Archive for the ‘history’ Category

As is my customary Halloween tradition, here is the much beloved “History of the Devil” documentary:


Part II

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A wolf-like animal depicted in a Roman mosaic in Syria in the fifth century. It is said to be a hunting dog, but it looks a lot like a robust golden wolf.

This description of the five species of wolf native to the Roman Empire comes from Cynegetica, a poem on hunting that is attributed to Oppian of Apamea.

Of wolves there are five species—the first of a yellow hue,—swift, audacious, and by shepherds named the archer,—the next of superior magnitude and swiftness, known by the two names of the hawk and the plunderer; he seeks his prey with the dawn, and dwells in the lofty mountains—but when snow covers the ground, he assumes greater boldness, and in quest of prey approaches even the city walls. The third species inhabits the mountains of Taurus and Cilicia—an animal superior to the race of wolves, named the Golden, of prodigious strength, and able to resist the unspent brass and the pointed iron. He dreads the rising of the dog-star, and during the prevalence of its heat, lies concealed in his shady cavern. Of the two remaining species, the one from his white colour is named the Hoary Kite. The other is of smaller size,—black,— hirsute,—preys on hares (Cynegetica, Book Third).

This poem was written in the third century, and it includes an analysis and description of just about every game animal within the Roman Empire and the areas adjacent to its borders. The notion of there being more than one species of wolf within Eurasia is something we don’t  generally accept today, the supposed full species status of the Indian and Himalayan wolves not withstanding.

There is also a lot of exotic information about wildlife in this piece. Within lines adjacent to the discussion about wolves, we learn that hyenas change their sex every year and that male hyenas “become fruitful dams.” This is obviously a reference to the bizarre genitalia of female spotted hyenas, which would have been known from African specimens.  Spotted hyenas lived in the Middle East as recently as 8,000 years ago, but that would have been thousands of years before the poem was written. However, female striped hyenas sometimes have similar genitalia morphologies, which disappear as they mature, and striped hyenas are the species Oppian clearly describes in the text.

The author also points out that wolves mate with panthers, producing a creatures called “Thoes.”  This word is very similar to “thos,” the Classical Greek word for jackal. I don’t think that anyone thinks a jackal is a hybrid between a black leopard and a wolf.

Despite its inaccuracies, this piece of zoological literature is still useful.

For one thing, this section on the wolves tells us that wolves were once quite diverse in behavior and phenotype– even more so than they are now.

This small black wolf was around for a while.  As recently as the nineteenth century, there were small black wolves in the mountains of Syria that was a “Derboun.”  It may have been a pariah dog, or a type of naturally occurring wolfdog hybrid. Or it may have been a naturally occurring melanistic Arabian or Iranian wolf that may or may not have any relationship to modern melanistic wolves.

The big golden wolf could have been a striped hyena, but it also could have referred to an unusually powerful wolf. However, Oppian clearly describes the striped hyena as an animal with stripes. If the golden wolf had been a striped hyena, it would have been unlikely that he would have clearly defined the striped hyena without pointing out this similarity.

However, one should keep in mind that it is unlikely that Oppian had first hand knowledge of every animal in the text, but he might have encountered them via trade routes that crossed through the Levant. The Romans were obsessed with keeping exotic animals in menageries and for their circuses. Oppian may have been a noted sportsman of the region– perhaps someone who was responsible for taking notables out on hunting forays in the region–for the book is full of advice on how to hunt various animals.  It is unlikely that Oppian hunted these animals himself, but he could have known from talking to those who hunted them and were transporting them across the empire.

But I do think this piece suggests something we already knew. Wolves are a highly variable species, and in ancient times, they were so varied in appearance that they were thought of as different species.

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Tarka the Otter is one of the best nature films ever made. It is essentially an animal biopic that uses actual footage of wild otters in the English county of Devon. Gerald Durrell wrote the screenplay, but it includes a lot of unscripted natural otter behavior– which really makes the film work. Gerald Durrell was, of course, the noted naturalist, author, conservationist, and zookeeper who founded the Jersey Zoo, which became rather well-known for breeding endangered species. The zoo is now called the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. This film really sticks to letting the otters be otters– as well as incorporating the natural behavior of other species as they deal with challenges from nature, men, and dogs.

And  although Gerald Durrell  and others associated with the film were certainly beyond reproach, it should be noted that this film based upon a novel by Henry Williamson, whose skill as a nature writer was unfortunately tainted by his unorthodox and quite controversial political views.  He was a veteran of the First World War, who was able to find himself again in the English countryside, first in Devon and then at a farm in Norfolk.  He became deeply upset that the United Kingdom and the German Empire had been at war and spent much of his energy campaigning against another war with the Germans. Unfortunately, this propert distaste for war clouded his judgment, and he came to admire Adolf Hitler and National Socialism, even joining Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. He never quite changed his mind about Hitler, even when the Third Reich’s crimes became well-known.

Despite this little aside, which I felt needed to be mentioned, the film is truly remarkable.

It is more like an historical narrative about a Eurasian otter that lives in Devon in 1920’s. Many of the threats that Tarka faces in the film are currently illegal in Britain. He has to worry about otterhounds chasing him, but pack-hunting with hounds is currently banned. Otters are currently a protected species, so no gamekeeper in England can legally shoot otters to protect salmon, which was what happened to Tarka’s mother.  Futher, steel leghold traps are banned throughout the country, so no otter, fox, or other predator has to worry about being snared as happened to Tarka when he tried to break into the duck coop.

The ceremony and tradition of the otter hunt at the end is also worth noting. There is a strong sense of sportsmanship with the otter hunters, who, ironically, are the only people who actively support the existence of otters in British rivers in the 1920’s. The hunters give Tarka a headstart when tears off down the shallow river– and the hounds obey the whip. The whip is the person who keeps the hounds in line, which is also where we get that same title in congress and in state legislature. Just as the whip keeps all the hounds in line, the party whips in the legislative bodies keep the party members on the party line as best as possible.

The physical endurance of the otterhounds is also on display in the film. They have to be able to run hard up and down shallow rivers and then run long and hard across the countryside. They also have to be very strong swimmers, and they have to be tough enough to put up with an aggressive otter, which has very sharp teeth– you have to have them to catch slippery fish– and is much more maneuverable in the water.

The otterhounds have to be almost like a combination of big game hounds and retrievers. They must have all the traits of a big game hound– good nose, good voice, and very high levels of endurance– and they must be as at home in the water as any retriever or water spaniel. The also have to be fairly hard dogs when they catch their prey, and as we see in the final scene, otters are not the easiest prey for a even a large dog to catch.

A terrier is used to bolt Tarka from a holt. That’s about all a terrier could ever be used for, and as one observes, the terriers follow the hunt. They are used only when the quarry goes to ground.  A terrier would have a very hard time killing an otter–unless we’re talking about using Airedales, which are partially derived from otterhounds.

Now, we all knew that otterhounds were used to trail otters and catch them on the run, and we knew that terriers were used to drive them from their holts.

However, the gamekeeper who kills Tarka’s mother has a Labrador at his heels.  The film doesn’t show it, but one assumes that the Labrador retrieved the otter after she was killed. Many gamekeepers and rustic sportsmen types used retrievers to hunt otters, even though not all retrievers have the courage to hunt an otter.  In the Dutch province of Friesland, a dog similar to the retrievers is the wetterhoun, which is sometimes called an “otterhoun.” Yes, the dogs, which can retrieve shot birds, are also used to hunt otters. And as a result, they are more independent and pluckier than the British retrievers.

This film is part natural history and part human history. The nature cinematography is quite elegant, and the director is able to bring out the characters of the various woodland creatures in a way that allows the audience to relate to them. However, the film still allows the animal to hold onto its basic animality. Tarka is not a human in otter clothing, but he is not the creature that would be portrayed in a natural history film.  In those portrayals, the wild creature is presented in a detached manner. Its instincts and life cycle are described; the implications of its individuality are ignored.  Such portrayals have their place, of course, but with a creature as intelligent as an otter, it might not truly capture its essence. Those portrayals merely catch its shadows. This film is able to present the otter as a being of the river and sea– a creature that is not human but not solely driven by instinct and its own evolutionary history.

And in the skill in which this film is able to present the Eurasian otter in this fashion, it truly shows its greatness. I saw this many years ago as a child, but watching it now– with all my supposedly adult sensibilities– I now see this film in a different light. I don’t know what the impact of this film was in the United Kingdom, but it makes me feel for the otter in the same way that Farley Mowat made me feel about wolves after watching Never Cry Wolf. It is well-established that Mowat’s work changed the way people all over the world felt about wolves– even if the film and novel are largely fiction.

I know that the wolf has had a better go of it since Mowat’s work ventured into the population, but I am also aware that the Eurasian otter is also on the rebound. It was recently determined that every county in England now has an otter population. Although this film implies that hunting and persecution are the main cause for the otter’s demise in the British Isle, pollution also played an important role in destroying otter populations. Williamson lived before we began to understand that pollution was an important issue. He could see only man’s desire to kill them to protect salmon rivers and trout streams as the main culprit for their demise. Otter hunting could easily be banned in the United Kingdom, but coming up with ways to make the rivers, streams, and coastal waters more pristine requires more thought and more long-term planning. I don’t know if this film had any effect on bringing about the policies that allowed the British otter to rebound, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.


I am intentionally not embedding the video of the film, which is currently available on Youtube. I don’t think it will stay up for very long, so I am going link to it in the text at several places.  I am closing this post by telling you that this film is worth your time, and here is a final link to Tarka the Otter.

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But it wasn’t a bad Disney movie.

Yep.  For me, this is up there with finding out the truth about Santa Claus, but the story of Greyfriars Bobby was publicity stunt to promote tourism in Edinburgh.

Reuters reports:

The most faithful dog in the world, which kept a 14-year vigil at his master’s grave in Edinburgh, Scotland, was nothing but a Victorian business stunt, according to historian Jan Bondeson.

The 140-year-old story of Greyfriars Bobby continues to draw tourists to the graveyard that was once inhabited by the Skye Terrier commemorated by a bronze fountain erected in his memory in the cemetery and immortalised on the silver screen by Walt Disney in a 1961 film.

But Bondeson, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, claims that Bobby was far from the dependable dog portrayed in the tale of undying Scottish devotion.

He says the story was a fabrication, created by cemetery curator, James Brown, and restaurant owner, John Traill, to drum up custom for local businesses — and that Bobby was a stray mutt, bribed with food to stay in the graveyard.

“The entire story is wrong –the account of the dog on the drinking fountain who supposedly kept vigil at his master’s grave in all kinds of weather is not accurate. Bobby would go out hunting rats in the church and was kept well fed by the locals. He was not a mourning dog at all — he was a happy little dog,” Bondeson told Reuters.

The trusty terrier – as the story goes- kept watch over the grave of his beloved master, Edinburgh policeman John Gray, from his death in 1858 until the animal died in 1872.

However, after studying drawings and contemporary accounts of Bobby while researching his book, “Amazing Dogs,” Bondeson also realised that he was looking at two different pooches.

“I noticed that the two dogs looked quite different. The first Bobby was quite an ugly dog but in later paintings he looks just like the statue on the drinking fountain,” Bondeson said.

The first Bobby, an old mongrel, died in 1867, leaving Brown and Traill with a problem on their hands, Bondeson said.

“A dead Bobby was no good for business, so they replaced him with a pure-bred Skye terrier who lived for a further five years until 1872 — after which it time did not take long for the fountain to be erected,” said Bondeson.

It’s an amazing hoax.

Oh well.

There’s always Hachiko.



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Harlequin Tesem dog

Tesem dogs were just generic hunting dogs in Ancient Egypt.

Classically, the Tesems were slightly larger basenji-type dogs.

And these dogs were the most common hunting dogs in Ancient Egypt until the New Kingdom ()1550-1069 BCE), when saluki-type dogs became the Tesem.

This image shows us that the harlequin and merle genes were around thousands of years ago.


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The image above is of “Spot,” one of the two Cuban bloodhounds that was used to guard the POW camp at Andersonville, Georgia, during the Civil War.

Andersonville was a notorious POW camp, where nearly 13,000 Union POW’s died of malnutrition and disease– something like the Confederacy’s gulag. The commandant at that particular POW camp was a German-Swiss failed revolutionary, Heinrich Hartmann (“Henry”) Wirz.

To deal with escapes, Wirz kept a pack of man-hunting dogs. These were largely slave-hunting dogs, which were sometimes called “nigger dogs,” that were often used to track slaves that ran away. Most of these were just mongrel foxhounds, bloodhounds, coonhounds, and curs, but in many parts of the South, another kind of dog was often used.

This dog was the Cuban bloodhound.

Now, let me disabuse you of a common misconception:  Cuban bloodhound had very little to do with the heavy scent hounds that were derived from the Medieval lymers, dogs that tracked cold trails on leashes or “lyams.”   The lymer bloodhounds were never particularly aggressive dogs.

The Cuban bloodhound was quite different. It was derived from a large bulldog-type that was native to Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish used it throughout the New World, along with other large aggressive dogs, to subjugate Native Americans and to control slaves and those laborers bound to the haciendas.

Cuba was very much a slave society, only abolishing it in 1886, and all slave societies have certain features. Among these is the need for a very strong state (as in Weber’s definition of state). No person wants to be a slave, and if you ever have a situation where there are large numbers of people who are being held in slavery, the region is always in a state of war. Slaves often run off, and they often conspire to form rebellions against those who are holding them in bondage.  To keep slave revolts under control, it was always necessary to have well-organized units that were expert at fighting. This is one reason why the Confederacy had much better soldiers during the Civil War.  Many of the soldiers who fought had already seen battle against minor slave rebellions.

The Cubans used this type of catching mastiff as part of their arsenal against their slaves, and the Cuban bloodhound would have remained solely in Cuba had the Maroons not revolted in Jamaica.  Jamaica was given to England in 1655, and the Spanish slaveholders who lived there freed their slaves as the English took over.  Slavery had been very hard to establish in Jamaica, and many Spanish slaveholders had a hard time keeping their slaves under control.  Those they brought over from Africa would often run off and join the remaining Taino in the mountains.   The Taino were also held as slaves on the island, but as was the case throughout the Caribbean, the native people were not resistant to European diseases and many died while they were being held as slaves. Those Taino who remained hid out in the mountains, often raiding plantations.  Many African slaves joined up with the Taino, and they gave the Spanish lots of trouble in Jamaica. When the English took over, the slaves the Spanish colonists freed and those Taino and Africans hiding out in the mountains caused them even more trouble.

There were two wars against the Maroons, and the English were never able to control much of the island’s interior.

Until the colonial government ordered “bloodhounds” from Cuba.  In 1736, it was decided that each army post should have a bloodhound to dog Maroons, and by 1737, the First Maroon War, which lasted 52 years, was ended. The dogs were a very effective tool of oppression and war, and when the Maroons rose again in 1795, more bloodhounds were brought over to crush that revolt, which lasted only a month.  Much credit has been given to those dogs, but in reality, things were much more complex.  The English and British had to make massive concessions to the Maroons just to keep the peace, but the bloodhounds were about the only tool that the Europeans had that gave them any advantage.

But at the time, the Cuban bloodhounds became famous in the English-speaking world for their use against rebellious slaves and Indians.

In 1835, the United States became embroiled in the Second Seminole War. Seminole situation was similar to the British experience in Jamaica. Slaves were escaping from plantations and joining up with hostile Indians, and having heard of the supposed successes that came from these bloodhounds in Jamaica, the Florida Territorial government purchase Cuban bloodhounds to use against the Seminoles. The dogs were credited with catching only two Seminoles, and the Florida territorial government actually charged the US Army $2,500 for their import and upkeep. John Quincy Adams, the former president and outspoken opponent of slavery in the House of Representatives, threw a fit on the house of representatives for this bill.  He suggested the dogs be sent to Maine ASAP so they could be used in a possible war with Britain over the border with New Brunswick, and the US government needed to be careful. It might have to pay these bloodhounds a pension!

The dogs then became relatively common throughout the South, even if they were of no use against Native Americans, they were very good at catching slaves. This was the bloodhound that was portrayed as a villain in the abolitionist literature, an unfortunate historical misnomer that would later tarnish the name old lymers that we also call “bloodhound.”

During the Civil War, at least two of the dogs were used to guard Union POW’s. There were probably more of these dogs used for this purpose, but the two at the Andersonville Prison were the best known.  When Andersonville was liberated, a photo was taken of Spot. I cannot find a good copy of it online, but it is from that photo that the above image was produced.

Spot was a big dog.  He stood three feet at the shoulder and weighed 159 pounds. With that size and disposition, he was quite a dangerous animal.

Having looked at several depictions and descriptions of the Cuban bloodhound, the closest I can get to a modern-day equivalent and possible relative is the Presa Canario.  The Presa Canario may be derived from Spanish catch dogs that were brought to the islands. This catch dog could have the common ancestor with the Cuban bloodhound, or it may be that the Cuban bloodhound was derived from the catch dogs from the Canary Islands.

The exact history of the Presa Canario isn’t all that clear, and there is a persistent theory that the Presa Canario is derived from an indigenous mastiff-type dog that was there before the Spanish Conquest. Supposedly, the Canary Islands, which are derived from the Latin word for dog (Canis), are named for this dog.

I am not sure if the Presa Canario is an ancient mastiff from the Canary Islands or is the result of imports from Spain.  I don’t think the official history of these dogs has experienced much rigor, so one should rightly be skeptical.

However, I do think it is likely that the Cuban bloodhound was a very close relative of the Presa Canario. It may have even been the same dog. It’s just the Cuban dog was used in the New World and got some ancestry from other New World dogs.

That’s probably why Spot was some form of merle. Merle doesn’t exist widely in the mastiff family, and I doubt that it was widespread in Iberian mastiffs. As you may know, I am skeptical of the theory that the Catahoulas and other merle curs are derived from Spanish mastiffs. I think their merling comes English cur dogs and perhaps– though never proven– the proto-Beauceron that may have been in Louisiana. Crossing bulldogs and mastiff-tupe dogs with curs is old hat in the South, so it would have made sense that Cuban bloodhounds would have been bred to curs to make merle attack dogs.

After slavery was abolished following the Civil War, the need to have these big attack dogs disappeared.  There are some theories that these dogs disappeared into the bulldog and “pit bull” types that were much more common, but even if they did, their contribution to these breeds is probably quite trivial. The Southern bulldogs that are now established breeds aren’t like Cuban bloodhounds at all, and the Cuban dogs were much larger and much harder to control than one would have ever wanted in a pit fighting dog.

The Cuban bloodhound was the real dog of war, and after the wars, it became a tool of oppression in slave societies.

This is one breed whose extinction was probably a good thing.

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Tibetan mastiff-type dog wearing a leopard-proof collar in the Himalayas.

From John Henry Baldwin’s The Large and Small Game of Bengal and the North-western Provinces of India (1876):

In general appearance (as already mentioned when speaking of the panther) the Indian leopard so much resembles the panther that they are often confounded, and to the present day classed by some as one and the same animal. [NB: Panthers are just the black color phase of leopard]. In the Himalayas the leopard is very common, and a perfect pest, continually carrying off dogs close to the outskirts of our hill stations. A dog that is in the habit of leaving his master and wandering from the foot path, when travelling in the hills, is almost certain, sooner or later, to be carried off. I have known of many fine sporting dogs taken when shooting pheasants and chikor [chukar].

Leopards are in the habit of watching foot-paths, from some hiding place above, whence they can view everything that passes. As soon as they perceive a dog or goat loitering behind or astray, they steal rapidly and silently down, and before poor ‘ doggy ‘ can join his master, or an unfortunate goat his comrades, he is seized by the throat and swept off the path without having time to utter a cry or offer the slightest resistance. A good stout dog is almost a match for a leopard, if brought face to face with him on open ground, but the cunning cruel cat creeps up and buries his fangs into the neck of his prey when he least expects him, and once in the fatal grip, a dog or any other creature hardly ever escapes. I remember, however, a plucky little terrier belonging to Colonel D—s of the 37th, making his escape from the clutches of a leopard, and returning to his master with a wound in his throat.

Two moderate-sized setters, the property of a gentleman at Mussoorie, turned on a leopard which attacked one of them, and speedily got the better of their assailant. They so worried the beast that it was unable to make its escape, and was easily dispatched.

It is not uncommon for the Thibet sheep dogs [Tibetan mastiffs]—large powerful animals (something like the Newfoundland breed with heavy ‘jowls ‘) and specially retained to guard flocks and herds—to be carried off by leopards; sometimes these dogs escape through wearing broad spiked iron collars. I remember seeing a collar deeply indented by the teeth of a leopard; the wearer had escaped with his life after being dragged some distance, but was grievously wounded.

Leopards are seldom seen in the daytime. I have only on three occasions seen them in the Himalayas, although I have travelled and wandered a great deal in our hill ranges; yet they are common enough.

The first thing that takes your eye in the early morning as you leave your tent, is the scratch on the turf from the foot of a leopard; if you examine the outskirts of your tent, you will likely enough find his ‘pug,’ where he has been sniffing under the canvas for ‘Dash’ or ‘Juno;’ and the sap yet running from a neighbouring tree shows that he has only an hour or two before been stretching his claws on the bark. I had a setter whose mother had been taken by a leopard, and who himself had had more than one narrow escape. This dog always slept on my bed, and more than once has awakened me on a dark night by his growling and trembling all over, and nestling closer to me, evidently from fear of some brute close at hand, probably a leopard. The first expedition I ever made to the hills I lost a pet dog named ‘Snip,’ carried off by a leopard; he was by no means a well-bred dog, rather the contrary; a thick-built brown terrier, rather bandy-legged, curly-tailed, with a pair of prick-up ears, and brown intelligent eyes. I bought him from a soldier in the barracks at Allahabad when a pup, for one rupee, and though not a valuable dog, he was a prime favourite of mine. For several months this poor dog was my only companion; we always shared our meals together, and sometimes both Snip and I had to put up with very ‘short commons,’ and retire to rest after only a scanty meal. One windy wet night, having collected sundry scraps, and filled a plate principally with rice for my dog, I placed the dish at the entrance of the tent, and soon Snip was in the full enjoyment of his meal. Having tied a lantern on to the tent pole and lit a cigar, I took up a book and lay down on my bed. In another minute I was startled by the sharp cry of my poor dog, and jumping up, I rushed out of the tent. I could see a dark object making off: catching up a lighted piece of wood from a fire burning outside, I hurled it at the animal; but although the sparks from the burning wood striking the ground almost between the creature’s feet showed it to be, as I expected, a leopard, the animal would not drop his prey. I ran after it shouting, but the brute disappeared in the darkness down the face of a steep decline. I went back, got my gun, a lantern, and two men with torches. We searched everywhere, called the dog by his name and whistled, but in vain, and in half an hour we returned wet through from a fruitless quest (pg. 68-70).

Leopards still like to eat dogs. Some leopards in India and Pakistan specialize in hunting village dogs. They are just far more numerous than natural prey.

But dogs probably should be considered natural prey for leopards, for domestic dogs have lived in India for thousands of years. And leopards have been hunting them.

Westerners who colonized leopard territory during the Age of Imperialism frequently found their improved domestic hunting dogs were often carried off by the spotted and black cats. Most native dogs had sense to pay attention to leopards, but domestic dogs coming from Western Europe had no predators and no reason to be cautious. Plus, many of them had grown up chasing cats, and leopard would have just appeared to have been a really big pussy cat that needed to be chased.

I wonder how many leopards came to specialize in hunting those naive cat-chasing European dogs. It could have been many leopards learned to take advantage of dogs in this manner. Of course, the hunters could have always turned tables on the cat by releasing packs of scent hounds to tree the leopards, which is precisely what happened.

See related post:

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Poachers in nineteenth century England were rural thieves.  They were more than violators of game laws; they were stealing actual property from these estates. Game was owned. Wildlife was not viewed as state property in the way that it is in the United States.

Poaching was a very common offence. At one time, it was estimated that about a fourth of all people in the United Kingdom had been convicted of violating various game statutes.

Poachers often came by at night to take game that had already been shot and left to lie in the field.  This was one reason why the estates needed the best retrievers available. If game was left to lie in the field, the poachers would sneak in and collect it.  They would also come by in the wee hours of the morning and take game with their dogs.

This particular poacher was likely taking game that was already shot. His retriever was a bull and terrier type– which served another purpose.

To apprehend poachers, it was not uncommon for a gamekeeper to have what was called a “night dog.”  A night dog was type of mastiff, though it was usually a bit smaller and more agile than the big war and estate guardian mastiff that became what we call the “English mastiff” of today.  The night dog was often brindle so that it could  more easily hide in the shadows. The night dogs were trained to leave all game alone and to seek only people. They were also trained never to use their jaws on people. Instead, they were trained to pounce upon the poacher and hold him down until the keeper could catch him.

The night dogs would eventually become the modern bullmastiff breed, but at the time they were solely a purpose-bred mastiff, often crossed with bulldogs or bloodhound to add agility or nose.

This particular poacher’s luck has run out. The night dog has found him and has him down.  His loyal bull and terrier-type retriever has rushed to save him, but it may all be for nought. However, the bull and terrier might be enough of a distraction for the night dog to allow the poacher to escape.

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Yes. Don’t adjust your glasses. That caption says “Boosey:  A Sussex Spaniel.”

This image comes from Country Life Illustrated (1 May 1897).  The article in which it appears is on Borzoi coat color.

The actual text on this dog also appears in Country Life Illustrated (17 April 1897):

In the Sandringham Kennels last month died another aged favourite, a Sussex spaniel, by the name of Boosey, whose colouring (lavender-grey) resembled that of the Korthal Griffon [Wire-haired pointing griffon], and its jet black ears gave a very pleasing contrast to the faithful, intelligent face. Boosey had led quite a sporting life, for she invariably accompanied her royal master in the field, and proved a rattling good worker. Boosey was a great favourite of both the Prince and the Princess of Wales, and had reached the respectable age of fiftean years.

Okay. Um.

I hate to rain on anyone’s parade, but the royal family had a crossbreed among their shooting dogs (!)

I don’t doubt that Boosey was probably born to a Sussex spaniel bitch, and the majority of her litter mates probably were probably very typical golden-liver Sussex. 

This is what happens when a litter has two fathers. The supposed father of Boosey’s litter was likely a fine Sussex spaniel, but some sort of terrier or lurcher got in with the mother while she was still in heat.

I don’t doubt that Boosey was an excellent gun dog. She was likely trained to be a Sussex spaniel, and because she was raised among “her mother’s people,” she took the task quite well.

Because this dog was a royal possession, I don’t think anyone would have admitted that she likely wasn’t a purebred.

But I don’t know how anyone could think that his dog was purebred. It may be a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where no one wants to say the obvious about something that might be embarrassing to an important person– even if it’s so obvious that a child could see it.

But it appears that one of the Sussex spaniel ladies at Sandringham was a tramp.


Sandringham is the  large shooting estate in Norfolk that Queen Victoria purchased 1862.

It was the home of Edward VII and Alexandra, and the Prince of Wales mentioned as Boosey’s owner is George V. He was born on the estate and grew up shooting there.

George V loved gun dogs and shooting and spent most of his leisure time at Sandringham, which was better known for its Clumber spaniels than its Sussex.



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John James Audubon painted this illustration of a "great white heron." Plato, his "retrieving Newfoundland," fetched the first specimens of this species that Audubon encountered. However, this species is no longer considered valid. Great white herons are a white subspecies of the great blue heron that is endemic to South Florida.

Today is John James Audubon’s 226th birthday. If you use Google today, the site’s logo celebrates Audubon’s legacy.

Audubon is known for his wonderful paintings and books about the wildlife of North America. He was among  the first to fully and accurately catalog our native birds both his writing and his art.

One of the most respected conservation societies is named in his honor– The National Audubon Society.


Now for some biased Audubon lore:  Audubon was a retrieverman.

His most notable dog was a “Newfoundland’ named Plato.

The dog had been given to him by a physician,  for it was well-established that Aududon would need a retriever on his forays. To get such anatomically correct depictions of birds, Audubon shot his subjects.

The dog was of great use in Florida, hauling out scores of cayenne terns. However, he is probably best known for fetching two young great white herons, one of which was not particularly thrilled with being carried by a retriever:

On the 24th of April, 1832, I landed on Indian Key in Florida, and immediately after formed an acquaintance with Mr. Egan. He it was who first gave me notice of the species which forms the subject of this article, and of which I cannot find any description. The next day after that of my arrival, when I was prevented from accompanying him by my anxiety to finish a drawing, he came in with two young birds alive, and another lying dead in a nest, which he had cut off from a mangrove. You may imagine how delighted I was, when at the very first glance I felt assured that they were different from any that I had previously seen. The two living birds were of a beautiful white, slightly tinged with cream-colour, remarkably fat and strong for their age, which the worthy pilot said could not be more than three weeks. The dead bird was quite putrid and much smaller. It looked as if it had accidentally been trampled to death by the parent birds ten or twelve days before, the body being almost flat and covered with filth. The nest with the two live birds was placed in the yard. The young Herons seemed quite unconcerned when a person approached them, although on displaying one’s hand to them, they at once endeavoured to strike it with their bill. My Newfoundland dog, a well-trained and most sagacious animal, was whistled for and came up; on which the birds rose partially on their legs, ruffled all their feathers, spread their wings, opened their bills, and clicked their mandibles in great anger, but without attempting to leave the nest. I ordered the dog to go near them, but not to hurt them. They waited until he went within striking distance, when the largest suddenly hit him with its bill, and hung to his nose. Plato, however, took it all in good part, and merely brought the bird towards me, when I seized it by the wings, which made it let go its hold. It walked off as proudly as any of its tribe, and I was delighted to find it possessed of so much courage. These birds were left under the charge of Mrs. Egan, until I returned from my various excursions to the different islands along the coast ( pg. 110-111).

Plato would also guide Audubon and his party through a vicious Florida storm:

Early one morning I hired a boat and two men, with the view of returning to St Augustine by a short cut. Our baggage being placed on board, I bade adieu to the officers, and off we started. About four in the afternoon we arrived at the short cut, forty miles distant from our point of departure, and where we had expected to procure a waggon, but were disappointed. So we laid our things on the bank, and, leaving one of my assistants to look after them, I set out, accompanied by the other, and my Newfoundland dog. We had eighteen miles to go ; and as the sun was only two hours high, we struck off at a good rate. Presently we entered a pine barren. The country was as level as a floor ; our path, although narrow, was well beaten, having been used by the Seminole Indians for ages, and the weather was calm and beautiful. Now and then a rivulet occurred, from which we quenched our thirst, while the magnolias and other flowering plants on its banks relieved the dull uniformity of the woods. When the path separated into two branches, both seemingly leading the same way, I would follow one, while my companion took the other, and unless we met again in a short time, one of us would go across the intervening forest.

The sun went down behind a cloud, and the south-east breeze that sprung up at this moment, sounded dolefully among the tall pines. Along the eastern horizon lay a bed of black vapour, which gradually rose, and soon covered the heavens. The air felt hot and oppressive, and we knew that a tempest was approaching. Plato was now our guide, the white spots on his skin being the only objects that we could discern amid the darkness, and as if aware of his utility in this respect, he kept a short way before us on the trail. Had we imagined ourselves more than a few miles from the town, we would have made a camp, and remained under its shelter for the night; but conceiving that the distance could not be great, we resolved to trudge along.

Large drops began to fall from the murky mass overhead -, thick, inpenetrable darkness surrounded us, and to my dismay, the dog refused to proceed. Groping with my hands on the ground, I discovered that several trails branched out at the spot where he lay down; and when I had selected one, he went on. Vivid flashes of lightning streamed across the heavens, the wind increased to a gale, and the rain poured down upon us like a torrent. The water soon rose on the level ground so as almost to cover our feet, and we slowly advanced, fronting the tempest. Here and there a tall pine on fire presented a magnificent spectacle, illumining the trees around it, and surrounded with a halo of dim light, abruptly bordered with the deep black of the night. At one time we passed through a tangled thicket of low trees, at another crossed a stream flushed by the heavy rain, and again proceeded over the open barrens.

How long we thus, half-lost, groped our way, is more than I can tell you ; but at length the tempest passed over, and suddenly the clear sky became spangled with stars. Soon after we smelt the salt-marshes, and walking directly towards them, like pointers advancing on a covey of partridges, we at last to our great joy descried the light of the beacon near St Augustine. My dog began to run briskly around, having met with ground on which he had hunted before, and taking a direct course, led us to the great causeway that crosses the marshes at the back of the town. We refreshed ourselves with the produce of the first orange treethat we met with, and in half an hour more arrived at our hotel. Drenched with rain, steaming with perspiration, and covered to the knees with mud, you may imagine what figures we cut in the eyes of the good people whom we found snugly enjoying themselves in the sitting room. Next morning, Major Gates, who had received me with much kindness, sent a waggon with mules and two trusty soldiers for my companion and luggage ( pg. 294-295).

Although Plato is described as a black and white Newfoundland dog. I think it is more likely that he had been a more of St. John’s type dog. It is not that the larger Newfoundlands weren’t excellent retrievers.  The typical nineteenth century dog of the large Newfoundland type was white with black markings, not black with a white spots. The St. John’s breed was usually black with some white markings.

Further, Audubon describes the Newfoundland dog coat when discusses the opossum’s adaptations to the cold in his Missouri River Journals (1843). Opossums are only sparsely furred, but they possess a layer of fat for insulation. Audubon clearly states that the same can be said for the “Newfoundland dog”:

The Newfoundland dog manifests a similar propensity. Having a constitution as hardy as that of the most northern animals, it stands the coldest weather, and does not hibernate, although its covering of fur and hair may be said to be comparatively scanty even during winter. The defect, however, seems to be compensated by a skin of considerable thickness, and a general subcutaneous layer of fat (pg. 501).

Although the coat on a St. John’s water dog was quite dense, it could be described as sparse. I don’t think one could logically make that claim for any of the larger Newfoundland dogs.

One must remember that in the nineteenth century, the line between Newfoundland and retriever was somewhat nebulous. So it is both accurate to call Plato a Newfoundland and  a retriever. “Retriever” was just a function, not a breed and many dogs Newfoundland ancestry fit the job.

In his earlier days, Audubon also had a dog that was called a retriever. The dog was a bitch, but she was listed at “Dash–a slut.” Slut is an archaic word that just means bitch, and she would accompany Audubon down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, fetching shot birds for his paintings.

I cannot say exactly what kind of retriever she was. She may have been nothing more than an improved setter or a cross between a setter and “Newfoundland.” She may have been a water spaniel or water spaniel cross.

Whatever she was, both Plato and Dash were absolute necessities for a shooting naturalist who wanted to collect specimens that could later be used to create the most anatomically correct depictions of their species the world had yet seen.

They were valued in their service in cataloging the North America’s amazing avian fauna. Although they don’t make much mention in Audubon’s writings and he never took the trouble to paint them, it is obvious that he appreciated them very much.

He described Plato as “a well-trained and most sagacious animal,” which is what all retrievers, regardless of their time period or breed, should be.

Well-trained and sagacious.

The naturalist’s dog.

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