Twenty years ago in Santa Barbara, my friend, Joyce, fell in love with the Scoop, the basenji belonging to the boarding kennel next door to her job. Then one day Spook’s owner showed up at her office door with a red and white pup. “How would you like this one?” Originally from Santa Barbara breeder, Stella Sapios, seven month old Rocky had been returned. Stella was looking for a home for him, so Joyce arrived at my door to show off the high-stepping Rocky. So began our twenty-year love affair with the barkless hounds of the Congo, a cat-like dog with attitude. Rocky howled when left alone. I could hear him from my condo across the complex from Joyce. She called Stella to ask what she should do. “You need another basenji,” Stella told her. That was the first thing we learned about basenjis. They don’t do well alone. They have, in fact, developed a reputation for destructiveness—especially of upholstered furniture—when bored. And so I acquired Scoop’s brother, Symbella, a three-year-old Stella had kept as a pet. We left them together in the yard of Joyce’s condo when we went to work. Problem solved.
But shortly thereafter, Symbella began to have seizures and was diagnosed with Fanconi, a kidney disease common to the breed. Another lesson in basenjis, who are prone to it. Today, they can perform a DNA test for the disease and so are breeding it out, but then we could only treat her—largely with antacid pills to prevent seizures—and watch her slowly lose her zest for play. A sweet and game little girl still, she was no longer a playmate for Rocky. “You need another basenji,” Stella said again. “How about Willie?”
By that time, Joyce and I had decided to throw our lot together and buy a house, so there was no reason not to have three dogs. We lived a block from open country above an untamed beach—a perfect place to run the dogs off lead. So eighteen-month old brindle, Willie, joined the family. Basenji Breeders had returned to Africa no long before this to increase the gene pool and returned with the brindles. This prince was their descendant and closer to his African roots. We tackled the job of running three dogs off lead across the mesa and down the beach. Another thing you need to know about basenjis. They have a mind of their own and consider their own agenda at least equal to yours. Rocky’s idea of coming home was to fling his head, gesturing for us to follow him—then, of course, run off when we got near the house.
We took them to school, where the trainer kept saying “That’s pretty good for a basenji.” We finally did manage to whistle-train the trio, though the wildlife of the mesa—from rats in the chaparral, to skunks in the underbrush, to coyotes eyeing us from the hill—always competed with the whistle. They are hounds, and the natives of the Congo prize theses dogs for hunting small animals and herding them into nets. We had to learn that the dogs would not go far and would follow us. It just had to be on their own time. It’s tough to alpha down a basenji. I out-waited Rocky one day, after commanding him to come, but it took a two hour sit on a log to do it. Basenjis don’t much like being ordered about, and their attitude conceals their secret. They are suckers for approval. The problem is you have to get them to perform to give it. Symbella lived until she was ten, riding across the mesa to the beach in a knapsack when she became too weak to make it on her own. When we lost her, we asked Stella, of course, for another adult dog looking for a home. She had none, but promised us Jetta, her prize tricolor, when Jetta was through breeding—which wasn’t yet. Lonesome for our red and white girl, we rescued Lucy –a tale for another time. Each time we lose a basenji, we go to Stella and by now we’ve taken more of her retired breeders or dogs not to be bred, than anyone else. Lucy was followed by Eva (a loan that was never returned) who was followed by Rocket Socks, a retired Basenji Hall of Fame stud. They were joined (finally) by Jetta and her daughter Larra. Then Jetta’s grandson, Dex, joined the family, followed, when Eva died, by Bridget, another rescue. Each is a tale and each has taken us another step in understanding this fascinating breed that seems to listen to a different drummer. Jetta, who was ours for the last eight years of her life, recently gave in to cancer just short of her sixteenth year, so it’s a fitting time to honor the long line of basenjis that have honored us with their lives.