookey Hole Cave Massacre

How Elvis Presley's teddy bear, Mabel, met her demise.

Plush toys, like teddy bears and fluffy animals, seem to be among the favorite toys for dogs. Waggle one in front of your dog's face and give it a toss and even dogs who have very little hunting instinct will usually race after the toy, grab it, and then, very often, start to dismember it. I often stop local thrift shops and Salvation Army stores to pick up a few small plush toys which are usually sold for less than a dollar. These are then sacrificed to my dogs who proceed to tear off their heads and limbs and scatter their filling about, much to my wife's dismay.

Wookey Hole Caves - Creative Commons Lisence CC1
Source: Wookey Hole Caves - Creative Commons Lisence CC1

Because such toys are so irresistible to dogs, I sometimes use them in my dog obedience class, scattering them around the room and then asking students to heel their dog around the toys, while trying to keep their dog's focus on the task and not on the toy. One evening, during such an exercise, I watched a woman struggling with a young Labrador retriever who insisted on grabbing any toy which came within reach. In exasperation she finally called out to me and said "This is not fair. Even trained guard dogs sometimes find these kinds of toys too tempting to ignore." She then went on to tell me a story about a teddy bear, named Mabel, which had been owned by Elvis Presley and eventually fell prey to a fully trained Doberman pinscher named Barney. Her description sounded incredible to me so I decided to check it out. It turns out that the story was true. While this narrative may demonstrate how enticing such toys are for dogs, it also may be interpreted as a tragic tale of jealousy resulting in the murder of a plush toy.

The story unfolded in 2006 at a tourist attraction in Somerset England. The caves have been used since the Paleolithic era, and various artifacts and skeletons have been found in them. In modern times one of the attractions is the Witch of Wookey. This is a hunched outcrop of rock that looks something like a human figure. The tale that is told about this rock is that it is the petrified remains of a sorceress who was turned into stone by a Glastonbury monk.

In addition to the caves there are number of other attractions, including a collection of special and rare teddy bears. The collection attracts 300,000 people each year and is valued at $1.2 million. The insurance company felt that this set of toys was valuable enough for them to insist on hiring highly trained guard dogs to ensure its safety. Hence enter Barney, the Doberman pinscher.

The femme fatale in this story was a teddy bear named Mabel who had been made by the famous German toymaker Margarete Steiff in 1909. In the early 1970s Elvis Presley purchased it for his daughter Lisa Marie. Mabel normally lives at Maunsel House, which is a 13th century manor . It is owned by Sir Benjamin Slade who is a collector of Elvis memorabilia. Sir Benjamin purchased Mabel for $75,000 at a Memphis auction and she was lent to the Wookey Hole Cave exhibition.

The most valuable pieces at the exhibition are normally kept in glass cases. Since Mabel had just arrived she was on a work surface while she was being prepared to go on display. Barney's handler, Greg West, was on duty and saw Mabel lying there. Plush toys are almost as irresistible to humans as they are to dogs, and most of us reach out to touch or pet them when the opportunity arises. This was the case for West as well. A moment later Barney grabbed the bear and when the mauling was over Mabel's chest had a gaping hole and her head had nearly been torn off. But the trouble did not end there since the six-year-old Doberman pinscher was now in a plush toy frenzy.

Daniel Medley, the exhibition's manager described what happened next, "Once Mabel had been prized out of his jaws he [Barney] then went on a rampage. He was pulling arms off, heads off, and there was fluffy stuffing everywhere. Up to 100 bears were involved in the massacre. It was a dreadful scene."

Barney's handler Greg West struggled for some 10 minutes before he could get the dog back under control. At the end of that brief period approximately $35,000 worth of damage had been done to the array of toys.

So what happened to turn Barney the Doberman into a serial toy killer? Mister West tried to explain, "Barney has been a model guard dog for more than six years. I still can't believe what happened. Either there was a rogue scent of some kind on Mabel which switched on Barney's deepest instincts, or — it could've been jealousy. When it happened I was stroking Mabel and saying what a nice little bear she was."

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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