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20130715 Li'l Miss Innocent

I’m a terrible hoarder of library books… This is a real problem because grad students at my university don’t seem to have checkout caps on our accounts, and we can renew titles for up to three years. However, I’ve been making an effort to winnow down my stacks, typing and filing away notes so I can relinquish what I don’t absolutely have to keep on hand.

This one is so fascinating, it’s hard to let go. From Johan Gallant, The Story of the African Dog (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2002), under the section “Thoroughbreds with African Roots,” comes the following:

    My own experience with traditional Congolese dogs goes back to my 1957 travels in the country. My observation was that the dogs of the southern savannah were taller than those of the equatorial forest but were largely of the same type. Pricked ears and tightly curled tails were not a standard feature among either the savannah or the forest dogs. These details only became ‘fixed’ when the modern Basenji was selectively bred.


    My more recent field work in southern Africa has confirmed for me that virtually all traditional African dogs carry an ancestral graioid [greyhound-like] streak. They inherited it from their forefathers who arrived on the African continent 7000 years ago and brought these genes from the protodogs from which they had evolved. It seems misplaced, therefore, when the canine-fancying world promotes the show Basenji as the prototype of the African dog. To the contrary, this pure-bred Basenji is a typical example of modern cynotechnical interference with the gene pool of a naturally evolving land race.
    When, during the 1930s, Mpoa specimens were collected from the ‘natural’ dog populations endemic to the Congo forest, this chosen dozen formed the foundation stock for a new breed. Planned inbreeding within this isolated group ensured artificial selection towards set goals, defined (as is all too often the case) not by concern for the well being of the breed itself, but by fashionable standards of what is perceived to be attractive. The inevitable cost to the Basenji of such inbreeding within a small foundation stock has been the development of a host of hereditary defects associated with the breed. These have persisted despite the most dedicated efforts to eradicate them, for example, through the periodic introduction of new equatorial stock as recently as 1987. The American Kennel Club unfortunately since banned this practice.* The case of the Basenji is a sad illustration of the results that ill-considered genetic tampering can have. It seems that modern dogdom has simply accepted that this is the toll that modern breeds have to pay for their privilege of pleasing their eyes.

Gallant, p. 85, 87, emphasis mine
* Petitioned by the Basenji Club of America, the AKC has reopened the Basenji studbooks again, though for a limited time. More information can be found on the BCOA pages for the African Stock Project.

My random, scattered thoughts —

I think it’s interesting that Gallant was in the Congo at roughly the same time as Veronica Tudor-Williams was in Southern Sudan with her crew. It does not matter to me so much who was “first,” but that their journeys and motives overlapped even when their persons did not (or did they?).

It seems that Gallant does find some of the modern Basenji to be physically attractive. He acknowledges as much in a caption describing the 2001 Crufts winner and elsewhere in the book. But acknowledging their visual appeal is not enough to justify their production in a system that he finds thoroughly artificial, disabling, and disdainful (see, for example, his book S.O.S. Dog, which is fetching some unholy prices on Amazon for some reason, as is this book).

For Gallant, it seems that the only “true” African dog not only comes from Africa, but stays in Africa — breeding, heritage, and institutionally sanctioned notions of what it means to be thoroughbred are rather irrelevant. This, too, is a kind of purist’s stance that finds coherence in geography rather than genealogy. I think his words deeply wound those whose breed with romantic intentions to “preserve” what they regard as a “primitive” breed, while Gallant would argue that African dogs require neither preservation nor “cynotechnical interference” (I love that term), if one would just abandon the notion of a narrowly defined breed.

I don’t actually begrudge Gallant his harsh words. His agenda against kennel clubs is very clear. However, just as all our modern breeds, including our “primitive” Basenji and Shiba Inu, are configurations of historical contingency and contemporary fashions, so too do I think that ANTI-kennel club polemics can be located within particular circumstances.

The dog people I know who are invested in breed club activities find their efforts to be personally enriching, first and foremost, though they ultimately take pride in promoting or benefiting their chosen breed(s). Yet, the same, too, can be said for those who rally under anti kennel club flags. At the end of the day, I find the anti-club crusaders’ motivations to be just as deeply rooted in personal experience.

I don’t know enough about Gallant’s background to understand where he comes from, but I am indeed curious. Such deep convictions are not formulated overnight, after all.

20130131 Bowpi-headshot