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“Based on the Incredible True Story.” So begins the trailer for the film Arthur the King, starring Mark Wahlberg, Simu Liu, Nathalie Immanuel, and Ali Suliman: a heartwarming story about a stray, scruffy dog and an endurance athlete who find each other during an epic adventure race across the Dominican Republic. The tale—told in three different books in dozens of languages—has already captured the hearts of millions. As the film’s poster relates, the power of the narrative derives from three elements: An Unexpected Encounter. An Unlikely Bond. An Unforgettable Adventure. In all, the story speaks to perseverance and sacrifice, the deep connection between people and their dogs, and the possibility that a regular person can take on the bold heroism of “saving” a being at risk. And yet, we are never urged to consider whose truth this is, and what other truths may hide below the polished veneer of this “incredible true story.”

By sheer coincidence, I know some of these other truths. The real “Arthur,” it turns out, is from the village in Ecuador (not the Dominican Republic), where I have conducted fieldwork for over two decades. In contrast to the film’s depiction, I knew Barbuncho (his original name) to be neither a stray nor abused. He was a much-loved farm and jungle dog who enjoyed gallivanting across cacao and coffee fields and following visiting doctors and tropical ecologists on jungle adventures. He provided deep comfort to his owner, Esteban (a pseudonym), after Esteban’s divorce from his wife. Esteban wrote ballads in the dog’s honor for his deep companionship. A year after the dog’s “disappearance,” Esteban’s grandson lamented, “I really miss our dog. Why do gringos come here and take our dogs away?” referring to other instances when volunteers had adopted dogs and taken them home, though usually with the community’s consent.

What underlying sociocultural forces make a story feel believable? Why have so many people—in distinct corners of the world, including Ecuador itself—been so invested in the fictions, so much so that any small attempt to correct the narrative led to charged accusations of abuse and even threats of violence and lynching? This backlash illustrates the emotional sentiments and worldviews that shape belief, disbelief, and the contours of deception. As I’ve written elsewhere in a piece co-authored with students, this story of saviorism derives its power from the long arc of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and racialized forms of symbolic and structural violence. Revealing the dynamics of truth and (self-)deception in the Arthur story helps us see how racism and coloniality remain alive in—and gain traction from—even the simplest of tales. 

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Barbuncho, the Dog behind the Story

Back in 2014, my heart skipped a beat when I began to read a widely circulating article about a “stray” dog who “adopted a team of Swedish trekkers in the Amazon.” After being fed a meatball, the dog had followed Mikael Lindnord and his teammates on a long trek through deep mud, swaths of jungle, and even river crossings. It was a fantastic story, but it felt eerily familiar. Then I saw the photo of the dog in the PRI article: it was Barbuncho, the happy, often-dirty canine who would jump at any opportunity to embark on a long adventure through the reserve where I had worked intermittently since the early 2000s. As it turns out, the adventure racers were not near the Amazon; despite the perceived similarities in jungle-y atmosphere, they were on the Ecuadorian coast.

At this point, I wrote my friends in Ecuador, and Esteban confirmed that his dog was missing. He found it very strange that there was such a global fuss about a dog tagging along on this trek, because it was what his dog always did. Barbuncho often followed others across the jungle (often foreign volunteers, sometimes Swedish ones like me), but he always returned “home” to the main village eventually. With its vast rainforest, awe-inspiring waterfalls, challenging mud trails, and teeming wildlife, this region was Barbuncho’s playground. We knew him to join whoever embarked on the most daring escapades, whether it was a team of tropical biologists studying the reserve’s fauna, medical volunteers conducting health campaigns, or Esteban himself while hunting for paca or agouti. Barbuncho also had multiple homes, just like his owner, splitting his time between a biological station, Esteban’s farm, and a tiny house in a densely populated village. If Esteban left one of these locations and his dog chose not to follow, other family members or friends would step in to feed him and keep him out of trouble. This communal safety net, which provided support for animals, children, and the elderly alike, was one of the things I appreciate most about this community. To those of us who knew the dog, Barbuncho loved his freedom, even if it was messy.

Correcting the Story

As soon as Esteban confirmed that this dog was Barbuncho, he asked that I contact Mikael Lindnord to alert him that the dog he was preparing to fly across the world did, in fact, belong to someone else. (My Ecuadorian friends all wondered why he never thought to ask anyone whose dog it was; they all knew.) Esteban had been at his farm, where he had no electricity or internet, and he was initially unaware of all that had transpired. He was worried about not speaking English or Swedish (both languages I happen to speak), and he did not have social media on his phone at the time, communicating with me only through WhatsApp. While I understand that Lindnord was likely surprised and worried upon seeing my Facebook messages, especially given the press coverage he had already received, he raised concerns about animal abuse, even insinuating that I may be complicit. My mentions of rural life, poverty, or culturally different standards of pet-keeping conjured ridicule and detailed descriptions of Barbuncho’s back wound (from a tussle with another animal), poor teeth, and parasites. When I told my friends in Ecuador about these accusations, they laughed, responding, “Why is it such a big deal that Barbuncho had parasites and a wound? We all have parasites, machete wounds, infections, all of it. We’re poor and we get hurt while working the fields, producing cacao and all these products for all of you in the rest of the world.”

I wrote multiple news outlets to correct the story, but they wouldn’t have it. Admittedly, I yelled a bit on social media, and people insisted I was an animal abuser or, at best, an agua fiesta (a buzzkill). I expected my position would be unpopular, but I did not expect it to be so unbelievable. Most striking were people who acknowledged the unfair villainization of rural poor people of color on Ecuador’s coast and the blatant disregard for people’s lives and truths but who ultimately didn’t care because it was such a great story. It did not matter that this story of possession was made possible by the longer history of dispossession central to settler colonialism. In the end, Barbuncho made it to Sweden, to much fanfare, and Lindnord set about making him a home and launching a long career based on this fortuitous event ten years ago. Together with the film premiere in late February 2024, Lindnord announced the release of a children’s book in four languages: Young Arthur presumably details for children the trials and tribulations of Arthur’s early life in the jungle before Lindnord met him.

Colonial Minds and (Self-)Deception

The inconsistencies in the evolving Arthur stories are telling. Not only do they highlight the need for hyperbolic representations to make a story captivating for Hollywood, but they also expose the distorted lens through which the Global North views the Global South. For example, Lindnord’s insistence that the dog was on the brink of death, despite Barbuncho’s ability to follow them through extraordinarily challenging terrain for days, underlines a subconscious narrative of deprivation and suffering stereotypically associated with the Global South. This narrative is advanced further when Lindnord paints the entire region with a broad brush, characterizing rural life as lacking any essential value for animals’ lives. The entrenchment of racist, colonial tropes grows increasingly clear as Lindnord reflects on “how tough it must be to be a stray dog in this country, dependent on the kindness of strangers” because “some of the natives sure don’t show much kindness.” And he employs age-old characterizations of rural people that dispossess and disenfranchise:

it has just never been part of the culture for some parts of Ecuador to regard animals with any respect. They are kicked, shouted at, beaten—people know that there are no laws to protect the rights of animals, and it is not a crime to mistreat them, so people mistreat animals and they let their children mistreat them.

For this reason, he expands the scope of his rescue to the whole culture: “Saving” isn’t just directed at the dog with “all the diseases,” but at saving all of the Arthurs of the world from unkind “natives” everywhere. Under the auspices of The Arthur Foundation, which seems to no longer be active, Lindnord supported a carceral response with stricter punishment for animal abuse and mistreatment in Ecuador, with encouragement to implement similar laws the world over. Ideal pet-keeping in the Global North is governed by law; the well-being of an animal ensured by stable homes with fenced yards, regular medical surveillance, and enclosed quarantines and doggie daycares (upon leaving Ecuador, Barbuncho lived in quarantine for his first four months in Sweden).

But Lindnord is not the only one who appears to be caught in the hyperbole and colonial tropes. The publishing industry and Hollywood follow right along. Barbuncho’s 30-mile trip (as the crow flies) gets conflated with the team’s full journey “over the course of ten days and 435 miles.” Or, as Mark Wahlberg reported recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, “this dog travels 500 miles” and “the racer is going to get disqualified from the race because of the dog, and the racer chooses the dog.” The Library of Congress subject heading for the book lists Brazil and Amazon River Region as keywords; in videos, Lindnord references being stared at by Indians in the Amazon and borrowing their Inca canoes (Ecuador’s coast is not Amazonian, nor is it close to any Incas), and the movie has now been filmed in the Dominican Republic after a failed trial in Puerto Rico. Uproar among Ecuadorians about the setting and production of the film in the Dominican Republic prompted a (dubious) explanation on social media, with Lindnord attributing the choice to a need for COVID protocols while filming. But I would argue that distance from the actual home and specifics of Barbuncho’s life was necessary to sustain the deception of (and perhaps legally protect them from) “the true story.” The obfuscation of place underlines the fact that what is important is that the backdrop is tropical, untamed, and supposedly befitting a place with Natives with no civilized customs of caring toward animals. In all, the ambiguity of the context is fundamental; rural folk (or “Natives”) in Ecuador, Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico serve merely as a foil through which the Global North touts its own heroics and success.

Ecuadorians themselves are not immune to these troubling colonial stereotypes. When Esteban was eventually found by the Ecuadorian press and acknowledged his ownership of Barbuncho, it prompted national petitions to jail him. These picked up steam primarily through urban elites from Quito and animal rights networks, providing a stage for the social media backlash against the whole of the rural interior. Barbuncho’s physical health—and the immediate acceptance that his health was a result of choice rather than structural conditions shared by his community—came to powerfully represent a more general anxiety that rural and coastal Afro-Ecuadorians and mestizos are holding the country back. The Ecuadorians who celebrated Lindnord’s cultured manner of pet-keeping did so to align themselves with a progressive notion of modernity, and they called out Esteban as a national embarrassment, apologizing for their less-cultured country folk. Primitive representations were swapped for savage ones; Esteban and his kind became implicitly branded as backward, barbaric, and abusive.

Doggie Desires

For a little bit of self-deception, our reward is celebrating the loyalty and friendship between man and dog, especially when the story involves a dog so utterly determined to keep up with his “best friend.” What’s more, we deserve to feel good in this difficult world of tough news cycles and polarizing debates. Dogs are the perfect object of salvation, allowing us to project our desires (and theirs) for uncomplicated companionship and loving relationships amid the challenges of late capitalism. Interesting, Lindnord and his enthusiasts counter any and all skepticism about the story by insisting that he didn’t choose the dog, “the dog chose us.” That should end the debate. But, when asked what he would do if contacted by the dog’s owner, Lindnord insists, “I have microchipped Arthur. I am his owner.”

In its deceptions, this “incredible true story” reveals a deeper truth. The story has such force because of the fun reward of a dog and feel-good heroics. But the legend of Arthur was left entirely unquestioned because it is based on a deeper, more incredible truth: a racist and colonial “common sense.” In this logic, rural backwardness and tropical savagery justify and amplify the North’s civility and natural claim to property. These stereotypes do more than just misinform; they entrench harmful, savior-type ideologies that validate the North’s interference in the South’s affairs. In stories like these, rural populations are denied agency, cast as villains, and their life is overly simplified, ignoring the complexities and structural roots of their experiences. In the end, it’s the heroism and the conquest that we really want to see, not the continual extraction and dispossession that make it all possible. It’s an age-old story. In the late capitalist Hollywood version, everyone who is important and visible stands to benefit: Lindnord, the dog, the film producers and cast, and the dog lovers of the world. The ultimate deceit, however, is that this win-win success depends on the moral and political disenfranchisement of Barbuncho’s people—his home, family, and community.


Karin Friederic

Karin Friederic is an associate professor of anthropology at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Her research examines how transnational human rights and global health campaigns reconfigure gendered subjectivities, intimate relationships, and ideas of citizenship in rural communities in Latin America.

Cite as

Friederic, Karin. 2024. “Based on the Incredible True Story: Colonial Minds, Late Capitalist Hearts, and Deception in Hollywood .” Anthropology News website, April 30, 2024.

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