Big Dogs of Tibet and the Himalayas
by Don Messerschmidt (Nepal 1963–65)
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03)
Don Messerschmidt’s Big Dogs of Tibet and the Himalayas is a good example of a lifelong passion distilled into print. The title describes what the book contains: a lengthy and detailed analysis of large Tibetan dogs. An anthropologist and Himalayan specialist, Messerschmidt served in the Peace Corps in Nepal in the 1960s, was aware of the existence of an almost “mythical” breed of large dogs that were companions and protectors of Tibetan yak herdsman. He spent a considerable amount of his free time during service — and indeed the rest of his life — finding and pursuing a deeper understanding of these animals.
The focused subject matter of Big Dogs is not for everyone, but canine and Himalaya fans will welcome the addition of this book to their shelves. What’s most notable here is Messerschmidt’s obvious love for Tibetan mastiffs, as well as his continuing admiration for the people of the High Himalayas who own and depend on them. The book begins with a critique of the myths associated with the dogs’ size, ferocity, and loud bark, which mostly likely originated in a few misinterpreted references from Marco Polo’s journey to China. Messerschmidt then provides a compendium of quotations about the dogs in European writing dating back centuries, as well as from the early Everest climbs. Here’s a typical example:
In some instances, the [dogs’] bark takes on almost supernatural qualities. J.B.L. Noel writes of the phantom dogs barking on Mount Everest during the ill-fated British expedition of 1924. “[The sherpas] were crying like little children. They had completely lost their nerve . . .. They were obsessed with fears of the demons of the mountain. They told us they had heard the barking of the phantom guard dogs of Chomolungma at night, and that they were terrified.”
And from the Italian archeologist Giuseppe Tucci:
[The Tibetan houses are] guarded by mastiffs, great tawny or black sheepdogs, something between a wolf and a bear, which leap towards an unknown caller with such rage and savage growls that they seem about to break the heavy chains which always secure them. To make them more fearsome and ferocious looking, their owners put great collars on them, made with the long hair from a yak, dyed red.
Indeed, the fabled dogs Messerschmidt first manages to encounter in 1964 are ferocious, and they occasionally do bite him. They’re large, have near-feral dispositions, and barks so deep and loud that the sound carries for miles. Any approach to a Tibetan village or nomadic encampment is welcomed by frightening sorties of these huge and excitable canines. Reading these pages, one wonders at times what sort of strange fetish Messerschmidt must have to pursue creatures that clearly want no part of him other than his leg in their mouths.
But pursue them he does, so much so that he becomes the owner of the first of a series of these dogs who enter and help sustain his family life through the years. Removed from the rigors of the yak herds they were bred to protect on the high plateaus, these dogs respond to his care and love by returning unflagging companionship to him and his children. Soon we come to the best parts of the book: Messerschmidt’s many experiences as a Tibetan mastiff breeder, and his hand in strengthening the line’s stock in North America. We are treated to reminiscences of the assertive and hard-to-train Kalu, and Messerschimdt’s travels with him, including to the Delhi Dog Show. Messerschmidt writes:
Kalu made a great impression wherever we went in New Delhi. Big furry bear-like mountain dogs are uncommon on the Indian plains, and the sight of Kalu scared most passersby . . .. I had trouble finding a taxi driver who would consent to take us to the dog show. Finally, a big, burly, bearded Sikh with an incongruous pink turban agreed. He drove us along Delhi’s boulevards with fear and trepidation, all the while muttering to himself, hunched close over the steering wheel as far as he could be from the dog panting down his neck . . .. When we arrived at the dog show, the taxi-wallah doubled the metered fare. Hazard allowance.
Other notable passages include a visit to the Lhasa dog market, descriptions of a few other Himalayan breeds, as well as many tales of Messerschmidt’s enviable hikes through Northern Nepal. Finally, a fellow Tibetan mastiff aficionado and Nepal RPCV, R. Bruce Morrison, contributes the moving “Bhalu’s Story.” Bhalu, son of Kalu, was given as a puppy to Morrison by Messerschmidt, and spent his life in northern Alberta, where for many years he kept coyotes and strangers away from Morrison’s home. After Bhalu’s death, Morrison began to experience supernatural events, which have long been part of the mythology of these large dogs:
One night . . . I awoke feeling that [Bhalu] was there, again, staring at me — and, sure enough, he was. I realized in a few moments that I was dreaming. Yet, it was unlike any other dream I had ever had . . . his image glowed, radiating vitality and good health . . .. Several weeks later I had another dream. I was sitting on the floor and in my lap was a Tibetan mastiff puppy happily chewing my fingers . . .. Just then the puppy looked up at me and said, by thought . . . “I’ll come back when you need me.” . . .. I still grieve for Bhalu . . .. It does not take much, however, to conjure up a lot of affectionate warmth when I think of him.
Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s new novel Mule will be released from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September.