Monday, April 05, 2010

Basenjis, Diamonds and Magic Meat

Congo, 1915. Notice the dog on top. Clearly an incorrect type!

A while back I wrote a post entitled "The Business of Diamonds .... and Dogs" in which I noted that:

Almost everything the diamond industry tells us about their product is a lie.

For one thing, diamonds are not particularly rare. They are found all over the world and in such quantities that the only way the diamond cartel can keep prices up is by putting more than 70 percent of all diamond production into a vault.

I then went on to note that the same sort of fake and contrived rarity is common in the world of dogs.

When you are selling a commodity that is almost entirely devoid of all practical value, and whose price is based solely on romance, myth and misinformation, it does not take too much to generate a market collapse.

A good example of fake scarcity is the Basenji. Some Basenji breeders would like you to think they are saving a rare and endangered breed.

Not true.

This is a common village dog from one end of central Africa to another, and is not a "breed" as the AKC understands it (a narrow, non-working standard, being inbred within a closed registry system), but a landrace working dog created and bred outside of a closed registry system and without a conformation standard at all.

As a paper on the web site of the Basenji Club of America puts it:

"The historic range of the Basenji is that part of Africa where tropical forest or woodland savanna exists. This would be roughly the rain forest of the western coast and eastward through what was French Equatorial Africa into the southernmost part of the Sudan and south to include the Ituri forest westward to the west coast. All but the Kivu and eastern mountains of Zaire would be included in this range."

Africa is nine times larger than the United States, so let me make it simple: Basenjis are found, to this day, from the West Coast of Africa to the East Coast -- from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans.

Yes Basenjis are found all over the Congo, (a country as large Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy combined), but they are also found in the Cameroon and Togo, Sudan and Nigeria, Liberia, Benin and Sierra Leone and at least not so long ago as far east as Ethiopia.

Of course, the fact that Basenjis are widespread and common in central Africa is an inconvenience to the puppy peddlers and rescue ranger theorists who want to "save" a rare breed.

Ituri Forest Pygmies with Basenji of an incorrect type, 1950. Click to enlarge.

They will tell you that Basenjis only come from the Congo and a narrow part of the Sudan, and no one can get there (and never mind the fact that tours to see the Pygmies can be booked with a credit card).

The Baka at Djamba, Congo (Zaire). Can you find the Basenji?

This morning, I am told that the Baka pymies and the Bantu do not have Basenjis at all!


Well, if someone says so, it must be true! Pay no attention to the hunting dogs in the video, above or below. Remember these are just "village dogs."

Or as they say in the Lingala language of the Congo, mbwá na basɛ́nzi .... which means "village dogs."

Wait. What? You mean "Basenji" just means village dogs?

Yes, that's right. But tell no one.

The folks in the Kennel Club are trying to sell magic meat and diamonds. They are not interested in a working dog, they are interested in "a standard."

Listen to them!

The white folks in countries far away who do not hunt their own dogs are the experts in the Basenji.

Pay no attention to the savages who hunt meat every day, who live in mud or pole huts covered with leaves, who might eat a dog or two, and who will trade you the pick of the litter for a decent pocket knife and a few dollars cash.

What do they know of the Basenji? Nothing!

Benin Basenjis

Baka pygmies with duiker driven to nets by Basenjis in Cameroon, 2002.


PBurns said...

Thanks for the typo catch HT!


Jonathan Setter said...

Amen to this post from Africa.

PBurns said...

It gets very funny with the Basenji ;)

Now to stress, I applaud the fact that Basenji club has twice opened up its registry. Very good!

But the Basenji people are still very funny!

You see, this dog, which was first displayed at Crufts in 1937 as a "Congo Terrier," has had its "standard" changed nine times, the most significant of which was that (after 60 years!) the Basenji people dicovered that 1/3 of "their" breed in Africa had brindle coats. What!!!???? But brindle coats have been verbotten under "the standard" all this time. Right. And cream colored dogs are still verbotten, and apparently nose color is still important as well as the lay of the ear and curl of the tail. Of course, Jonathan, this is all VERY important stuff to get right in a hunting dog in Africa. Much discussion about tail and ear set among the dogs around the jungle camp fires at night ;)

Another funny is that both the Basenji people and the Pharoah Dog folks claim their dog is the one the Egyptians put on the side of their tombs -- and yes they point to the same pictures! Of course, I think these are also the same pictures pointed to by the Greyhound people, and the Dachshund people, and just about every other breed under the sun.

Now Jonathan, you and I have GOT to realize that Africa has ALWAYS been so isolated, but now it is SO run over by foreigners with imported poodles who let them run around off-leash in the villages where they inseminate everything.

And NO, there was never a trade in ivory, salt, gold and animals from one end of Africa to the other. Hannibel's elephants and the lions of the roman colliseum were local specimens found in Italy as we both know.

And no, there was never a slave trade with 5 million people and a thousand ships to carry them in.

There were never trade beads made in Europe and used as currency all over Africa, and of course NONE of the tribes of central Africa moved around, don't you know, and especially not the hunter-gathering tribes of the forest and scrub.

The good news is that the rich white people in Europe and America discovered the Basenji just in time to save it by writing up a very narrow standard based on 7 dogs, and then putting it into a closed registry so it would never be contaminated with foreign blood, and thank God they do not ever risk danger to the dogs anymore by hunting them as the naked savages did.

And of course, the most important part of the Basenji is that it is barkless which is so very necessary to a successful hunt that the natives enhance this special feature by putting a bell around its neck when they take them hunting.

Makes perfect sense to me.

Hakuna matata, and be sure to say hello to Tazan and Jane for me if you see them in the market!


Cattledog Manifesto said...

For what it's worth....though I may be in the minority, I do hunt with my Basenjis. We live on extremely rural acreage in the upper Midwest, and I've successfully hunted pheasant, rabbit & "varmint" with my Basenjis on numerous occasions.

I don't currently breed them (both are altered) but if I ever were to decide to breed Basenjis (it's a possible future consideration!), it would be with a sole emphasis on health & hunting ability; I've never had any desire to see the inside of a show ring and I doubt that would ever change.

Despite the fact that the Basenji has been subjected to our artificial, kennel-club standards for the last half-century or so, with little to no emphasis on hunting ability, I've been utterly impressed by the level of drive, instinct & overall versatile hunting ability that many Basenjis still possess. From the coddled suburban dog who shocks his owner by killing every small critter he can get his teeth on in the backyard, all the way to the handful of Basenjis who are lucky enough to have hunting-enthusiast owners that enjoy seeing what their dogs can seems to me these dogs haven't YET lost their function, despite being at a distinct disadvantage at the mercy of a show-ring mentality. One of my dogs comes from nothing but the original "show" lines- none of the recent African import even exists in his pedigree. The other is a "puppymill" rescue dog- she's actually the better hunter of the two. The fact that these dogs can fight their way out of a paper bag, let alone flush pheasants, catch rabbits and dispatch marauding opossums with ease, is, IMO pure genetic LUCK. I wonder just how much longer those instincts will remain intact, unless more breeders recognize, utilize and promote the natural hunting ability in this breed, rather than putting most of their energy into the show ring.

I also own a traditional "bird dog" breed, out of "performance" bloodlines. She, as a "specialized" hunting breed, is more adept at finding, pointing & retrieving pheasant in a polished, more socially acceptable fashion than the Basenjis. Yet, I find they do a passable job putting MEAT on the table, even if the act of taking them out of the truck & dropping them in a field sends the local hunters into paroxsyms of laughter. But hey- they put meat on the table, which is what they're supposed to do, as 'catch all' hunters. If I had to depend on them for food, they could feed me year-round, legally in my state (rabbits & varmints are open-season all year on private property).

I guess what I'm saying is that I don't think the Basenji as it exists in the Western world is currently a "lost cause" by any means. I do tend to agree that without SERIOUS effort on behalf of breed fanciers to recognize and preserve the dog's native hunting traits, we do stand a risk of losing any semblance of what makes a Basenji a Basenji. With all the effort to import native dogs to supposedly "improve the breed"'ll all be for naught if we don't focus on preserving the breed's ABILITY as a hunting dog! We should work on reproducing the African hunting dog as closely as possible in America; otherwise we'll ultimately end up with just another pretty show dog who can't hunt down his dinner bowl. JMO.

Chris said...

I have read most of these comments along with the original post, with interest. I stumbled upon this thread, having googled "hunting with Basenjis", as I am a Basenji breeder of almost 30 years standing, dealing with an enquiry from someone who wants a puppy to go hunting with.

While I laughed at some of the comments written here as there is more than a grain of truth in them, I am also astounded by the level of vitriol shown towards breeders and owners of this dog, as though only they are unable to appreciate it properly. I have never heard anyone express the point of view that "savages" don't know anything about this breed, or that Baseanjis are anything other than village dogs in origin. Of course they are!

It is also the case that native stock has been brought out of Africa at different times since 1937, notably in 1959 and again in the late 80s, and many times since, as breeders have made frequent trips to bring back more breeding stock. In every case they went to villages, spoke to the "savages" and bought dogs from them. I have never heard any western breeder denigrate the natives who hunt with Basenjis or dismiss the importance of their hunting ability.

Many breeders and owners (myself included) regularly course and race their Basenjis. A number of "show" Basenjis are also Field Champions, Dual Champions, Junior and Master Coursers. Just about every dog breed (excluding toys, who were bred to be companions only) has a discipline it can can be trained in, to replicate the job it was originally bred to do. Basenjis are not a manufactured breed and are natural hunters, which is why they are so useful in their native environment. While we cannot provide an African landscape and game to hunt, we can and do provide activities that utilise their natural hunting ability.

I can honestly say it is a rare Basenji that will not chase and try to catch and "kill" a lure, even if it is just a plastic bag zipping along the grass. To suggest that Basenjis bred from the original stock without any additional "African" blood are somehow in danger of losing their hunting instincts is simply idiotic. Every ancestor in their pedigrees was a Basenji, how can they lose those instincts? Instincts are INSTINCTS. They don't disappear just because they sleep in a house and ride around in cars.
If it were true that Basenjis outside of Africa are being ruined, that their breeders and owners are delusional and in denial, thinking their dogs are something other than plain village dogs and that they are preserving and improving some fake breed, that would only matter if these were the only Basenjis left in the world, and being systematically ruined. In fact, the dogs in Africa are quite unaffected by anything we may do on another continent, and are going along as they have been for thousands of years without our interference.

Continued in a second post, as this is too long for one.

Chris said...

Continued from previous post:

What is undeniably true is the influence of other dog breeds on that native gene pool over time, as roads improved, and travelers and settlers became more commonplace. The native dog today, obtained directly from Africa, is very unlikely to be the same as those found in the 30s, 50s and even the late 80s. In some respects they don't even look the same and who knows what genetic makeup they hold? All those who think the dogs bred down from the original imports are somehow "less" Basenji and "more" inferior, are quite wrong. Their hunting instincts and frankly uncivilised behaviour at times are well preserved, don't worry! While the latter imports, although undeniably "village dogs" of the modern kind, are village dogs with possibly quite a different ancestral makeup, thanks to the influx of European dogs over the decades.

It may be that the Basenji outside of Africa ends up a better representative of what those village dogs were before the modern world encroached, and therefore more typical and more genuine. That remains to be seen. But don't kid yourselves that we deny their origin or hunting abilities, that we don't appreciate those qualities and take steps to maintain them. We do. We are proud of their natural heritage, that they are not manufactured from other breeds, that we don't in fact know how they arose or survived for so long. What we have may not be entirely "pure" and originating only in Africa, as western explorers have been making inroads into that continent for centuries, but it is purer and closer to that totally native hunting dog than any “Basenji” sourced in Africa nowadays.