Two dog lovers, a Maltese and a German, have teamed up to raise awareness about the need to protect the kelb tal-fenek, or rabbit dog, which they say is of purely Maltese origin.

Peter Gatt and Jan Scotland argue that the dog should be protected as part of Malta's cultural heritage.

The two want to raise awareness about the breed and a website has been set up with information. The dog brought the two together some 10 years ago after Mr Scotland acquired one of the dogs from Mr Gatt.

"The kelb tal-fenek is the only Mediterranean-type breed which does not have a lobby in its country of origin. There are several national organisations for the other breeds," Mr Scotland said.

"Their number is not precisely known. There could perhaps be between 1,500 and 2,000 klieb tal-fenek in Malta and another 2,000 abroad," Mr Gatt said.

"They used to be more common and could be seen roaming the streets and the countryside. One sees fewer these days. Perhaps people keep them indoors to protect them from the heavier traffic, but their numbers have gone down substantially."

He strongly feels they should be protected not because they are rare at the moment, but because it makes more sense to protect them while the gene pool is still healthy.

"There are various types of the breed, which seems to be an indication of the existence of a broad genetic basis. But one should not try to save a species when its numbers are low. It becomes risky and more expensive to save a species when it's nearly extinct, as is happening with the Maltese ox," Mr Gatt said.

The two dog lovers argue that the kelb tal-fenek is a purely Maltese dog that originated in Malta.

"The kelb tal-fenek is undeniably of Maltese origin, but unfortunately no reference to the existence of such a dog in Malta dates back further than the 17th century.

"The lack of historical facts could be disappointing for all those who would like to prove a long history of the breed. But it is likely that this lack of historical knowledge is due to the fact that the kelb tal-fenek was always a dog owned by country people who used them for hunting rabbits and who had neither the means nor the knowledge of writing, which would have allowed them to leave documents or illustrations about these dogs," Mr Gatt said.

Mr Gatt said the name Pharaoh hound given to the kelb tal-fenek was coined in 1963, after the British Kennel Club had refused to register the kelb tal-fenek by its original name on the ground that a foreign name translating into 'rabbit dog' was unacceptable.

"This is most strange. The term rabbit dog is the literal translation, which really means 'rabbit hound'. One wonders therefore why the British Kennel Club accepts the term 'fox hound' or 'dachshund', which translated from German means dog of the badger.

"The Kennel Club does well to recognise these names, since they indicate the reason for the dog's origin, and the purpose for breeding. Unfortunately the term 'Pharaoh hound' does not indicate this, but the term kelb tal-fenek does. Therefore, it is by this name that the breed should have been recognised," Mr Gatt argued.

Linking the kelb tal-fenek to Egypt just because of its resemblance to the prick-eared hounds that can be seen in some images from ancient Egypt was a mistake as there were, and still are, several breeds of dog with similarly-shaped ears throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Mr Gatt added.

A study of the genetic origin of pure bred dogs, carried out by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle (USA) with support from the American Kennel Club, showed that the kelb tal-fenek was developed in more recent times from dogs of different origins.

"The dog resembles primitive dogs in many ways. It regurgitates food for its young, like wild dogs do. It hunts its quarry for food and is oblivious to danger when following its prey. It runs, eyeing the ground and its prey until it catches or corners the rabbit.

"The kelb tal-fenek in Malta is almost exclusively kept and bred by farmers and hunters who neither care for dog shows nor for the artificial breed standard, which has been created by foreign canine organisations. Their only criterion is the hunting efficiency of their dogs. This attitude has preserved the breed through the ages.

"Breeding in Malta was never performed on the basis of beauty alone but more on the basis of efficiency and hunting prowess. The result is a breed with very strong hunting instincts. Young dogs that are unable to find their way back to their master when they have been taken out to hunt at night are likely to be put down. Rabbit hounds hunt on their own and have to be able to find their way back, if they are to be of any use to their owners. From a litter of six to 10, farmers hardly ever keep more than three. They keep the best hunters and it is not unusual for rabbit hunters to have up to 10 such dogs," Mr Gatt said.

The dogs are very good hunters, often hunting in pairs, in Maltese called "mizzewgin", with the one closest to the rabbit running behind it and slightly to its side so that it forces the rabbit to turn in the direction of the dog it is hunting with. Because it is a very intelligent dog that predicts where its prey is likely to head for, it is not a good dog for lure coursing, in which a dog follows the lure as it goes round in rough circles. The kelb tal-fenech cuts corners.

Mr Gatt said many countries have declared their ancient and rare breeds of dogs as protected species.

"They organise their preservation by introducing breeding programmes under scientific supervision. We make an appeal to all interested scientists and to the government authorities in Malta to join their efforts to preserve this wonderful breed for future generations.

"We should learn from the countless generations of Maltese farmers and hunters to avoid the ruin of this wonderful breed through selfishness, romancing and wishful thinking. We could otherwise risk losing the kelb tal-fenek as we know it today," Mr Gatt said.

Mr Scotland said that during the past few years, he has visited different countries to study the situation of rare dog breeds.

"Many countries have launched projects for the protection and revival of rare breeds of domesticated animals, some of them also including rare local dog breeds in danger of extinction.

"Recently Germany has put dog breeds like the Mittelspitz, Grossspitz, Deutscher Pinscher and Altdeutscher Huetehund on a red list of rare and endangered breeds. Even a poor and remote country like Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia has started an exemplary project for the survival of a local breed of sighthounds, called Taigan, which is meanwhile even protected by national law.

"I believe that in Malta there should be a project aimed at registering the remaining stock, establish a breeding programme and promote the traditional way of hunting with the kelb tal-fenek, which is an environment friendly one which should not harm Malta's international reputation in any way.

"I am sure such a project would be an ideal subject for biologists at the University of Malta, and it should also be an important concern for all those organisations who work for the protection of the cultural heritage of Malta," Mr Scotland said.

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