Our sixteen-year-old basenji, Bridget, died in her sleep last week, an event that fills us with both sadness and relief. Blind for the last three or four years, increasingly senile, with a sensitive stomach to boot, she took a lot of patience and a lot of care. She was the sixth of eleven Basenjis we’ve had over the last twenty years, and our rule of thumb has been not to put them down until they show signs of giving up. For the first time, we were tempted to break that rule with Bridget; she did not give up. So bless her for taking that decision from us.
Now I watch Dex, our fifteen-year-old wandering about, bewildered by the absent dog, and wonder when the next decision will come. We’ve made many, since Joyce came home twenty years ago with seven-month-old Rocky.
Rocky had been returned by its owner, who had to move across country, and the breeder didn’t want to work him back into her pack. So she left the dog with a boarding kennel, which just happened to be next door to the office where Joyce worked. The kennel owner just happened to have a basenji of his own who Joyce had just happened to fall in love with. And so it started. Rocky howled when Joyce left for work. Joyce called Stella, the breeder, asking what to do, and Stella said, “You need another basenji.” So her friend and neighboring condo dweller, me, took Symbella, who joined Rocky during the day when we were at work. Problem cured. But Symbella got sick and no longer ran and played with Rocky. Joyce called Stella and Willy joined the group—now officially a pack. The rest is history.
Why Basenjis? A question we’ve asked more than once. Beautiful, graceful, smart, with a prancing gait fit for a parade, these dogs attract instant attention. But beware, this dog from the Congo is “different.” Beloved by the natives who breed them as small game hunters, they don’t bark. Sure of their own purpose in this world, they have their own agenda and condescend to yours only if it suits them. In short, as you can tell from the above picture, they have attitude. Catlike, they are aloof; they groom themselves and perch for hours in a place they can watch the world. We dump them in the tub only once or twice year.
Fortunately, we knew nothing of their reputation when we acquired Rocky, but soon discovered that dog professionals recommend you know what you’re doing before you get a basenji. They are destructive (known to dismember couches), hard to train (unless it suits them), escape artists—and who knows what else. As Rocky taught us, they are not a breed to leave alone all day. They can get pissed if they feel deserted, but another basenji cures the problem. Ours always have company, and we’ve had no escapees. They are more or less aloof depending on how much human companionship they get. Ours have become much less aloof since we retired. As to training—we’ve taken our groups to school once or twice, and the remarks of trainers are on the order of, “That’s pretty good for a basenji.” I once sat down on a log and waited over an hour until Rocky conceded that I would take him home (on lead), rather than vice versa. They are smart, always alert to their surroundings, but, being barkless, they aren’t watch dogs. They aren’t mute. They talk, growl warnings, and some of them “yodel”—a strange howling song of joy, particularly if they are in a group. We’ve had only one yodeler, and it’s a real treat to be welcomed home by Dex.
Visiting the Basenji farm
Eight of our dogs have come from our breeder friend Stella or breeder friends of hers; three, like Bridget, have been rescues from BRAT (Basenji Rescue and Transportation). All have been adults when we got them. So we are not strangers to nursing them through their last days. We’ve dealt with kidney disease—no longer the plague of the breed it once was—cancers, and infections. Bridget is our first case of blindness, and she was an education in coping, willing to bump her way around the house for however long it took to find what she wanted—or discover where she was—and if she failed at that, simply lie down and wait to be discovered. Toward the end, she sought only to lie against your stomach and fall asleep. Goodbye, Bridget, and thank you again for taking the ending into your own hands. Dex and Jake are missing you.