By Grady Timmons
When The Nature Conservancy bought Palmyra from the Fullard-Leo family in the spring of 2000, one of the conditions of the sale was that the existing pets—three dogs and two cats—be allowed to live out their lives on the atoll.
Two of the dogs died within a few years, but the other lived to be at least 15. His name was Dadu, and when he was laid to rest a year ago this fall the atoll lost its most famous resident.
“Dadu was Palmyra’s shark-chasing dog,” says Conservancy marine scientist Kydd Pollock. “He wasn’t scared of anything.”
Beloved by staff and celebrated by visiting researchers, Dadu was the subject of blogs and YouTube videos and at one point had his own Facebook page. At the south-eastern end of the atoll there is even a small islet that now bears his name.
Dadu was a mongrel, a poi dog. He had a coarse, light brown coat and big black protruding ears. His many shark encounters had left scars on the side of his belly, and a chunk of his left ear was missing—the result of being picked on by the other dogs when he was young.
But as the only dog on a remote Pacific atoll, he led a charmed life. He could run and swim to his heart’s content and was well cared for and loved. Staff took him for walks along the beach and sewed him sweaters that he wore when it got cold. He pretty much slept where he wanted and was rarely denied his two favorite treats: sashimi and spam.
“He sure loved his spam,” recalled Katie Stadler, one of Palmyra rotating chefs and the woman who ran the galley. “He would sit, shake hands and give five just for a small taste of this treat….But the price to pay after such an indulgence would send everyone running. Dadu was known for his silent but deadly gas attacks!”
Growing up Wild
It’s believed that Dadu came to Palmyra as young pup from nearby Christmas Island, and that he was trained to hunt by a Frenchman who worked as the caretaker on the atoll. But at some point the Frenchman left and there was an eighth-month period when the dogs had to fend for themselves, subsisting on rats, crabs and juvenile sharks.
“It was an amazing sight to see the dogs scan the lagoon waters for a protruding shark fin,” says Stadler, who first met Dadu while serving as a chef on a VIP trip to Palmyra in 1999, before the Conservancy purchase. “Once they saw one, they’d take chase, herding the shark to shallow coral outcroppings, where they would surround and capture it.”
Growing up in the wild made Dadu very different from a typical domestic dog. “He was an intriguing animal,” says Pollock. “He had this knowledge of the island that made him fascinating to watch.”
Yet like most dogs, Dadu intensely disliked baths and anything else that put a crimp in his born-free lifestyle. David Sellers, the Conservancy’s operations manager for Palmyra, recalled the time he had to put a cone around Dadu’s neck to keep him from licking a wound.
“One night we were sitting around laughing about how he looked like a lamp,” he says. “I think Dadu knew we were laughing at him, because he gave us an indignant look and got up and left the room. About an hour later he comes back and there’s no cone. And to this day, we still don’t know what he did with it.”
A Fond Farewell
Well into his later years, Dadu remained a vital, active dog. But when his health started to decline, his hearing was among the first things to go. One day during a 2012 runway refurbishment project, Dadu took a nap behind a 4 x 4 truck that had come to pick up food supplies for the crew. When the driver re-started the engine, Dadu didn’t react and the rear wheels ran over his back hindquarters.
“Dadu made this loud yelping sound and dragged himself over to the bushes,” says Sellers. “I thought he might never come out. But within about 12 hours he was limping around. And within a few days it was hard to tell that he had ever been injured. After that, I thought Dadu was indestructible and might live forever. ”
But Dadu’s health continued to worsen and last fall he enjoyed his final days on the atoll. Today, he lies buried beneath the Chinese lantern trees along the path to North Beach, where he loved to walk and chase sharks.
Says Katie Stadler, “If you look at the trees, they look like they are upside down women, their roots being their arms, embracing Dadu as he rests.”