Thursday, September 1, 2011

Rich Dog, Poor Dog | Welsh Corgi: The Queen's Fairy Dog

"It's hard to imagine her walking around Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle without them around her feet." — a senior royal courtier, on Queen Elizabeth II's famous corgis

[Last month, the series "Physicists & Priests" investigated the complex relationship between science and religion. Now 13.7 Billion Years turns to another deeply complex relationship — that of humans and dogs. From royal pooches to homeless scavengers to everything in between, dogs have co-existed with humans at all levels of society across all cultures since it became the world's first domesticated animal, bred from the grey wolf in East Africa sometime between 30,000 and 15,000 years ago. For the month of September, the series "Rich Dog, Poor Dog" takes a look at man's best friend living at the extremes. Bred for hunting, herding, companionship, pest control, transportation and even human consumption, dogs have been critical to the development of human civilization. At turns revered and feared, regularly mistreated and maligned, there is no other species as loyal to Homo sapiens than Canis lupus familiaris.]

Though they reach a maximum height of just a little over 12 inches, Welsh corgis do a great job at what they were bred for: herding cattle. Unlike other large herding dogs like Collies, who run around livestock, corgis nip at the heels of cattle.

But there is pair of more royal heels that a few lucky corgis are always near — the heels of Queen Elizabeth II, who is famously fond of Pembroke Welsh corgis (one of the two corgi breeds, the other being the Cardigan Welsh corgi, both named for the counties in Wales where they originated). The Queen always has always had at least four corgis and has been the guardian for over 30 corgis during her reign, starting with Susan, a present she received from her father King George VI, when he was the Duke of York, on the occasion of her 18th birthday in 1944. In 2009, the Daily Mail reported that after being devastated after the deaths of two of her beloved corgis, the Queen decided to stop breeding any more. She has seven left.

At the beginning of her reign in the 1950s, Queen Elizabeth II was characterized by the media as a "fairytale queen," a symbol of the birth of a new Elizabethan age following the horrors of World War II. So it is fitting that she developed a love of corgis, which are considered to be a "fairytale dog." According to folk legend, a corgi's "blaze" — the white stripe that runs from the nose and between the eyes to the forehead — is a marking left from the saddles that fairies used to ride them.

In their book The Mythology of Dogs: Canine Legend and Lore Through the Ages, Gerald Hausman and Loretta Hausman recall an ancient legend:

Corgis came from the green and golden valleys of the grandfathers, men who toiled with their cattle and their ploughing. And as the men ploughed, the wives made cheese. One day a farmer's children found two pups playing in a hollow like fox kits. Their coats were burnished gold, shining like pieces of stain. Their forelegs were short, straight, and thick, their heads like a fox's, and their eyes kind and gentle. Long of body were these dwarf dogs and without a tail behind them.

The children stayed all day and learned to love the dwarf dogs, sharing their bread and water with them, taking them home and putting them in a basket by the hearth. Now, when the farmer himself came home, he asked his children, "What are these?" And they answered, 'We found them on the mountain, playing in a hollow."

Then the farmer said, "Surely, these are the gifts of the fairy folk, who keep such things. Corgis, fairy heelers, they are, and the little people--" and here he broke into song:

Made them work the fairy cattle
Made them pull the fairy coaches
Made them steeds for fairy rides
Made them fairy children's playmates
Kept them hidden in the mountains
Kept them shadowed in the lee
Lest the eye of mortal man see.

Now, the corgis, taken in by the farmer, prospered in the care of his children, for the fairy spirit was in the dogs. It was in the lightness of their step, the quickness of their turning, their badness and their goodness, their love of mortal masters.

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  • Unable to forget a wounded dog she had encountered while volunteering in Haiti, a woman learned through Humane Society International (HSI) that a local gentleman had nursed the pup back to health. Now, Chalky has a new "leash" on life. (HSI)
  • Wolves may aid recovery of Canada lynx, a threatened species (Science Daily)
  • Physicists & Priests: Looking at the relationship of science and religions (August 2011)
  • Deep Space: Staring at the stars (July 2011)
  • Gray Matters: Thinking about thinking (June 2011)
  • Flower Power: Stopping to smell the angiosperms (May 2011)
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  • Chemical Month: Exploring the vast laboratory of our daily lives (March 2011)
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  • Victory Month: Looking at the victories of 2010, made possible by you (December 2010)
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image: A royal tradition: The original royal corgi Susan was bought by the Queen’s father, George VI, when he was the Duke of York.

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