Thursday, 13 December 2012
My love letter to Inca the dog
Until her death this year, Inca was Ben Fogle's constant companion - she even found him a wife. Now, in this touching interview, he tells Fiona Hicks how a little dog changed his life in a VERY big way...Twelve years ago, an unknown, amiable young man named Ben Fogle was preparing to spend a year of his life on a remote island in the Outer Hebrides. He was part of a small group of people who were chosen to be part of Castaway, a TV programme-cum-social experiment.
They were each allowed to take one luxury on their unusual year out and while most opted for beds or pianos, Ben insisted on taking his dog. He could never have predicted how much that show, and his dog, would change his life.
Castaway was a huge success, and the charming Ben and his adorable Labrador, Inca, were the standout stars. Ben has since travelled the world, carving a career out of his encounters with animals and the natural Ben world. His latest book, The Accidental Naturalist, is a captivating account of his experiences.
‘It’s my sixth book and the one that I have enjoyed writing the most,’ he reveals. ‘It follows on from The Accidental Adventurer but in many ways it’s the prequel, the natural beginning, because it’s a lot about my childhood and how the animals I was surrounded by affected me. It’s the story of my life through animals.’
Ben’s writing is as sincere and engaging as the man himself. He says he finds the process very cathartic and the words on the page are very much unabridged. ‘I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve, and always been very honest. I hope that comes across on the page.’
In many ways, the book is an open letter to his beloved dog, Inca. ‘She was responsible for so much of my life,’ Ben says. He is adamant that Inca attracted the job offers that flooded in after his return from the Castaway island of Taransay and – perhaps even more pivotal – she helped him find a wife.
Ben used to notice a woman running with her dog, Maggie, in Hyde Park, where he walked Inca every morn-ing. It took him a year to work up the courage to talk to ‘Park Girl’ but once he had, he and the beautiful Marina were married within 18 months. ‘Interestingly it’s a mirror of my parents’ life, as they also met through their dogs. So in Fogle family lore, my children will both have to meet their other halves through their dogs,’ he laughs. ‘If we have a family coat of arms, it will definitely have to have a dog with a heart in it.’
As well as family affairs, the book tells of the exceptional ties between a man and his dog. ‘It’s a relationship of absolute loyalty on both parts,’ explains Ben. ‘I would go away for weeks on end travelling and when I came back, Inca would still be happy to see me. No matter what you’ve done, what’s happened in your life, whether you’re happy or sad, your dog is your ever-loyal companion. And on the other hand, a dog relies on its owner 100 per cent. It’s an unbreakable bond.’
Ben has written the book not just for dog lovers but also for those who ‘don’t have and even don’t want animals. I hope it shines a light on the funny, complex and emotive side of our relationship with animals.’
Sadly, just before publication of Ben’s book, Inca passed away. Ben wrote a heartfelt piece in The Telegraph about his grief and was overwhelmed by the reaction.
‘My story wasn’t unique in any sense. The reason I think I had such a massive response from people was that everyone could relate to it. ‘Where I was lucky, was that I have a wonderful family around me to keep me occupied. For some, their pet is the most important constant in their life.’
For this reason, Ben says, animal bereavement must not be underestimated. ‘People really do suffer. I can say that from first-hand experience. I don’t mind admitting that I actually had to take some medication for the panic attacks that I had in the immediate days afterwards.’
This is quite an admission, and perhaps a surprising one coming from a man who has undergone many terrifying and challenging experiences, including rowing across the Atlantic.
‘I consider myself strong physically and mentally,’ he continues, ‘and yet losing my dog tipped me over the edge. But there are ways of coping with it, and the reason for sharing my difficulty is so people understand that they’re not crazy for feeling that way.’
Ben’s grief was compounded by the fact that he had to make the decision to put Inca down.
‘One person actually wrote to me saying that Inca was fortunate in that she was afforded a luxury that humans aren’t, in that I could end her suffering.’ The experience made him examine his deeper feelings on this contentious topic. ‘The whole euthanasia issue is a huge one for me. I feel very strongly that I would like to be able to make my own decision, and more that I would like my family to make that decision if I can’t. We need to keep the debate open.’
On a lighter note, writing about animals brought up all sorts of other issues, not least vegetarianism. ‘I struggle with this one,’ Ben admits. ‘I am an animal lover and yet I am quite happy to bite into a hamburger.’
His eclectic career brought this into an interesting light when he went from filming a segment about guinea pig grooming at Longleat, straight to flying to Peru where he was required to bite the heads off guinea pigs as part of a traditional meal. ‘For me that kind of sums up this very strange relationship we have with animals: in one country a species is a pet that we love and groom, whereas in another it is merely a foodstuff.’ For the record, Ben did eat the guinea pig: ‘I do love animals. I also love the taste of meat.’
From riding elephants in Nepal to filming penguins in Antarctica, the rest of Ben’s book reads like every boy’s adventure dream. And for this vet’s son, a career working with animals is certainly a dream come true. ‘Is it an accident that I became a naturalist? Probably not. It is an accident how it happened? Definitely.’
He may not have anticipated the path Castaway would set him on, but with four television series set to broadcast next year alone, there is no sign of Ben slowing down. ‘Life has always been like that, never planned. For me, it’s always been the excitement of waking up each day and never being sure what lies ahead of you.’
One thing’s for certain: wherever he is, there is bound to be an animal or two by his side.
The Accidental Naturalist by Ben Fogle (Bantam Press, £18.99).
PHOTOGRAPHY: STUART DUNN
Daily tip from the lady archive
“HEAVEN forbid that we should go back to the days when beauty was under suspicion and plain girls were assumed to have angelic natures.”The Lady. With Prejudice. 28th April 1938