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The Dog Pack

Story ID:3091
Written by:John Ward (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Biography
Location:Manzini Swaziland
Year:1961
Person:A Pack of Domesticated Dogs
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The house on Villier’s Street used to be Cutchie Morgan’s house; now it was ours. My cousin Alan lived right next door to our new house and this was perfect for me. Across Villier’s Street from my cousin Alan’s house was Mrs. Dup’s Place, a general store and mortuary. This store was such a treasure trove of marvels that we would spend as much time as she would let us, poking around the many and varied items she had on hand. When we had irritated Mrs. Dup with our presence long enough she’d chase us out, and we’d just sit on Alan’s square cement fence-posts and stare at the store entrance. We watched the people who entered and speculated as to whether they would ever get out again. Mrs. Dup could be pretty scary.

During these times of observing Mrs. Dup’s place I noticed a pack of dogs, which would turn up and mooch around the front of the building looking for any scraps to eat. They’d play with each other and then run off together like the perfect group of friends. The pack was not wild, far from it. There were a couple of “Swazi dogs” in it but for the most part it was made up of domesticated dogs from different homes in the neighborhood. There was an Alsatian, a Poodle, a Cape Hunting Dog, a Labrador retriever, a Rhodesian Ridge-back, someone’s Chihuahua, a Basenji the “Swazi dogs,” a Scottie, a Dachshund, a Cocker Spaniel, a Bull Terrier and a Boerboel. There were also several mixed breeds I couldn’t name in this friendly mix.

Swazi dogs are characterized by their slim and rangy bodies. Originally brought in by Europeans, these dogs were a mixture of Greyhound and Azawakh from North Africa, brought to race and entertain the “Mlungu” or white man. As they lost their ability to run they were released into the bush and the Africans found that they could use their speed to track and catch small buck. So they adopted them and let them hang around the Kraals and campfires requiring that they survive on scraps and anything they could catch. The result was: the dogs acted like curs and were so painfully skinny because of their breed and starvation that one couldn’t help but feel sorry for them all the time. If you had a sandwich or an ice cream you were always hard pressed by those starving eyes to share.

I loved to see this troupe arrive, sniff around and leave, because in that simple formula you saw many things. To me they seemed to have no pecking order. The Alsatian ran along side the Scottie without threat or intimidation, which is probably impossible to generate in a Scottie anyway. The big Boerboel loped along in the pack, minding his own business, sniffing in great windy gusts, audible from across the street. Sometimes they’d bark at something, all except the Basenji, in a cacophonous chorus which would turn into their lame version of a pack howl. Every now and again, the pack determined a certain passing car had to be chased and they’d go after the wheels with great enthusiasm, barking all the time.

To me they seemed the perfect society. Swaziland, at the time, was a country of separateness. It wasn’t an official, government sanctioned “Apartheid” like in South Africa, but there were definite social barriers between the Europeans (whites), the Natives (Africans) and the Coloreds, (a mixture of Native and some naughty European who couldn’t quite understand the irrefutable logic of racial separatism.) There was also a small Indian community made up mostly of people from Southern India. No one had any idea of where to classify them for several reasons. Firstly, although darker skinned, they were very astute and successful businessmen, secondly, they were erudite and educated and thirdly, there was that annoying “several thousand years of civilization” thing.

The dogs were a successful United Nations group living in harmony with each other in the apparent absence of a pecking order, no political wrangling, no fighting, just camaraderie and companionship. I was so happy every time the pack came into view and often sat there to watch how they interacted and played and sniffed and scavenged. Although they were a definite group of pals they each retained their individual characteristics.

In the group the Chihuahua held his own running alongside with his legs going at four times the speed of the others. He tried to make it look like he was just running fast for exercise, but we all knew the truth. If he was annoyed by one of the younger dogs he’d just stalk off looking like he had more important things to think of.

The Basenji did a lot of posturing and posing. He was truly a beautiful dog to behold, but he would often just stand there, like an Egyptian god, looking into the middle distance as if contemplating the future of the group, or trying to determine the next stop on the scavenge-a-thon. When he sniffed he did so discreetly and never for long. He was a trim, noble looking dog who, because he was mute, always seemed to be thinking.

No-one minded the slobber from the Boerboel. He seemed such a decent guy, the rest put up with it good-naturedly and anyway slobber is nothing compared to what they would roll in, ostensibly to increase their chances in a hunt. Apparently they felt that they could sneak up on a buck or a rabbit if they smelled revolting, so at every opportunity and in those days there were quite a few, they would roll in substances that were probably banned by the Geneva Convention.

The lab was an older dog, with a graying muzzle. I believe it was a female, although checking was of no interest to us. She had a maternal way about her and was very decent with all the other dogs. She would join in the barking but never the howling. When the others chased the cars, she would bark, but stand her ground. Alan and I really liked her.

Swazi dogs normally look crestfallen and these were no exception. I knew the one was a bitch because her teats were hanging down slightly as if she had just weaned a clutch of pups in the bush somewhere. The male had the same “whipped cur” appearance, but they ran with the pack as equal members even though they chose the periphery most of the time. I guess their status was enhanced by the fact that they were expert scavengers and could teach the rest a lot about procurement.

The Poodle seemed the strangest member of the club. He was all white and unclipped so he looked more like an un-pampered Bichon Frise. He was a toy with a wonderful personality and got along with everyone. He would roll around with the best of them and get his lovely white fur filthy just like a true hunter. I remembered that my father had told me Poodles were just Irish Water Spaniels and when the Vikings conquered Ireland they took some of the dogs with them to conquer the rest of the known world including France. When the French got a look at the Irish Water Spaniel with its long curly hair, they immediately started to miniaturize it and cut its hair into embarrassing designs. They adopted the breed and it is now commonly known as the French Poodle, but merely cast a stick into the water and the Poodle immediately reverts to an Irish Water Spaniel plunging in without fear or hesitation.

The sausage dog seemed fairly aloof. Maybe it was his lack of height which became even more apparent when he decided the tall, rangy female “Swazi” female should be back in season. It was funny and pathetic to watch him try to express his affection and not be able to reach the jewel of his quest. I felt very sorry for him as all the others managed to achieve their goal and he had to miss out because some stupid human breeder had the idea that short legs on a long body would be funny. He was a grump, but justifiably so.

Amazingly the Cocker Spaniel had no reservations about being a member of this pack. It was a pretty dog with chocolate and white splotches all over its body in a random pattern. Long ears trailed the ground as the Spaniel ran sniffing along enjoying the many smells provided by the African earth. My dad once told me that a dog’s sense of smell is, on average, about fifty times more sensitive than our own and that for him, sniffing the wind is like seeing an amazing panorama, or hearing a complex piece of beautiful music. That Spaniel must have been kept inside most of the time because sniffing the ground seemed the most important thing to him.

The Rhodesian Ridgeback and the Cape Hunting Dog seemed to have a special bond, because even though they were in the pack, they were never far from each other. I speculated that they were always telling each other stories about Cape Town and Rhodesia. Both were about four years of age and in their prime. They ran with a spring in their stride and played tag with each other often. I envied that friendship and wondered if I had that with Alan.

The poor Bull Terrier was a white Staffordshire and so ugly you just had to love her. I heard someone call her “Luma” once, (“bite” in Swazi), so I used to think that must be her name. Either that or the person was trying to stir up trouble. This wonderful dog was bred solely for the purpose of fighting and its face is made ugly by the huge clamping muscles it contains. My dad once told me that a nobleman in England had trained a pack of Dalmatians to run between the wheels of his carriages for aesthetic purposes and he would ride through the towns with his attractive pack under his wheels. Unfortunately, since Dalmatians are not bred for fighting, the local town curs would come out when he passed and tear his poor Dalmatians to pieces. So he bought about 20 White Staffordshire Bull Terriers and trained them to run between the wheels. When they were ready he had them painted with black spots and then set off to tour the villages of his estate. When the curs all emerged, in the sure knowledge that there was an easy victory ahead, they got the beating of their lives and never attacked the coaches again. A Bull Terrier is a fearsome thing in battle with another dog.

Even the Alsatian, which is probably the closest to its original wolf ancestor, would fare terribly in a fight with a Bull Terrier. My Uncle Mickey had a Bull Terrier he called “Bully.” When he and my father would go horse-back riding into the hills around Manzini, the Swazi dogs would come out of the bush and bite and harass the horses, knowing that they were under the control of the bridle and could not chase them down. Taking his lead from the story of the nobleman, Uncle Mickey brought Bully along for their next ride. When about twenty Swazi dogs emerged from the bush, Bully nearly killed three and they all got away only because of their grey-hound speed.

The Alsatian padded along with the pack looking very lupine and deadly. He was a unique tan, but his face was black and the only way you could distinguish his eyes from the black fur all around them was a periodic glint that looked evil and sinister. He too was one of the equal partners in the pack and never tried to push his way up to a higher level. The whole thing was quite fascinating.

Many months went by and I would always see the pack of friends trotting along, sniffing, playing, barking and so forth. One day a horrible thing happened. Alan and I were sitting on his fence talking when a car went by and we heard a horrifying yelp from one of the dogs. We looked over and saw that the car had accidentally hit the Poodle and he was screaming his head off in agony. The pack ran to him and in a sudden moment of horror I saw them tear into their pack mate. They growled terrifyingly and tore the poor hapless Poodle to pieces!

I was stunned, sickened and confused. I couldn’t understand it. This was the greatest group of friends ever to have formed. They ran together, played, sniffed, barked, ate, jumped and chased cars together. I was so impressed by their camaraderie, their Grecian Democracy with no class levels, no distinctions based on breed. I had been completely convinced of their unconditional bond of affection and now this. To see the ferocity with which they tore into their pack-mate was traumatizing.

Many years later I was to see something similar, but this time it was a small community of people in Colorado. A man was falsely accused of something heinous and a once friendly and supportive community turned on him and his wife like that pack turned on their pack-mate. When the community turned on them, I was reminded of the pack of dogs I knew in Swaziland. The behaviors were all there.

I’ll never forget that pack of dogs even though they’re all dead by now. I’ll never forget that feeling of hope they gave me: that people can live together without consideration of race, religion, political persuasion and without trying to establish a political pecking order, but I will never forget how quickly they turned on their fellow pack member the moment he was injured and I am still unable to understand why.