Korean Sapsaree dogs bounce back from the brink

Wed Nov 17, 2010 9:27am EST
 
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By Hyungwon Kang

GYEONGSAN, South Korea (Reuters Life!) - Decades of colonial occupation, war and poverty took a deadly toll not just on millions of Koreans but also one of the country's traditional and beloved breeds of dogs.

Sapsarees, shaggy-haired dogs long valued for their loyalty, were killed in large numbers by the Japanese military, which used their fur to make winter coats for its soldiers serving in the extreme cold of Manchuria, as documented in government records during the period of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945).

When South Korea emerged from the turmoil of two wars and decades of poverty, the medium-sized Sapsaree, whose name means "the dogs that ward off evil spirits or misfortune" and which resembles a sheepdog, had all but disappeared.

By the mid-1980s, only eight remained, says Ha Ji-Hong, a U.S.-educated geneticist.

But now the breed has made a remarkable comeback, thanks largely to Ha, a professor at South Korea's Kyungpook National University, who combined traditional breeding with advances in modern DNA technology.

"Restoring the Sapsaree breed with only eight dogs was not easy," he said, citing financial and veterinary woes.

Sapsarees, sometimes also spelled Sapsali, are one of three dog breeds native to Korea, along with the Jindo and Poongsan. The first known record of Sapsarees appears in an ancient tomb mural from the Three Kingdom period from 37 B.C.-668 A.D.

Ha's father, a professor of animal husbandry, had set up a kennel to protect the few remaining purebred Sapsarees in the 1960s, with around 30 dogs. By the time the younger Ha returned in 1985 with a U.S. PhD, only eight dogs remained.   Continued...

 
<p>Sapsaree puppies stand in their cage in Gyeongsan, South Korea October 29, 2010. Sapsarees, shaggy-haired dogs long valued for their loyalty, were killed in large numbers by the Japanese military during the period of Japanese colonial rule, but have since made a comeback thanks to Ha Ji-Hong, a U.S.-educated geneticist who combined traditional breeding with advances in modern DNA technology. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang</p>