Should We Preserve Primitive Breeds or Let Them Go Extinct?

The ancient dogs of Polynesia are now gone, will all primitive dog breeds go the same way?


During the 13th century, a Polynesian breed of dog called the Kur? was brought to New Zealand in canoes with the Maori. People and dogs migrated together over the astounding distance of the Pacific Ocean. The dogs were quite different from many ancient breeds, being small, long-haired, and apparently most prized when solid black or solid white (although red-brown colors and spotted dogs also occurred). The Kuri most closely resembles a lightweight Border Collie. In fact, some people thought they were seeing a kind of tame fox.

The importance of the Kuri to the Maori in early New Zealand is indicated by the Kuri having a guardian deity called Irawaru. While they were treasured as pets and hunting companions, they were also used for meat and fur, and their bones were used for fishhooks. The most prized garment was a dogskin cloak called a kahu Kuri, which was worn by chiefs. Interestingly, the Kuri was also a famously relaxed animal and often called lazy.

European colonization

By 1880, less than a hundred years after the first arrival of European settlers, the Kuri was extinct. By the early 20th century, the other known Polynesian breeds, including the Hawaiian Poi Dog, were also lost as a separate breed. Although some of their genes probably endure in the general dog population, this breed is now only known through a handful of indistinct sketches, photographs, and shriveled specimens.

It is hard to know much about Kuri’s temperament, as most of the written accounts are derogatory, written by Europeans who found the Kuri to be generally unbiddable and sometimes aggressive. One European ship’s captain acquired a Kuri, but he bit so many of the crew that when the captain was away, the crew tried and executed the dog.

Primitive breeds

Very few breeds of dogs that are early examples of domestication are still around. These breeds straddle the line between wild and tame. They live in association with people but are independent, and if a dog bonds with a person, he tends to choose only one. Many primitive breeds are stocky and red colored like dingoes and Chows. Many of the so-called ancient breeds like the Afghan and Saluki have been found to be essentially modern reinventions from the last few hundred years, as are most dog breeds. It is unclear where the now-extinct Polynesian breeds fit into the widely scattered dog lineage.

The widespread extinction of most primitive breeds is not surprising when you take into account that fewer and fewer places in the world allow humans and dogs to live independently and freely associate together. Dogs are now expected to be contained and controlled by a human owner.

Some time ago, the last two known Kuri living freely in the bush were hunted down, killed, and preserved as taxidermy, which was the logic of the day. Modern New Zealand is not really a place for free-roaming dogs. The native birds, many flightless, cannot tolerate their presence, and roaming dogs can become dangerous, spread disease, and suffer from untreated injuries and health problems.

It is all reasonable and responsible to be concerned about these things, but where does it leave the primitive dog? Basically they have to make a choice — or we make it for them. They can be deemed a wild animal, like the dingo or New Guinea Singing Dog. Or they can conformed fully to the requirements of domesticity, as many other breeds have.

The long trial of extinct primitive dog breeds — the Tahltan Bear Dog of Canada, the Turnspit Dog of the 16th century, or Molossus of ancient southern Europe — led to animals that did not go one way or the other and were instead displaced by incoming modern breeds. Like many animals, very few dogs live in relation with people they can walk away from if domesticated life does not meet their needs.

Preserving breeds

But when the role and the lifestyle that a dog was developed for is gone, is it realistic to think that the breed can really continue to exist?

Every dog show tells stories about how Dachshunds were for hunting badgers and Bulldogs for fighting bulls. But the modern pet dogs who carry these names can clearly do neither. Looking back at taxidermied examples, photos, and paintings of the dogs of a hundred years or more shows the way breeding, rather than preserving the breed’s traits, has shrunk the Dachshund to a shadow of its former self and collapsed the Bulldog’s face in to an extreme degree.

While I would very much like to have the Kuri around today, without the kind of adventuring independent life the breed is adapted to live, what kind of Kuri would he be? And is it inevitable that other free-roaming primitive dogs — the pariah hound, the Bedouin dog — will all ultimately either become a modern domesticated shadow of their former selves or fade away into history, just like the Kuri? Should this happen, will there be something about humans that also be lost?

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About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny, and Pippin — they think of themselves as dog-esque).

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