February 14, 2007 / 2:15 AM / 11 years ago

Happiness is a bald puppy

<p>File photo shows a hairless Mexican Xoloitzcuintle dog stands near his owner at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, January 14, 2007. Emotionally fragile, with delicate skin that burns easily and poor teeth that mean they prefer chewing carrots to bones, Xoloitzcuintles had nearly died out by the 1950s, when just a hundred or so were kept by Mexican artists and intellectuals. But a breeding program has boosted their numbers to several thousand today, spread between their native Mexico, the United States and Europe.Tomas Bravo</p>

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Freckles speckle his pink wrinkly skin. Ginger whiskers sprout only between his veiny ears, beneath his gummy chops and at the end of a rat-like tail.

In a park full of fluffy labradors and spaniels, passers-by stare as Juan, a hairless Mexican Xoloitzcuintle dog, cavorts about then springs effortlessly into his owner's arms, his glabrous skin gleaming with body lotion.

"People don't know what they are. They ask us what's wrong with them. They say 'why are your dogs bald?' and suggest cures," said breeder Ana Maria Rivera, who owns Juan and 40 other Xoloitzcuintles (pronounced sho-lo-itz-CWINT-leh).

"One person came up to me and said I should rub on engine oil to help the fur grow back," she said, shaking her head.

Lovers of fluffy pooches may recoil at their clammy skin, but for a growing number of people, Xolos (pronounced SHO-los) are the ultimate cool pet: a 3,500-year old breed that has defied unlucky genes, Aztec cooking pots and sacrificial daggers to come back from the brink of extinction.

Emotionally fragile, with delicate skin that burns easily and poor teeth that mean they prefer chewing carrots to bones, Xoloitzcuintles had nearly died out by the 1950s, when just a hundred or so were kept by Mexican artists and intellectuals.

But a breeding program has boosted their numbers to several thousand today, spread between their native Mexico, the United States and Europe.

Twentieth Century painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were among the art set who turned Xolos into an in-vogue curiosity, letting them frolic in their gardens and feature in their art.

But aficionados of the mainly blue-black or slate-gray dogs -- which love digging and climbing trees -- now range well beyond eccentrics.

"They're like Ferraris. I don't want any other dog," beamed Jorge Luis Gallardo, a bank executive out walking a pair of jet black Xolos, both shiny with sunscreen.

"I love them because they are truly Mexican. There's a lot of our indigenous spirit in them. People killed them, they ate them and sacrificed them, but like us, they survived."

BED WARMERS

The first domestic dog in the Americas, and related to the Peruvian Hairless and the Chinese Crested Dog, Xoloitzcuintles were kept as pets in Aztec times.

Comforted by the heat of their hairless bodies, the Aztecs used them as bed warmers and cuddled them like hot water bottles to ease arthritis, stomach cramps and fever.

But they also believed the dogs could guide human souls to the afterlife. Xolos were killed with a dagger to the heart when their masters died and placed in the coffin.

Even worse, Xolo meat was highly sought-after. Puppies were fattened up and sold as a protein-rich delicacy believed to ward off bad dreams and evil, and increase male potency.

<p>A hairless Mexican Xoloitzcuintle dog walks at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, January 14, 2007. Emotionally fragile, with delicate skin that burns easily and poor teeth that mean they prefer chewing carrots to bones, Xoloitzcuintles had nearly died out by the 1950s, when just a hundred or so were kept by Mexican artists and intellectuals. But a breeding program has boosted their numbers to several thousand today, spread between their native Mexico, the United States and Europe. Picture taken January 14, 2007.Tomas Bravo</p>

"Despite all the adversity they are still around. They're amazing," said Gallardo.

Native to Mexico's baking hot west coast, the dogs' hairlessness, caused by a recessive gene that can be fatal in some Xolo litters, helped them deal with heat and bugs.

But it means they suffer from sunburn, shiver in the cold and can nick their skin if they fight with other dogs. The same gene means they have defective teeth and missing molars.

Dog experts rave over their rare traits.

"Unlike other dogs, they weren't genetically selected by breeders. They evolved on their own," said Oswaldo Alfaro, spokesman for Mexico's National Canine Federation.

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After the Spanish conquest, European dogs became more fashionable as pets and Xoloitzcuintles were culled, their meat often salted for the long ship voyages back to Europe.

Yet dozens survived in the wild.

BATHS, BLANKETS AND BROCCOLI

In the 1950s, Mexico's Canine Federation sent expeditions to the Pacific coast to collect purebred Xolo puppies for a new breeding program and officially registered the dog.

The American Kennel Club, which had listed the breed since 1887, dropped it from its register in 1959, after several years with zero registrations.

Four decades on, breeders ship them around the world, vaunting their affectionate natures and the fact they shed no fur, barely smell, can't get fleas and only bark at strangers.

On the downside they must be bathed frequently, moisturized with skin cream and protected with sun block. Some owners exfoliate them with loofahs to ward off pimples.

Xolos need special leashes that don't pinch their rubbery skin and extra-soft blankets to sleep on. Sensitive to stress and noise, their ill-formed teeth make them dainty eaters too, with a penchant for mango, papaya and cooked vegetables.

Juan, who wins prizes in international dog shows for his bat-like ears and rare peachy hue, is worth thousands of dollars. Even an ordinary Xoloitzcuintle costs over $1,000.

Yet Ana Maria and husband Mario Cortes say they give more away to friends than they sell.

"We breed Xolos because we love them," said Cortes. "They are living fossils and they always attract attention."

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