Saving a loyal breed from near-extinction
It was under Ha Sung-jin, a professor of agriculture at Kyungpook National University, that two assistant professors decided to find and study the disappearing breed. Tak Yeon-bin and Kim Hwa-sik were both animal-loving veterinarians with an interest in saving the Sapsaree; Mr. Tak was a judge for show dogs who travelled around the country with Mr. Kim looking for surviving Sapsarees.
The two had to scour the countryside to find 52 pure-breeds, 30 of which they took possession of and raised. They petitioned the government to acknowledge the dog as a Natural Monument (a native flora or fauna that contributes to the national identity), but it was the middle of the economically budding 1960s, and the government had bigger things to do than take care of dogs. Unsure of what to do with the dogs, Mr. Tak and Mr. Kim left them at the farm in Daegu, owned by their senior professor, Mr. Ha.
It wasn't until 1985 that Mr. Ha 's son, Ha Ji-hong, returned from the United States with a degree in genetic engineering and found that only eight Sapsaree were still living on a farm near his father's. He found them in a sad state.
"The dogs were tied up and sitting under the blazing sun," said Mr. Ha, now a professor of genetic engineering at Kyungpook National University and the vice chairman of Korean Sapsaree Association. "I thought the dogs were natural assets and that if they were neglected, the Sapsaree bloodline would end."
But Sapsarees are nothing if not survivors. Once a breed beloved on the peninsula for its loyalty, intelligence and playfulness, the Sapsaree came close to extinction in World War II, when the only use the ruling Japanese could find for them were as fur and skin for winter uniforms. Some estimate that 100,000 to 500,000 dogs were killed each year for three years.
"Although lots of people are killed in war, the extermination of dogs in such large numbers is unprecedented,” Mr. Ha said.
The Japanese contempt for the animal was based on Japan's own standards of classification and registration of breeds. Japanese breeders began to classify their native breeds in the 1930s, identifying dogs now famous around the world: the Akita, Shiba, Kishu and Hokkaido. Breeds that were classified as native were protected as Natural Monuments. In occupied Korea, a similar program was carried out in the late '30s, classifying the native Jindo and Poongsan breeds as being linked to Japanese breeds and hence worthy of protection. Other breeds, including the Sapsaree, were considered mutts best used for fur or meat.
“Before that time, there was no such thing as a 'Jindo dog',” although the dog certainly existed, Mr. Ha said.
After Korea gained its independence, the inflow of western culture and popularity of foreign breeds as pets pushed the Sapsaree even closer toward the edge of extinction.
The breed had indeed fallen very far from its former cultural prominence. References to the Sapsaree abound in older works, from the dog barking under the cassia flowers in “The Tale of Chunhyang,” to depictions of the dog in Goguryeo-era (4th to 7th century A.D.) wall paintings in ancient tombs. The breed has been included in tales, songs, poems and paintings for centuries in Korea.
These references often played to the animal's mystical reputation: the name “ Sapsaree” means “a dog that roots out evil spirits, “ and the dog was said to have been used to chase evil spirits out of peoples’ homes.
The dog was also valued for its loyalty. One famous story is of a yangban aristocrat who passed out drunk by the side of a river while on his way home. Suddenly, a fire broke out on the banks. The yangban's faithful Sapsaree, being a quick thinker, jumped into the river and used its wet fur to put out the fire and save its master. The master lived, but the dog died of exhaustion. In awe of his canine companion, the aristocrat erected a stone monument to it, which still stands in Seongsan county, South Gyeongsang province.
The breed is slightly larger and heavier than the average Jindo dog. The typical Sapsaree stands 46 to 56 centimeters (17 to 22 inches) tall and weighs 16 to 28 kilograms (35 to 61 pounds).
The fact that Sapsaree is an indigenous dog to Korea has been scientifically proven as well. Biologically, the Sapsaree is closer to Korea's other native Jindo and Poongsan breeds than with other breeds in China and Japan, according to Mr. Ha.
After discovering the dogs at the nearby farm, Mr. Ha spent the next five years trying to locate other Sapsarees that had been given to relatives and friends. To his dismay, he found that most had been mixed with other breeds or used to make bosingtang, a soup that is supposed to give its eater a jolt of virility.
Mr. Ha raised and bred the eight dogs in his house, and the number of Sapsaree slowly increased, reaching 30 dogs in 1989 and then 150 as of 1992.
As the number of dogs increased, so did the cost of feeding and caring for them. Seeking funds for his work, Mr. Ha filed a petition with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 1989, asking for the Sapsaree to be recognized as a natural monument.
“An official at the ministry sneered at my proposal. We ended up with having a big argument,” Mr. Ha said.
In 1992, however, the Cultural Properties Administration upheld Mr. Ha's petition and began to provide 100 million won ($96,000 at the current exchange rate) a year in financial assistance.
That might sound like a lot of money, but the dogs ate through it surprisingly quickly, and the poorly built barns on the farm couldn't shelter them. When a typhoon hit, the river next the farm flooded and Mr. Ha had to load the dogs into his car and move them to a shelter on the side of a hill.
“The inside of my car was a mess,” he said, “and I was covered in dog poop.”
Hoping to quickly expand the number of dogs, Mr. Ha said he loosened his criteria for “pure-bred” Sapsaree. Dogs with unusual features for the breed were still permitted to mate with pure-bred bitches. “The number of a breed should exceed at least 1,000 to prevent in-breeding,” Mr. Ha said. “Otherwise all kinds of genetic diseases start to appear and the breed will eventually become extinct.”
According to Mr. Ha, Jindo dogs nearly suffered this fate when breeders decided to keep only white and brown dogs. Black Jindos nearly disappeared.
In the forty years since Mr. Ha's father and assistants began preserving the Sapsaree, enormous progress has been made. There are now nearly 2,500 of the dogs registered, and the breed has been recognized as particularly useful in Animal Assisted Therapy programs for the mentally ill and those with autism. Legal protection is also on the way: last fall, Jung Byoung-gug, a representative from the Grand National Party, submitted legislation to grant the Sapsaree status equal to that of the Jindo breed.
Mr. Ha said hopes to create a dog-breeding culture in Korea.
“Breeding dogs is a part of high culture in Great Britain, but in Korea, whenever the word 'dog' is brought up, people get their tongue tied,” Mr. Ha said, referring to the large number of swear words that start with “gae” (dog). “Dogs are cultural animals, and Korea should have its own dog-loving culture.”
by Limb Jae-un