Courtesy of Bert-Jan Elfrink
By JAMES BROOKE
Published: January 31, 2001
With howling and yipping rising from behind chain-link fences, a noisy dog kennel in an industrial suburb here is an unexpected place to find a species bouncing back exuberantly from the brink of extinction. Ears erect, bushy tails curled over their backs, powerfully built Canadian Inuit dogs happily greet visitors here. Only a few years ago their breed was not expected to see the 21st century dawn in the Arctic.
Perhaps 4,000 years ago, their ancestors trotted into the Arctic with part of a human migration from Asia that may have begun much earlier. Known to the Inuit simply as qimmiq, or dog, they were working partners, pulling sledges in the winter, carrying packs in the summer, sniffing out seal breathing holes in the spring, and fearlessly protecting camps from polar bears year round. On command, these intelligent hunters would track and corral caribou and musk oxen. In the Arctic, people said, ”A hunter without dogs is half a hunter.”
Loyal to their masters, they would provide warmth through frigid nights, or lead the way home through blinding blizzards. After they died, their luxuriant fur trimmed parkas. Through the ruthless selection of the pack, the Inuit dogs that entered the 20th century were some of the world’s toughest and strongest animals. After wolfing down chunks of raw seal meat with scissor bites, these dogs could haul twice their weight for days without being fed again. Sleeping curled in fur balls, they routinely woke on winter mornings buried under snow drifts.
The sole domestic or working animal of the Arctic, the Inuit dog probably peaked in the 1920’s with a population around 20,000, roughly equal to the human population of the far north. Around that time, scientists concluded that the Canadian Inuit dog was the only survivor of 17 indigenous domesticated breeds in the Americas at the time of the first European contact.
Then, in the 1960’s, the snowmobile roared into Inuit society, breaking the age-old bond between man and dog. After the Hudson Bay Company traders gave Inuit hunters snowmobiles in return for pelts, many owners saw their sled dog teams as useless expenses. William Carpenter, owner of the breeding kennel here, remembers hearing reports from native communities in the 1970’s that dogs were being shot at the rate of four to five a week.
”The sight of an unused dog team tied up on the edge of a community reflected the quandary of the Inuit: they were no longer nomadic, not yet urban,” reflected Mr. Carpenter, who moved to Yellowknife three decades ago to work as a biologist for the territorial government.
At the same time, this breed that had helped the Inuit master one of the world’s harshest environments was being undermined by crossbreeding with southern dogs brought by well-meaning outsiders. Breaking the region’s biological isolation, missionaries, Mounties and traders introduced German shepherds, Newfoundlands and Labradors, as well as their diseases, like distemper and rabies.
The Canadian Inuit dog is part of the spitz family of Arctic dogs, which include the Samoyed, Alaskan malamute, Siberian husky and Norwegian elkhound.The other American dogs in this group are newer types that result from crossbreeding. Crossbreeding became so generalized that in 1959 the American Kennel Club dropped what they then called the Eskimo from their list of registered breeds. By the mid-1970’s, the Canadian Kennel Club registered list of these dogs had dwindled to one sterile male.
Sounding the alarm, Mr. Carpenter cobbled together a species rescue plan, traveling to some of the Canadian Arctic’s most isolated communities. Of perhaps 200 purebred dogs surviving across an area three times the size of Texas, Mr. Carpenter bought 41 and flew them here, the capital of the Northwest Territories. Because of his effort, the Canadian Inuit dog has survived. With about a dozen kennels now breeding the dogs in Canada, the registered population now surpasses 500, with hundreds more in northern native communities.
”If this were a wild population, the whole world would be in a panic if there were only 500 left,” said Mr. Carpenter, who is now Northwest Territories director for World Wildlife Fund Canada. What is more important for the future, the Inuit are renewing their partnership with their dogs, albeit on a modernized basis.
Almost two years ago, historically Inuit lands broke away from the Northwest Territories to form a new territory, Nunavut. After celebratory fireworks died down, the Inuit woke up to the reality that Ottawa pays for about 90 percent of their territorial budget and that private sector jobs are rare.
As cultural tourism starts to supplant fur trapping as the major source of income in Nunavut, dog sled team owners in the territory’s 28 Inuit communities are increasingly phasing out crossbreed dogs. With an eye to authenticity, Inuit are restoring their traditional dogs to the teams that for centuries have bounded across the Arctic snow and ice.
”The communities clearly want to keep improving their teams, they want to keep a clear line,” said Mr. Carpenter, now 58, after walking through his kennel, patting dogs that frolicked around him in fur blurs of cinnamon, silver, sable and gray. ”Every year I send between 10 and 35 pups north.”
Modern appreciation of the Inuit dog actually spread southward first. Ottawa passed a federal law stipulating that non-Inuit people could only hunt polar bears by dog sled. The laughing, tongue-lolling visage of an Inuit dog appeared first on a Canadian stamp in 1988, then on the 50 cent coin in 1997. A decade ago, the Canadian Kennel Club reopened its registry for the dogs. The Canadian Eskimo Dog Association of Canada, an Ontario-based group, created a Web site, www.canadianeskimodog.com, and a quarterly magazine, Qimmiq.
For tourists, there is an enormous appeal to traveling with these friendly, if sometimes rambunctious, dogs. ”Learn to handle, harness and drive our teams of working dogs,” says a brochure for Mr. Carpenter’s wilderness lodge on Great Slave Lake, about 75 miles south of here. It is illustrated with photographs of Inuit dog teams trotting single file down a forest trail or hauling a wooden komatik, or Inuit sledge, over buckled lake ice.
”The future of this dog is not with southern dog shows, not with pet owners on leashes,” Mr. Carpenter said, dismissing the soft southern world of dog chow and doghouses. ”The future of this dog lies in its cultural setting. The future of the dog is in the hands of the northerners.”
Increasingly, he says, Inuit who hunt full time are returning to keeping purebred teams, realizing that their dogs do not need imported spare parts and that their fuel — fish and seals — is available locally.
Reflecting a people’s turnaround in values, the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut voted last May to declare the Canadian Inuit dog the official animal of their new territory. Mr. Carpenter, seen in his youth as an Arctic Don Quijote, is now affectionately greeted by Inuit elders as ”Qimmiliriji,” or ”Dog Man.”