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2010-06-30 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Besides a fireworks reminder to keep your pets safely inside, Fourth of July also brings an annual appreciation for the Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson who happened to have a fascination with the natural world. Jefferson owned some unusual pets including his constant companion mockingbird and several grizzly bear cubs, gifts from Lewis and Clark.

Our third President also had a love/ hate relationship with his dogs, specifically his sheepdogs. They were part of his desire to “colonize” the US with certain Old World species. His wish list included the nightingale and Angora hare. Thechien de berger or “shepherd’s dog” intrigued him because the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) a prominent naturalist and Darwin predecessor, considered this breed closest to wolves, the origin of all dogs. He felt shepherd’s dogs were the only dogs born fully trained.

However, Jefferson disagreed with another of Buffon’s controversial theories that the climate in the New World degenerated dogs, making them smaller and eventually unable to bark. Jefferson and our great thinkers Franklin and Hamilton took umbrage when others applied Buffon’s natural history notion to politics and their newly formed government.

During a trip to France in 1789, Jefferson paid the equivalent of six dollars for a pregnant shepherd’s dog. This dog named “Bergere” gave birth to two pups alongside 60 European trees on the return ship sailing to Virginia. “Bergere” and her family successfully rounded the chickens each night at Monticello while “Grizzle” imported from Normandy a year later was a disaster. His whole line was deemed mischievous and destroyed in 1796, except for one son kept out of trouble on the end of a chain. No one is sure what the “Bergere” or “Grizzle” progeny looked like. Some say they resembled today’s Briards, but Buffon’s engraving shows a shaggy dog with a pointy face.

Around 1809 when Spanish merino sheep were brought to America, wool became big business.

Jefferson started herding sheep too. There was a bounty on wolves as marauders of livestock. Somehow this generalized to dogs, often poorly fed, even sheepdogs who were supposed to be gathering the flock away from predators. Jefferson told his overseer that his slaves’ dogs, if found by the herd, would have to be killed. In fact, in 1815, a sheepdog that Jefferson promised to his brother was caught eating a sheep and supposedly “hung.”

Dog laws started popping up in several states. In 1811, Peter Minor a fellow Virginia landowner requested Jefferson’s help for a scheme to reduce the dog population. Minor hoped for legislative support for a tax on owners, who would presumably kill some or all of their dogs to avoid the tax. The levy would be used to compensate the farmers for livestock killed. Minor complained about the loss of valuable sheep and, in addition, feared the spread of rabies and its fatal consequences for humans bitten. (Pasteur’s rabies vaccine was still 74 years away.)

Jefferson shared these concerns and wrote a letter to Peter Minor against dogs, declaring: “I participate in all your hostilities toward dogs, and would readily join in any plan for exterminating the whole race.” Their petition failed and no tax was enacted.

Meanwhile Jefferson’s professed canine hatred was such a contradiction. Jefferson kept working dogs on his estate, continued to breed them and imported more. In 1809, one French sheepdog pair was selected for him by the Marquis de Lafayette. The female, reared on cornbread, was perfectly trained and herded in the Monticello fields where there were no interior fences, only rows of peach trees. The dog was still able to keep the sheep out of the rows of grain. Thefinereputation of the Monticello dogs spread. Jefferson delighted in taking applications for his pups from plantation owners and government officials. Nevertheless, it would be hard to claim that Jefferson’s dogs enjoyed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

For Adoption: Come to Babylon Town Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon where there are many deserving dogs, cats and kittens who would love to celebrate the Fourth and everyday with you. This “Doodle Dandy” kitten is in the lobby. “Casper”#93398 a purebred Weimaraner (and “Challenge” his brindle Pit brother) was surrendered by an owner who came upon hard times and could no longer afford to care for them.

Male: “Bradley” Beagle # 93344; “Alfie” Cocker Spaniel #93377; “Snuggles” gray declawed cat.

Female: “Jinni” carries her bowl as a security blanket #93155; “Heather”& “Star” 2 happy Pits.

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