I was poking around the Internet to see what kind of information was available about Basenjis in Chinese-speaking parts of the world.
This article published on Malaysian site MyPets.com.my, Man’s Best Friend (宠物情缘) was the first one I found to go into any detail.
I was pretty upset by what I saw, though.
A rough translation of the introductory teaser:
Don’t judge a dog by its looks: champion Basenjis are no ordinary dogs *
Lead story by Cai Yang **
4 September 2010
Upon first glance at the Basenjis, Ben and Dina, you might only think to describe them as “Normal Joe and Plain Jane.” If nothing else, it’s because they really look too ordinary. When lined up beside your garden variety [Malaysian] yard dog, only a dog expert would be able to tell them apart.
However, they actually possess astronomical value. Each one sells for more than 20,000 Ringgits [$6800 USD], and they are pedigreed showdogs.
As the old saying goes, “Don’t judge a person by their looks.” Who knew this applied to dogs, too? Best not misjudge them! (this is the opening text in green on the original site; translation and links mine)
* Throughout the article, the term “champion dog” 冠军犬 seems to be used synonymously with “pedigree/purebred dog.” The Basenjis featured are not actually “champions,” a point which will be made relevant as you continue reading.
** I’m assuming the reporter is male with a name like 蔡阳, though sometimes it’s hard to tell.
I’m skipping over a translation of the basic breed information, because there’s nothing new there to those who are already familiar with the Basenji standard. Here are some more pertinent details paraphrased from the article:
There are no more than 10 purebred Basenjis in Malaysia.
Two of them are owned by a “well-known” Rottweiler breeder who lives in the city of Taiping, Mr. Li Chengzan (李成赞, not sure how his name would be rendered in Malay [edit: Try Lee Seng Chan]). He went to no small expense, as noted above, to import his pair from Australia.
When the reporter went to interview Mr. Li for the article, one of the first things he was told was that “This breed loves to run. Once they run off, they won’t come back. Doesn’t matter if you have 20 people helping to chase him down. They won’t catch him.”
Mr. Li knows this from experience because he once lost Ben. While transporting them from a dog show one day, he didn’t secure a kennel properly and Ben escaped over a 7-foot tall fence. He frantically searched the area around the Ipoh Airport for a couple days, but couldn’t find him, so he left some instructions with a friend and returned to Taiping. Eight days later, he was notified that Ben had been spotted at a pond by the airport. Mr. Li immediately went back down there and spent half a day rounding him up with the help of 20 men. They found out that the locals had noticed him several days earlier, but nobody paid him any mind because he looked like a typical street dog.
So, as both Mr. Li and the reporter notes, it was to their advantage that the Basenji does not appear to be anything special. But after that incident, they became even more precious to him.
Mr. Li originally had plans to show his Basenjis and help popularize the breed in Malaysia, but since they didn’t do as well as expected in the show ring [the article says they “failed” but doesn’t exactly say how], he decided to keep them around for personal enjoyment.
He did breed Dina once. She had five puppies which Mr. Li sent off to dog-loving friends. The article is not clear, but it sounds like Dina’s offspring are included in the headcount of Basenjis in Malaysia.
Though Ben and Dina come from Australian champion lineage, Mr. Li has decided not to further develop his Basenji breeding program in Malaysia since there’s not much interest, and the breed is so rare as to present no competition, and thus no sense of challenge. Instead, he has decided to focus on his Rottweilers.
— end paraphrase —
I was intrigued by this story until I scrolled through the pictures, and then I was sickened. I had assumed from the caption that the first picture in the batch was taken shortly after Ben’s 8-day adventure on the streets, which accounted for his gaunt appearance. However, the article makes it sound like this incident happened some time ago, which means that the Basenjis in Mr. Li’s “care” (and I use that term very loosely) are purposely kept in this condition.
I’ve copied and reproduced the pictures below for archival purposes (original photographer uncredited). I translated the captions from the original page — I did not compose them. For me, the chirpy captions throw the condition of the dogs into stark relief. Something is wrong here, and the reporter does nothing to clarify the glaring questions about their health. Warning: the pictures may horrify you, as they certainly alarmed me. I do not intend to make it a habit to publish images of animal cruelty on this blog, but what is most disturbing to me about these pictures is that they were originally published as representative pictures of the Basenji breed with an owner who supposedly “treasures” them.
The title may warn readers not to judge a dog by its looks, but I would argue that neither Mr. Li nor the reporter were looking from the right perspective. And for the website to publish this as a headline article as if this is some wondrous thing to celebrate, instead of calling in the animal welfare authorities, is a disgrace.
Sure, it’s possible that the pair could be afflicted with some kind of illness that is causing their emaciated appearance.
If that was the case, the reporter was negligent in investigating and naming the cause, particularly if the concern is genetic or endemic to the breed (for example, there is no mention of Fanconi Syndrome in the article at all).
Instead, the reporter’s focus is on the rarity of the breed, and in sensationalizing their profitability (or lack thereof). With the help of Mr. Li, he comes to the conclusion that the Basenji will never be popular in Malaysia because “One, they look too much like street dogs, and lack the nobility of other purebreds, two, they can’t guard the house [because they don’t bark], and three, they only come into heat once every year or two [sic], so they don’t have a high commercial value.” Yes, that’s a translated quote from the original article.
In response to the first point, it saddens me to think that this kind of emaciation would be deemed appropriate even for a street dog. Maybe they lack “nobility” and failed to bring home any prizes because he’s taking such poor care of them. As to his second point, maybe Mr. Li has some kind of tunnel vision from investing too much in his other breed, though if he thinks that disguising his “treasured” pets by starving them keeps them out of harm’s way, I’d hate to see how he manages his Rottweilers.
Third, with an attitude like that, I am thankful that this breeder is no longer actively trying to popularize Basenjis in Malaysia! The breed does not need Mr. Li to promote them to the public at large, because he sure as hell isn’t going to be the one to educate anyone on the true merits of Basenjis. They’re not “valuable” because they produce a lot of expensive puppies. They’re valuable because they’re one of the most elegant, smartest, personality-laden, expressive, and yes, functional dogs that one could have the pleasure of knowing — even if that function is just to serve as your bedtime back warmer. And the fact that neither he nor the reporter played up the companionable personality of the breed exposes them both as hacks with screwed up priorities.
First World outrage? Hi, I’ve got it! Right here!
I have had no luck locating contact information for Mr. Li’s kennel, nor have I been able to track down an e-mail address for the reporter. The original website is pretty annoying because you can’t leave feedback on any of the articles. So since I can’t send him a tactful e-mail, I’ll post what I want to communicate to Mr. Li here:
If you love your dogs even a fraction as much as this reporter claims you do, get them some FOOD and MEDICAL ATTENTION, and get them spayed and neutered when they are healthy enough to undergo the procedure. If you really want to make an impact on Malaysian dog owners, invest some of your resources in public education programs about how to properly take care of animals, including street dogs. Then get yourself in line to learn a thing or two. Because what you are doing now makes my eyes hurt, and it should not have been flaunted as anything to boast about.
Meanwhile, if any readers happen to know an Australian Basenji breeder who allowed her dogs to go to this man to Malaysia, please feel free to forward this article along. It’s surely a reminder of the dangers of just letting dogs go to anyone who’s willing and able to pay, without follow-up, even if their intentions sound sincere. Maybe all Mr. Li needs is a bit of guidance and a reminder from someone above him that, hey, healthy Basenjis are not supposed to look like that. But if his own conscience can’t even open his eyes, who can?