Pedigreedy for puppies

Three years ago, Rajendra Gurung received a call from Bouddha for a pair of bhote kukurs, from Helambu in Sidhupalchowk, where Gurung lives. That’s when he realised that the guard-dogs known internationally as Tibetan Mastiffs and native to the lek could make him money. When winter came and little puppies were born, the only time these ferocious furry dogs reproduce, Gurung formed a small team, gathered puppies usually discarded by locals (as two are enough to watch the sheep or yaks) and descended to the streets of the Kathmandu Valley.

On Wednesday afternoon, he was in Durbar Marg, in front of the motorbike parking lot next to the KFC outlet, stretching out his arms with a month-and-a-half old black puppy, motioning for the motorists to stop, cuddle the pup and ask its price. Most passersby window-shopped, some, especially those who had to park their motorbikes, decelerated, stroked the little puppy, and asked what breed it was. If they already knew, they asked the price. It was tagged at Rs 10,000 for some customers, Rs 15,000 for others.

Gurung says the price can go as high as Rs 30,000, depending on the ‘quality’ of the dog. If the pup belongs to a family of dogs that guards sheep, it costs below Rs 15,000. If its parents guard yaks instead, it’s above Rs 20,000. Those that will grow up to be three-and-a-half feet tall will also fetch higher prices than those that will not grow taller than two-and-a-half or three feet. If wrinkle-faced and colourful, the more ‘purebred’ the pup looks and hence the more it fetches.

In international markets, the price can go through the roof. In 2011, a red bhote kukur with a lion’s mane made headlines when it was bought for $1.5 million by a rich Chinese man. Gurung, a natural salesman, likes to say that that celebrity dog was the product of a lion’s ‘sperm’.

On the pedigree of the dogs dangled at Durbar Marg, Gurung is as candid as a businessman can be. “Mishmash is inevitable, but that does not mean the dogs are not bhote kukurs,” he says.

Canine experts are equally unsure about a bhote kukur’s lineage, even of those sold by kennel clubs. Suresh Shah, the president of Nepal Kennel Club, an umbrella organisation of kennel clubs in Nepal, says that since an integrated database of dogs is lacking, all judgements on a dog’s lineage is just an opinion—refined by experience in some cases, but still an opinion.

Purebred or not, the price quoted for the pups at Durbar Marg is usually just an invitation for a good haggle. The selling price eventually goes far below the marked price, to around Rs 5,000-7,000. Gurung admits that he has once been forced to sell a Tibetan Mastiff for just Rs 500. The maximum he has received for a pup is Rs 20,000. Some clients, however, were in no mood to bargain and turned away. Few—fond of Tibetan Mastiffs and aware of their international appeal—like a man sauntering down the parking lot with his helmet still on, lingered; he held a puppy, to see if he would fall in love with it. Walking alongside the potential buyer was Gurung’s teammate, a young man named Jiwan Puri, also from Helambu, with a spare pup inside his rucksack.

The man had been ready to close a deal, on the phone earlier, with Puri about another puppy that he’d seen before with the vendors. It had a brown patch on its forehead—some believe the patch to be the Mastiff’s ‘third eye’, the indicator of a ‘pure’ breed—but the puppy with that mark had been sold to someone else. The one he was holding, he believed, was not even as purebred as the one Gurung was clutching. “Look at its snout and small ears. They belong to our street dogs,” said the man. “But since Jiwan here switched off his phone before the deal could be sealed, he will give this pup to me for free.”

Obviously, that was just light talk. After caressing the little mass of cuteness for a while, he returned it, promising to call Puri soon. The salesmen were not affected by the sale’s not going through; that’s how business rolled anyway. The bundles of joy you see on streets are just the first nudges; the real deal happens through the phone once you have been touched by their charm. There are some who pay an advance well in advance.

And there are multitudes of salesmen to pick pups from. Around 20 men in total, loosely connected as colleagues, roam down streets in different parts of the Valley, such as Jawalakhel, Maharajgung, Baluwatar, Bouddha and Swayambhu, where the rich congregate or pass through. Each has a display puppy on hand, a spare one inside the rucksack and a phone number ready to be circulated.

At Durbar Marg, besides Gurung and Puri, there were two other teammates. Between the four of them and three rucksacks, seven pups were up for sale—all a little over a month old and black-coated. Twenty-one more, according to Puri, were sheltered at a guest house in Ratnapark. Once this lot is sold out, the team says it will go hunting to places as far as Jiri and Sailung in the east and Rukum and Dolpa in the west. By mid-February, the men hope to sell around 400 bhote kukurs.

Published: 04-01-2014, The Kathmandu Post