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Going viral like it's 1999: The story of 'Dogs in Elk'29:16
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This Oct. 27, 1999 file photo shows a pair of male tule elk on Tomales Point in Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
This Oct. 27, 1999 file photo shows a pair of male tule elk on Tomales Point in Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

"I know how to take meat away from a dog. How do I take a dog away from meat?"

This was a real question posed in Salon.com's Table Talk forum in 1999. What ensued from there as internet strangers jumped in to respond played out like, well, a play.

In this episode, the Endless Thread team performs the accidental, online, collaborative comedy that came to be known as "Dogs in Elk" by the people who made this strange story an early viral internet sensation.

This story came to us from listener Anne Pelz. Thank you, Anne!

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    Full Transcript:

    This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

    Ben Brock Johnson: What was your initial reaction to this story when you first came across it? 

    Janet Burge: Well, you know, to be honest, the first one is like, wow, this is kind of gruesome. 

    Amory Sivertson: Yes, today we have a story for you that is kind of gruesome, as our new friend Janet said. But…

    Janet: You know, and then you read it, you're like, well, that's also really funny.  

    Ben: This gruesomely funny story came to us from a listener, Anne Pelz…

    Amory: And the story came to Anne from her good friend Janet Burge, who’s a computer science professor at Colorado College by day, and by night…

    Ben: You play D and D?  

    Janet: I do.  

    Ben: What's your character, what do you got? What's your character?  

    Janet: Well, my current one is actually a rogue, and this was actually one where my...  

    Amory: Alright, I’m gonna spare you Ben and Janet’s Dungeons and Dragons nerdery because this story isn’t about D&D… it just came up in Anne and Janet’s D&D group.

    Janet: Most of my friends, we all were living in Massachusetts when we started playing the game together, and one of them has a bit of land. You know, we were talking about wildlife. Of course, in Colorado, where I live now, I get lots of wildlife. I mentioned, Oh yeah, there were coyotes, and he had a deer carcass in his yard. And I'm like, "Oh, you guys heard of dogs in elk?" And they're all like, what? 

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Janet: So I put the link in the chat and… 

Ben: And Anne put that link in the ET inbox…

Amory: And we, too, were like…

Ben & Amory: WHAT?!

Amory: Ben, it’s time to fire up the ol’ time machine…

Ben: (time machine noises)

Amory: …because to tell this story, we gotta party like it’s 1999.

Ben: Yep, we’re going back to the early days of widespread internet use–remember those?–and the early days of online forums and chatrooms.

Amory: And we’re transporting us to a specific conversation in one of these forums that ended up transcending the chatroom itself.

Ben: What happens in the chatroom doesn’t stay in the chatroom?

Amory: Yeah. Because this conversation-turned-internet-story was so WILD – literally – that it experienced a level and style of virality that was before its time, and that even computer-savvy folks like Janet hadn’t seen before.

Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson.

Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson. And you’re listening to Endless Thread.

Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR Station.

Ben: Do you think this story is real?

Janet: I don't know, it's kind of on this threshold where the details are almost too strange and specific that you kind of think, how would somebody make this up? You also have to almost wonder if if it was made up, if the other people were involved in this  

Amory: In the ruse?  

Janet: Yeah, because you know, you get the question and then there's like this, you know, response like, "Oh yes, I did call my vet and this is what happened." And...   

Ben: So they're like putting on a play.

Janet: It really kind of reads like this in a way. 

Ben: Huh. 

Amory: Huh indeed. So you know what we had to do, right? We had to round up some of our colleagues, and…

Ben: Lights!

Amory: Places!

Ben: Curtain.

Amory reading as Anne V: Sep 9th, 1999, 1:01pm, Pacific Time. Okay - I know how to take meat away from a dog. How do I take a dog away from meat? This is not, unfortunately, a joke. 

Ben reading as Amy C: Um, can you give us a few more specifics here? 

Anne V: They're inside of it. They crawled inside, and now I have a giant incredibly heavy piece of carcass in my yard, with 2 dogs inside of it, and they are not getting bored of it and coming out. One of them is snoring. I have company arriving in three hours, and my current plan is to, 1) put up a tent over said carcass and 2) hang thousands of fly strips inside it. This has been going on since about 6:40 this morning. 

Amy C: Oh. My. God. What sort of carcass is big enough to hold a couple of dogs inside? Given the situation, I'm afraid you're not going to be able to create enough of a diversion to get the dogs out of the carrion, unless they like greeting company as much as they like rolling around in dead stuff. Which seems unlikely. Can you turn a hose on the festivities? 

Paul Vaitkus reading as Ase Innes-Ker: I'm sorry, Anne. I know this is a problem… and it would have driven me crazy… but it is also incredibly funny. 

Anne V: Elk. Elk are very big this year, because of the rain and good grazing and so forth. And they aren't rolling… they’re alternately napping and eating. They each have a ribcage. Other dogs are working on them from the outside. It's all way too primal in my yard right now. We tried the hose trick at someone else’s house, which is where they climbed in and began to refuse to come out. Many hours ago. I think that the hose mostly helps keep them cool and dislodges little moist snacks for them. Hose failed. My new hope is that if they all continue to eat at this rate, they’ll be finished before the houseguests arrive. The very urban houseguests. Oh, god - I know it's funny. It's appalling, and funny, and completely entirely representative of life with dogs. 

Matt Reed reading as Kristen R: I'm so glad I read this thread, dogless as I am. Dogs in elk. Dogs in elk. 

Anne V: It's like that children’s book - dogs in elk, dogs on elk, dogs around elk, dogs outside elk. And there is some elk inside of, as well as on, each dog at this point. 

Nora Saks reading as Elizabeth K: Anne, aren't you in Arizona or Nevada? There are elk there? I'm so confused! We definitely need to see pics of Gus Pong and Jake in the elk carcass. 

Anne V: I’m in New Mexico, but there are elk in both Arizona and Nevada, yes. There are elk all over the da*n place. The dogs don't look out very often. If you stand the ribcage on end, they scramble to the top and look out, all red. Otherwise, you kinda have to get in there a little bit yourself to really see them. So I think there will NOT be pictures. 

Quincy Walters reading as CoseyMo: "All red"... I'm not sure the deeper horror of all this was fully borne in upon me till I saw that little phrase. 

Anne V: Well, you know, the Basenji (that would be Jake) is a desert dog, naturally, and infamous for its aversion to water. And then, Gus Pong (who is coming to us, live, unamplified and with a terrific reverb which is making me a little dizzy) really doesn't mind water, but hates to be cold. Or soapy. And both of them can really run. Sprints of up to 35 mph have been clocked. So. If ever they come out, catching them and returning them to a condition where they can be considered house pets is not going to be, shall we say, pleasant. 

CoseyMo: What if you stand the ribcage on end, wait for them to look out, grab them when they do, and pull? 

Anne V: They wedge their toes between the ribs. And scream. We tried that before we brought the elk home from the mountain with dogs inside. Jake nearly took my friend’s arm off. He's already short a toe, so he cherishes the 15 that remain. 

Emily Jankowski reading as Linda Hewitt: Have you thought about calling your friendly vet and paying them to come pick up the dogs and elk, and letting the dogs stay at the vet’s overnight? If anyone would know what to do, it would be your vet. It might cost some money, but it would solve the immediate crisis. Keep us posted. 

Grace Tatter reading as Christi Peters: Yikes! My sympathy! When I lived in New Mexico, my best friend's dog (the escape artist) was continually bringing home road kill. When there was no road kill convenient, he would visit the neighbor's house. Said neighbor slaughtered his own beef. The dog found all kinds of impossibly gross toys in the neighbor's trash pit. I have always had medium to large dogs. Our current dog (daughter's choice) is a Pomeranian. A very small Pomeranian. I'm afraid I'll break her. 

Dean Russell reading as Lori Shiraishi: Bet you could fit a whole lot of Pomeranians in that there elk carcass! Anne - my condolences on what must be an unbelievable situation! 

Anne V: I did call my vet. He laughed until he was gagging and breathless. He said a lot of things, which can be summed as *what did you expect?* and *no, there is no such thing as too much elk meat for a dog.* He is planning to stop over and take a look on his way home. Thanks, though. I’ve almost surrendered to the absurdity of it. 

Lori Shiraishi: "He is planning to stop over and take a look on his way home." So he can fall down laughing in person? 

Anne V: Basically, yeah. That would be about it. 

Amy C: “No, there is no such thing as too much elk meat for a dog." Oh, sweet lord, Anne. You have my deepest sympathies in this, perhaps the most peculiar of the Gus Pong Adventures. You are truly a woman of superhuman patience. Wait — you carried the carcass down from the mountains with the dogs INSIDE???

Anne V: The carcass down from the mountains with the dogs inside? no, well, sort of. My part in the whole thing was to get really stressed about a meeting that I had to go to, and say *yeah, ok, whatever* when it was suggested that the ribcages, since we couldn't get the dogs out of them and the dogs couldn't be left there, be brought to my house. Because, you know - I just thought they would get bored of it sooner or later. But it appears to be later, in the misty uncertain future, that they will get bored. Now, they are still interested. And very loud, one singing, one snoring. 

Lori Shiraishi: And very loud, one singing, one snoring. wow. I can't even begin to imagine the acoustics involved with singing from the inside of an elk. 

Anne V: Reverb. lots and lots of reverb. 

[MUSIC]

Anne V: Two hours later. I'll tell you the thing that is causing me to lose it again and again, and then I have to go back outside and stay there for a while. After the meeting, I said to my (extraordinary) boss, "look, I've gotta go home for the rest of the day, I think. Jake and Gus Pong are inside some elk ribcages, and my dad is coming tonight, so I've got to get them out somehow." And he said, pale and huge-eyed, "Annie, how did you explain the elk to the clients?" The poor, poor man thought I had the carcasses brought to work with me. For some reason, I find this deeply funny. Alright, I’m gonna pause for the weekend. 

[MUSIC]

Anne V: Monday, Sep 13, 1999, 8:37am Pacific Time. So what we did was put the ribcages (containing dogs) on tarps and drag them around to the side yard, where I figured they would at least be harder to see. And then we opened my bedroom window so that the dogs could let me know when they were ready to be plunged into a de-elking solution and let in the house. Then I went to the airport. Came home, no visible elk, no visible dogs. Peeked around the shrubs, and there they were, still in the elk. By this time, they had gnawed out some little portholes between some of the ribs, and you got the occasional very frightening glimpse of something moving around in there if you watched long enough. After a lot of agonizing, I went to bed. I closed the back door, made sure my window was open, talked to the dogs out of it until I was sure they knew it was open, and then I fell asleep. Sometimes, sleep is a mistake, no matter how tired you are. And especially if you are very very tired, and some of your dogs are outside, inside some elks. Because when you are that tired, you sleep through bumping kind of noises, or you kind of think that it's just the house guests. It wasn't the house guests. It was my dogs, having an attack of teamwork unprecedented in our domestic history. When I finally woke all the way up, it was to a horrible vision. Somehow, 3 dogs with a combined weight of about 90 pounds, managed to hoist one of the ribcages (the meatier one, of course) up 3 feet to rest on top of the swamp cooler outside the window, and push out the screen. What woke me was Gus Pong, howling in frustration from inside the ribcage, very close to my head, combined with feverish little grunts from Jake, who was standing on the nightstand, bracing himself against the curtains with remarkably bloody little feet. Here are some things I have learned this weekend: 1. Almond milk removes elk blood from curtains and pillowcases, 2. We can all exercise superhuman strength when it comes to getting elk carcasses out of our yard, 3. The sight of elk ribcages hurtling over the fence really frightens the nice deputy sheriff who lives across the street, and 4. the dogs can pop the screens out of the windows, without damaging them, from either side. 

Anne V: What I am is really grateful that they didn't actually get the damn thing in the window, which is clearly the direction they were going in. And that the nice deputy didn't arrest me for terrifying her with elk parts before dawn. 

Amy C: Imagine waking up with a gnawed elk carcass in your bed, like a real-life "Godfather" with an all-dog cast. 

Anne V: There is not enough almond milk in the world to solve an event of that kind.

Ben: And there you have it. Dogs in Elk!

Amory: What the elk was that??? In a minute.

[SPONSOR BREAK]

Amory: So where did you first encounter this particular story?  

Janet: So I encountered this story on Salon.com in their early days, had a kind of a message board called Table Talk. 

Ben: Again, computer science professor Janet Burge.

Janet: The original plan was people were going to use it to discuss Salon articles, you know, and kind of build engagement. But then it just sort of took off into sort of its own thing, you know, where they'd have all of these different forums, you know, they had one member. There was one I thought was memorably titled “Mothers Who Think,” you know?  

Ben: Oh, oh, no. Oh, that is like that is like SNL level satire title, that is amazing. 

Amory: Oh, we're going to have to we're going to have-- that's a separate radio play for a separate day. 

Ben and Amory: Mothers Who Think hahaha.  

Amory: The Dogs in Elk conversation did not come out of “Mothers Who Think.” Janet thinks it was part of a pets forum that she was in.

Janet: I don't remember if I saw it while it was being posted or if I saw it later or as a repost, but you know, it was quite memorable, haha. 

Ben: Different forums for discussing specific topics. Sounds familiar, right?

Janet: And it has some similarities to something like Reddit, except this was early search engine days and this wasn't really something that– The search engines couldn't pick these kinds of things up anyway, so you would really only find out about things if you were on these forums or if you had a friend who was on these forums and then was disseminating this. So one of the copies of this online was something that clearly somebody who captured this and mailed it if I canceled it, emailed it because it kind of says on their subject date and then it says forwards removed. So someone had seen this. And the way that funny stuff got disseminated back in 1999 was people were emailing everybody. You get on this giant email thread that you can't get out of. 

Ben: Oh, I remember this.  

Janet: I do not miss that part.  

Ben: Oh god, the forwarding. So bad. 

Amory: I have to point out that the subject of this email that I'm seeing is I'm glad I have cats

Janet: Oh yeah, the cats just bring you tiny little carcasses.  

Ben: Yeah, that's true. 

Janet: But they and they do leave them on your pillows. So, you know,  

Ben: usually missing a head. 

Janet: One time I only found the tail. 

Ben: Oh god. 

Ben: So the Dogs in Elk story was making its way around the internet in 1999 fashion – getting forwarded and distributed across insufferable, inescapable email lists. But Janet says there are many things about the conversation itself that make it feel like an artifact of the internet.

Janet: Well, certainly, you know things, I think people were very careful how they were presenting themselves. You know, you'll notice it's everything is very well written. You know, people weren't typing this out on smartphones. They were doing this on computers. Many of them were probably doing it on computers at work because you'll notice at a point in the story where they say pause for weekend, and that's because home internet then, you know, you didn't really start getting broadband into the home instead of until, like the early 2000s.  

Ben: "Pause for weekend" is a thing I think we've got to bring back.  

Janet: There was something to be said for that. I actually I kept my dial up for probably longer than I should have because there was something to be said for not being able to spend all my time playing around on the internet.  

Amory: To me when I first read through this story, it  feels like something that you would find on the subreddit Today I F’d Up. I don't know if you're a Redditor or if you know that subreddit, but that's how it reads to me — where like today, yes, this story is crazy, but this is the kind of thing that people-- there's a space for this kind of story, whereas probably in 1999 that space didn't quite exist yet. And so this felt extra shocking and weird. 

Ben: Right.

Janet: You know, and of course, looking back on it, it's fascinating how it's sort of unspooling over time, you know, because now I would more expect to see, you know, something all written out. But this just sort of started with a question and then the story kind of built as the people reading it were engaging with the original poster.  

Ben: And as Janet also pointed out to us, the commenters – and the original poster – all appear to be using their real names in this forum.

Janet: Usually first names, but, you know, and it was different on other threads – there were some where people would make up their screen names and have a little bit more not intimidate. But it was definitely, definitely felt a bit different than the internet now where I think most people realize that nothing is going to be private.

Amory: The person at the center of the Dogs in Elk story used just her first name and last initial: Anne V. But I found her full name easily enough, and a few potential phone numbers for her.

[("Your call cannot be completed as dialed..." Amory: Alright, alright.]

Amory: The first was a bust.

[Amory: (beep beep beep) It always says “User busy”!]

Amory: As was the second.

[Amory: (phone ringing)]

Amory: But the third

[Amory: (beep) Hi there, my name is Amory...]

Amory: It went to voicemail. Both times. Still haven’t heard back.

Ben: But someone did reach Anne about a month after the Dogs in Elk incident went down… someone who got her attention by making what may have been the first meme of Dogs in Elk. It was called “Dogs in Elk… in Vegetables.”

Janet: Yeah. So what somebody did was they actually sort of took the text of this and they had on one side of the page they have the OP story, and then they have all of the, you know, the other people responding to this. And then they had, as the story went on, they had a carved pumpkin with little carved pumpkin dogs and some tomato sauce to put blood in it and had the pumpkin looking like a rib cage. And it was very strange. And of course now you have all sorts of fan art with these funny internet stories.

Ben: Yeah. 

Janet: One of the recent ones is the Jorts and Jean, and there's a Jorts cross-stitch. And there's a little somebody did a little crochet Jorts they posted on Twitter. And we all see these things because they post them on social media so things can go viral in very different ways than, you know, when it's a email thread where you usually know the people sending it.  

Amory: I look at stuff like this and I'm like, People are so weird. Humans are so weird. This is what we choose to do with our big brains. I love it. 

Ben: The person behind “Dogs in Elk in Vegetables” – a guy named Rob – emailed Anne V and asked the uncomfortable question: "Is this for real?" She responded…

Amory: “Sure, I can attest. I mean, I can tell you that it really did happen… The thing about the dogs in elk thing is this - with the dogs I have, especially Gus Pong, who is a New Guinea Singing Dog, and a complete freak of primitive dogdom, dogs in elk is in some ways a fairly minor event, in that it involved fewer people than usual. Sharing a house with a very primitive, deeply attached and wildly inspired animal has led me into all sorts of situations I never anticipated as a pet owner.”

Ben: She goes on to talk about how Gus Pong is a subspecies of dingo and a hunting dog, so he eats a lot of game. And the elk carcasses that Jake and Gus Pong were in? Anne had picked them up from a hunter who didn’t want the meat. She just… made the mistake of bringing the dogs with her to pick them up, and then… couldn’t get them out.

Amory: She also mentions how astonished she was that a conversation on Table Talk made it all around the internet, and beyond. She writes, “My mother has gotten multiple copies from friends, asking if my dogs are *really* that out of control.” Here’s Janet again.

Janet: And yeah, I'm thinking of the fact that when we put something out online. You know, unless it's living on our own personal machine that we're backing up, somehow we don't really have control over both where it goes necessarily and also its longevity. 

Ben: “Dogs in Elk” has continued to pop up in unexpected places around the internet over the years. The link sent to us was from the blog of the late science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, for example. The story has even outlasted its birthplace on the internet, Salon.com’s Table Talk message board.

Janet: These forums started in, I think, 1995, and I think it was like 2011 before they finally shut it down. And think of all those years, you know, years of posts and things that people have been writing, and some people were very invested in their writing. And then all of this just sort of went away. It's interesting to think what things we preserve, what things we don't preserve.  

Amory: The internet operates VERY differently now than it did in 1999. But it’s nice to know that some stories can make it from message boards, to email lists, to pumpkins, to blogs, to D&D groups, to you.

Amory: Thank you for talking to us, Janet. We really appreciate it.  

Janet: Oh, you're welcome. 

Ben: And now… pause for weekend.

[CREDITS]

Amory: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.

Ben: Do you want early tickets to events, swag, bonus content, my elk field dressing videos, Amory's vegan dog food recipes? Join our email list! You’ll find it at wbur.org/endlessthread. Also do us a huge favor and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. It helps us find new friends!

Amory: This episode was written, produced and co-hosted by me, Amory Sivertson…

Ben: And Ben Brock Johnson. Mix and Sound Design by Emily Jankowski.

Amory: Thanks to our teammates who lent their voices for our Dogs in Elk audio play: Dean Russell, Nora Saks, Quincy Walters, Grace Tatter, Emily Jankowski, Matt Reed, and Paul Vaitkus. Our web producer is Rachel Carlson.

Ben: Thanks again to listener Anne Pelz who sent us the Dogs in Elk story — NOT to be confused with  Anne V., the OWNER of the dogs in elk... who we're still hoping to hear from. Call us, Anne!

Amory: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between digital communities and the raw shredded cavernous ribcage of a large beast. If you’ve got an untold history, an unsolved mystery, or a wild story from the internet that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email endlessthread@wbur.org.

Amory Sivertson Twitter Senior Producer, Podcasts
Amory Sivertson is a senior producer for podcasts and the co-host of Endless Thread.

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Ben Brock Johnson Twitter Executive Producer, Podcasts
Ben Brock Johnson is the executive producer of podcasts at WBUR and co-host of the podcast Endless Thread.

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