What’s the best animal to slice open and crawl inside to stay warm?

January 13, 2012

Dear Cecil:

In The Empire Strikes Back there’s a scene where Han Solo must cut open his tauntaun and climb inside the steaming corpse with Luke. They do this to avoid what appear to be Arctic conditions on the ice planet Hoth. My questions: If I were to find myself in similar conditions on Earth, what would be the best animal of similar size (300 to 600 kilos) to slice up and crawl inside, and how long could I seek refuge in the corpse?

Cecil replies:

No doubt about it, the home mortgage crisis has entered an alarming new phase. However, taking shelter inside dead animals can’t really be considered an affordable housing option. For one thing, in the movie, Han doesn’t crawl into the tauntaun himself; he merely stuffs the freezing Luke into it while he sets up conventional shelter, probably using an FHA-backed loan. What’s more, he does this only because the tauntaun has just conveniently died. Had the mephitic beast still been ambulatory, a better plan would have been to ride it back to the hotel. My point is, don’t start eyeing local mammals unless you’ve ruled out doubling up with the in-laws first.

Let’s suppose, though, that you’re caught seriously short. For example, you’re the disgraced CEO of a bankrupt hedge fund that can’t account for hundreds of millions of dollars of its customers’ money. Naturally your innate sense of justice and honor obliges you to sell all your personal assets to pay everybody back. But it’s too nippy to live in a barrel, and they won’t let you run a tab at the Motel 6. What animal do you choose?

Many large warm-blooded critters would do, such as a bear, water buffalo, or rhinoceros. Historically, however, the emergency refuge of choice was a horse. Here we have a problem. Where these days can you find a horse?

The U.S. has more horses than you might think — by one estimate, more than nine million. However, it’s fair to say they’re virtually all horses somebody wants. Slice one open even in case of dire necessity and you’re likely to hear from one PO’d little girl or dressage buff. Cows are less of an issue, but you still take the chance of having PETA come over and picket your house.

A possible alternative is to head up to Alaska, where not only is the political if not the actual climate more favorable, there are hundreds of thousands of free-range caribou, as we’ve recently learned. The drawback is that the caribou, like most deer, is much smaller than a horse, maxing out at about 200 kilograms, so you’re likely to have to settle for warming up selected extremities rather than your entire person. From the standpoint of adequate accommodation and availability, you’d better resign yourself to a cow.

Now for the practicalities. The TV program Man vs. Wild featured an episode where its host skinned, disemboweled, and crawled inside an Arabian camel, claiming Berber tribesmen did so as emergency shelter from sandstorms. A likely story; nonetheless he was in fact able to get most of himself in there. Just recently a creepette from Portland, Oregon, signed up for her 15 minutes of fame by stripping naked and climbing inside the bloody carcass of a horse while her boyfriend took gruesome glamour shots. So we know it can be done.

That said, I could find only one case where someone had actually climbed into an animal to survive the cold as opposed to trying to get on TV, namely an intrepid pioneer priest named Father Goiffon. Assigned to minister to the hamlet of Pembina, North Dakota, Goiffon was summoned in August 1860, to Saint Paul, Minnesota, for a church meeting. He went but rightly feared he wouldn’t make it back home before winter. Goiffon began the return trip in bad weather in late October, and, after camping with fellow travelers on November 1, ventured alone into the wilderness. The rain turned to snow, and he got lost. When his horse finally died, the enterprising priest cut open its belly and crawled inside the carcass. He was mostly successful — his equine sleeping bag saved his life, but he lost his leg due to frostbite.

How much time would sheltering in a deceased animal buy you? Assuming a bitterly cold day (9 degrees Fahrenheit), a stiff wind (12 miles per hour), and a 500-kilogram cow with half its insides scooped out, and factoring in the heat produced by the resident human, my assistant Una estimates the cow’s body would lose about 3 degrees per hour. She concludes you’d have right around 15 hours, best case, before hypothermia set in.

What then? Ideally you want a long-term solution such as a nice condo. However, given the national predilection for kicking the can down the road, probably all you can hope for is enough cows to last till spring.

Father Goiffon: Not that into horses

Dear Cecil:

I am surprised and shocked that you could be so easily misled. I refer to the story about sheltering inside a large animal carcass in cold weather. Mr. Houle who wrote that trash on the Internet picked it up from a men's magazine that came up with that nonsense story in the 1950s. In October 1860 Father Goiffon was nowhere near St. Paul, Minnesota; he was up in Manitoba, Canada. The story, taken from parish records, can be found here. Briefly the story is that Father Goiffon took shelter by lying down next to his dead horse, not inside it … [I]f you are going to field dress or gut a large animal … merely cutting open the animal will get nothing for you. You have to get in with both hands and arms and pull and believe me there is a lot to pull. When you are finally done … you will be covered with blood and body fluids up your arms to your elbows … If you are out in below zero weather the last thing you want to do is let yourself get wet … The fact is that when you are out in the woods in winter and you get cold, you find shelter and make a fire with the waterproof matches and firestarter you brought in a waterproof container. If you were dumb enough to be out in the woods without it, frankly you deserve to die.

Cecil replies:

One acknowledges the practical difficulties, Roderick. However, if I'm freezing out in the woods with (a) no waterproof matches, etc., but (b) a dead horse, you may be certain I'll give the latter a try.

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References

Bakken, George S. “A Heat Transfer Analysis of Animals: Unifying Concepts and the Application of Metabolism Chamber Data to Field Ecology” Journal of Theoretical Biology 60 (1976): 337-384.

Keren, E.N. and Olson, B.E. “Thermal balance of cattle grazing winter range: Model application” Journal of Animal Science 84 (2006): 1238-1247.

Lucas, George, Glut, Donald F., and Kahn, James. Star Wars Omnibus London, UK: Warner Books Division of Little, Brown, & Company (UK), 1995.

Willmer, Pat, Stone, G., and Johnston, Ian. Environmental Physiology of Animals Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

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