Modern African Basenjis after a hunt.
In correspondence this weekend, a reader wrote to note that not all was darkness in the American Kennel Club.
For example, when Basenji's began to present with jaw-dropping rates of hemolytic anemia in the 1970s, a test for the disease was developed and affected animals were then culled.
Unfortunately, the now smaller gene pool came down with a new disorder, an eye problem called persistent pupillary membrane, which was quickly followed by a kidney disease called Fanconi syndrome, and IPSID (a fatal malabsorption syndrome).
To combat these three diseases, it was decided to open up the U.S. Basenji registry to increase genetic diversity within the breed.
That does sound like a positive thing, doesn't it?
Sadly, however, the tale does not survive scrutiny.
In fact, it underscores the real problem with Kennel Club thinking.
To start with, let's state the obvious: the Kennel Club did not create the Basenji.
This breed has been around since before recorded history, and is a landrace dog used for hunting in the tropical jungles and scrub brush regions of central subSaharan Africa.
Point two is as important as point one: this breed is not about to go extinct in its native lands.
Basenjis are still used as hunting dogs throughout central Africa, and it takes little or no effort to find excellent specimens in nearly every local village.
So exactly where is the dog in trouble, and why?
The short answer is that the Basenji is only in trouble in the western industrialized world, and it is only in trouble because of the kennel club's closed registry system.
The full story is told here in a paper from the July 2007 Bulletin of the Basenji Club of America, but suffice to say that in the U.K. the breed was founded with just 7 dogs, while in the U.S., the breed was founded with just 9 dogs.
A few more dogs were added in to the mix over the years but, as the paper notes:
"[T]he Basenji modern population was derived from 18 original progenitors, with varying degrees of gene representation."
Even this overstates the genetic variability found within the modern Basenji, however.
As the Basenji Club of America notes, much of the founding stock in both the U.K. and the U.S. did not contribute much in terms of get. In addition, due to the popular sire effect, the true male "founder" side of the breed is really no more than four or five dogs. In fact, just three dogs -- Bongo of Blean, Wau of the Congo, and Kindu -- are estimated to represent over 95% of the Y chromosomes in modern AKC dogs!
In response to the collapsing and inbred genetic mess that is the Kennel Club Basenji, the AKC has now decided to open up the registry to dogs imported from Africa provided they can pass a 10-step hurdle.
Of course, no one is asking the most obvious question: Why do we need Kennel Club Basenjis at all?
The answer, of course, is that Kennel Club Basenjis are needed so people can win ribbons showing these dogs, and perhaps make a little cash breeding them as well.
Is there any other reason to ever own a Kennel Club dog?
Of course, some folks are always looking for a "project" or a cause, and the Basenji serves them well in that regard.
If they tell the story right, they can convince themselves and others that they are trying to "save" a rare breed, and never mind that the dog is not rare and does not need "saving"!
And so the push is on, once again, to import a few more dogs from the Congo, Benin and Cameroon.
And what will this achieve in the end? Not much.
Yes, the rate of genetic collapse of the Basenji within the AKC may slow down a bit, but the numbers imported are going to be so low that they will only change the velocity, not the direction, of the curve.
And, of course, the registry is not going to stay open forever, is it?
Once it closes, dominant sire selection will again raise its ugly head, and the gene pool will once again choke down, and inbreeding will continue apace.
In the interim, a few dog dealers will have made a profit selling "outcross" dogs imported from Africa, but not much else will have been achieved.
The good news for the Basenji is that the survival of this breed does not depend on Kennel Club "saviors."
Darwin and the hand of God are still working, as they always have, to save and preserve the Basenji. As Susan Shott has noted:
The owners of African Basenjis do not provide veterinary care for their dogs, and they do not interfere with their dogs' breeding. This insures that African Basenjis are subjected to the rigors of natural selection. Dogs with genetic problems that reduce their fitness early will be much less likely to breed than healthy dogs. For this reason, African Basenjis are less likely than American Basenjis to have serious genetic health problems
Right. But there's more to it than that isn't there? You see, the working African Basenji was not created in a closed registry system, and today's healthy dogs are not maintained in a closed registry system.
Let's not forget that.
And let's not forget that today's unhealthy, non-working American and European Basenjis are a byproduct of a closed registry system that has resulted in nothing but genetic defect cropping up within this breed.
But thanks to God and Africa, we can say: No loss. The Basenji is still alive, well and thriving in its native land.
_ _ _ _
Novus sends an email (thanks!) with some data (and links!) which I will summarize:
- Fanconi Syndrome. While the Basenji folks themselves said they though it was just 1 or 2 percent dogs in 1979, a 1990 survey with 624 respondents, heavily skewed to reputable breeders, found 10 percent of of all Basenjis involved in the survey had Fanconi syndrome, and of these dogs, 76 percent were still breeding their dogs.
- Hemolytic Anemia. When testing was started, twenty per cent of all dogs had the recessive gene. A cull of about 18 percent of the dogs seems to have ensued, a phenomenal reduction in a gene pool that was already very narrrow, as noted.
- Hyperthyroidism. As of 2005, there were forty-four (44) basenjis registered with the OFA Thyroid registry, and of these, 15.9% have been diagnosed as having hereditary autoimmune lymphocytic thyroiditis putting the breed very high up for thyroid problems
- Persistant Pupillary Membrane: "PPM is a very common problem in the basenji breed."
- IPSID (ImmunoProliferative Small Intestinal Disease) is also called "basenji enteropathy." Novus reminds me of my dicta: "Avoid any breed with a disease named after it."
- Bottom Line: There's a reason they have (twice!) opened up the registry to African stock
- Related Links:
** Basenjis, Diamonds and Magic Meat
** An Ancient Breed of Dog?
** When Did Your Breed Show Up at Westminster?
** Inbred Thinking