Local researcher works to save link to the past. The way-gone past.
by Eric Johnson
(Originally published June 30, 2011)
Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin of the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory wants to buy a graduate student. He says that if someone would buy him a graduate student, his research into the Carolina Dog, a primitive dog that found its way to our area, would be much easier.
“That’s what you need to do,” he says matter of factly. “You write a check to the UGA Research Foundation for $30,000 for the two-year support of a master’s level graduate student in molecular genetics.”
With that, he says, the sky’s the limit.
It’s a little more complicated than that, he admits, but a grad student would certainly help.
Grad student or not, what Brisbin wants to do is research the genetic makeup of the Carolina Dogs and compare them with other free-ranging dogs. He thinks some of the Carolina Dogs he’s trapped could be old from old stock.
Really old stock.
“On these certain large pieces of protected land like SRS or Fort Gordon or Fort Stewart there are still dogs there that retain characteristics and genetic traits of the original dogs that crossed the Bearing land bridge with primitive man 14,000 years ago,” he says. “These would be the dogs that were here to greet the Spanish.”
Not only do these Carolina Dogs look like the dogs depicted in ancient cave paintings and on pottery, they look like the dogs documented by the first Spanish to encounter Native Americans.
“These were the primitive village dogs of the Native Americans,” Brisbin says.
They also happen to be dead ringers for Australian Dingos.
“Wherever there were European dogs and civilization, the original dog got hybridized,” he says. “So the hypothesis would say that, if that is true, the place to look for the original type of dog is out at a place like the Savannah River Ecology Lab, where there is a swamp and woods and no Dalmatians or German Shepherds.
The lab is the research unit of the University of Georgia. It’s located at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site and takes advantage of the secured environment to research many aspects of the natural world that would be difficult, if not impossible, to study elsewhere.
While the Carolina Dogs have a distinct look, Brisbin says they also demonstrate unique behavior.
“When you bring these dogs into captivity, they just act differently,” he says. “For one thing, they cover their droppings with sand by pushing the sand over the droppings with their noses, not their back paws.”
Though not recognized by the American Kennel Club, the breed is recognized by the United Kennel Club, which is the second largest dog registry.
Only 200 to 300 Carolina Dogs are officially registered, though there are independent breeders who don’t bother with Brisbin’s stud book, and while conventional logic would suggest that something so feral would not make a good pet, he says the opposite is actually true.
“They weren’t coyotes or wolves, they were <<IT>>dogs<<IT>> 14,000 years ago, and they were following people across the land bridge,” he says. “When it got cold in the winter, they would come into the tepee to keep people warm. They barked at the cave mouth. They pulled their burden.”
As for how many are in the wild, he suspects the numbers are going down, because time is robbing them of the big, protected tracts of land.
“If it weren’t for me and the Savannah River Site and what we call the Lowcountry between the Savannah River and Charleston, there wouldn’t be much habitat left around here,” he says.
After 25 years studying the breed, he says he has strong feelings about them and certainly wants them to thrive.
“You can pay $3,500 for a Carolina Dog,” he says. “Or you can get one from me for free. I am absolutely opposed to charging money for Carolina Dogs. They’re a legacy.”
While free does mean free (though he’ll certainly accept a donation made out to the University of Georgia Research Foundation), it doesn’t mean there are no strings attached.
“You can’t neuter it unless I agree,” he says. “I don’t want you turning around and selling them for a profit, and I want you to keep in touch.”
Because perpetuating the breed is so important to him, he is requesting animal shelters make an exception to their spay and neuter policy when it comes to Carolina Dogs.
“Often, we’ll find a perfect dog, but we can’t get it from the shelters without signing the contract that we’ll neuter,” he says. “That makes it difficult when we’re trying to save a relic of the old South.”
Go rent “Old Yeller” he says, and you’ll start to get the picture.You Might Also Like: