The Basenji Club of America African Stock Project

Project Library

Visiting the Basenji benches at the West-
minster K.C. some seven years ago, Dr. James
P. Chapin of the American Museum of Natural
History remarked that, from a natrualist's view-
point, it was commendable of U.S. dog fanciers
to undertake the preservation of a pure strain of
the African barkless dog. "The Basenji in Africa
is a well-defined breed", he has said, "evidence
of long isolation from the outer world and a sur-
prising thing in a country where natives practice
little selection in domestic animals." Like many of
us, he has been concerned that, with the influx of
Europeans, bringing with them dogs of all sorts,
the Basenji was becoming mongrelized in the
more traversed parts of the Congo.
Dr. Chapin has had a firsthand knowledge of
the Basenji ever since, a young man of 20, he
served as assistant to Herbet Lang on the
Museum's Congo expedition lasting from 1909 to
1915. The African Pygmy Group containing the
Basenji wearing the great elliptic hunting bell, at
the Museum on New York's Central Park West,
was conceived by them and executed under their
direction. Dr. Chapin returned to the Dark Conti-
nent a decade later, spending 1926 and 1927 in
East Africa and the Belgian Congo. He put in
another two-year stint in 1930-1931 and was
there again in 1937. In between times, he picked
up his A.B. at Columbia in 1916, his A.M. in
1917, and his Ph.D. in 1932. He has undertaken
assignments for five U.S. museums and 11 in
Europe, has received the Elliott medal from the
National Academy of Science and has been
awarded the Belgian Ordre de la Couronne. His
more recent stay in the Congo lasted from 1952
until early in 1958, six years spent in completing a
monumental ornithology for the Institute for
Scientific Research in Central Africa, a Belgian
foundation. He was headquartered at Bukavu,
deep in the interior. In his published works are
comparisons of the physical aspects of every
mountain, swamp, nook and cranny of the
Congo, descriptions of soils, climate, the flora
and the fauna. For years at a time the only dogs
that he ever saw were Basenjis. He has referred
me to photographs of Basenjis taken during the
Museum's expeditions of 1909-1915 and 1937.
"Over 40 years ago when I first saw these
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little dogs," Dr. Chapin has written, "I was not at
all impressed. They seemed to me to be snarly
and cringing; but soon I realized that this was
because they were used only to black faces and
wished to avoid a white one. If we met a party of
natives on a forest path, their dogs would usually
leave the trail and make a wide detour through
the woods to avoid passing us.
"I had never used these dogs for any work of
my own, but from the way they are prized by na-
tive hunters in the Ituri Forest and in the more
open Uelle District, it is clear that they can be of
great help in rounding up the smaller mammals
with or without the use of nets. Basenjis are not
good bird dogs. Their African masters have no
weapon with which to shoot a bird on the wing.
Gallinaceous birds they catch in spring-snares,
and other birds are shot with arrows while sitting.
There a dog would be a nuisance. Basenjis, how-
ever, are keen of scent and, while not voiceless,
do not bark and make little noise while trailing
game. Should the dog be led astray in the heat of
the chase, the sound of the hunting bell makes
recovery easy. There appears to be a lot of ritual
connected with a hunting dog, and it is said to be
regarded as having equal rights with the human
"Basenji is a Lingala word (from trade-
language of the central and northeastern Congo)
and came to be used for dogs in a natural way.
Basenji means 'people of the bush' as opposed
to those of towns or centers of native culture. The
word can be used as an insult, expecially in its
singular form, Mosenjo. But used impersonally, in
the plural, it simply means: people of the wilds.
Their dogs would be called Mbwa no basenji or,
in the dialect of the Uelle District, Bugbu na
basenji: dogs of the bush people. Then the words
for 'dogs of' were simply dropped, and the breed
became known as Basenji. Adding 's' to a word
that is already plural can be justified, too, if one
considers the word completely Anglicized."
Probably sparked by correspondence with
some of us in the Basenji Club of America, Dr.
Chapin, who had never actually owned a Basenji,
decided to follow our examples and get a Basenji
puppy for his very own. Two years ago he went
to the most reliable source for an authentic speci-
men—a Pygmy encampment in the very heart of
the Ituri Forest. This was the Basenji that, in
January, 1958 was to make headlines in the New
York Times and in every other important news-
paper in the United States.—Walter Philo, NY,
New York

Article reprinted from
Pure-Bred Dogs: American Kennel Club Gazette
Volume 75 Number 7 July 1958 pp. 54-55
Copyright © 1958 AKC, All Rights Reserved
Used with permission.