/ 22 June 2008

Every mongrel has his day

A miserable, sodden Sunday morning in Mafakathini township near Howick in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands: the Township Dog Show at Ngced’Omhlophe High School is far removed from the camp poppet rituals commonly associated with these events.

Forget the film Best in Show or the anthropomorphism of neurotic catwalk canines prone to throwing Naomi Campbellesque tantrums. And don’t even mention pure-breed poodles.

Instead, eKasi canines — mainly mongrels — are lining up to be checked, dewormed and vaccinated by veterinarians and volunteers from the Umgeni Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Each is given a collar and leash before loping off to judging, which, with the rain coming down, involves shivering under the eaves of the school waiting for a judge to pass by.

Time is whiled away sniffing out old acquaintances, lovers and enemies.

Judge Johan Gallant, author of The Story of the African Dog, about the AfriCanus, says the inclement weather has hindered the usual obstacle courses and prancing about of mutts.

Judging is, unfortunately, restricted to giving points for healthiness, the best cared for dogs, the best-looking and obedience. ”There is so much cross-breeding going on that using a pure-breed standard to judge dogs is impossible,” he says.

This is a cold, unforgiving part of the country. Turning off the R601 towards the high school, a lump of road-kill (pre-catwalk, catfight victim?) serves as morbid signage to the show.

Matchbox houses dominate the countryside, hand-to-mouth existences are easy to imagine and yet the biting cold hasn’t prevented several barefoot people walking here to pay R5 to enter their pets.

The kilometres spent trudging along wet roads in the pelting rain have added flecks of mud to both owners and mutts — Jackson Pollock does canine coiffure, township style.

Lindelani Sotobe (15) has walked his dog Khupuza 3km to the show and looks comical in oversized boots larger than his mutt: ”I don’t have shoes for this weather so my father gave me his,” he says with a laugh.

Khupuza has a scar from a horse kick along one eye and looks as though his ancestors didn’t so much get their groove on across breeds, but possibly across species. Sotobe confirms — gravely — that Khupuza isn’t a pure-bred rat.

There are kids as young as seven being shepherded by their hounds, an old gogo (granny) cradling a ”bedroom dog” and mutts so miscegenated you get the impression they were mixed by a club DJ.

Yet, wandering among the 120 dogs and owners, the excitement and enthusiasm, despite the rain, is palpable.

As is a sense of normalcy far removed from the sort of prima donna behaviour associated with dysfunctional pooches on parade: ”I’m spending about R120 a month on dog food. Its always going up and getting very expensive now so I want to win as much food for Tiger as I can,” says Goodluck Khumalo.

Tiger, an aptly named weasel of a dog with stripes which eventually does win Best in Show, has his nose happily attached to the wet bum of another mongrel.

According to SPCA volunteer and Township Dog Show founder Adrienne Olivier the event is about the SPCA making educational and interventionist inroads into poorer communities and overturning stereo-types about township dogs. ”The general impression is that dogs in townships are uncared for, unloved and allowed to run wild; that black people don’t love their dogs and that is simply untrue,” she says.

In its fifth year, the Township Dog Show was previously held at nearby Mpophomeni and Lidgetton. According to SPCA field officer Jabulani Mshengu its effects have already been felt in those communities. ”People in townships don’t know what work the SPCA does; they think we just come in to take their dogs away. So they’re learning about us, learning from us about how to take care of their dogs and also reporting sick dogs to us,” he says.

Watching the attachment people have for their dogs, regardless of their breeding and in spite of sometimes grinding poverty, one can’t help wishing South Africa was a mongrel rather than a prescriptively bred collection of pure mutts.