October 09, 2004

Monks Seek Homes for St. Bernard Rescue Dogs

ST. BERNARD PASS, Switzerland - Switzerland's St. Bernard rescue dogs, known for centuries for saving avalanche victims from snowy Alpine graves, are to be sold by their monk owners as helicopters and heat sensors take over their work.

At St. Bernard's hospice, cradle of the breed, Augustinian monks want to devote more time to needy people and less to the 18 dogs -- which will be sold only to new owners who promise to bring them back each year.

"They (the dogs) need a lot of time and energy. There are only four of us monks now," said Brother Frederic, perched on a rock with a St. Bernard by his side.

"Maybe we need to spend more time with people who ask for it," he added.

At an altitude of 2,438 meters (8,000 ft), the home of the St. Bernards is an Alpine pass on the route to Italy where the huge, shaggy dogs are said to have saved the lives of some 2,500 travelers over the past few centuries.

"Even if there was 2 or 3 meters of fresh snow, they were able to make a track in the snow so travelers could find their way, they could also find travelers lost in avalanches," Brother Frederic said.

But the dogs, which eat up to four and a half pounds of meat a day, have not rescued anyone for 50 years.

They will be sold to new owners willing to bring their charges back to the hospice for the summer, when tourists are eager to see the living symbols of Switzerland, and ensure the breed is continued.

"They're not being sold to just anyone. All that is changing with the dogs is the ownership," said Pierre Troillet, president of the Swiss St. Bernard Association, adding the dogs were no longer kept on the pass in winter in any case.

The dogs' history is entwined with that of the pass, where the Romans first built a temple to Jupiter as they marched north to conquer Europe, and where Charlemagne, Hannibal and Napoleon all left footprints in the snow.

St. Bernard himself built a hospice on the spot in the 11th century, and a community of monks formed to aid travelers and rescue avalanche victims.

The monks say the first dogs were probably a gift from rich local families to their predecessors, who took advantage of their keen noses, strength, sure-footedness and thick coats by the early 18th century.

The dogs could pick out narrow and treacherous paths in blizzards that disorientated even the native monks.

But with the progress of modern mountain rescue technology, the dogs have been pushed out of their traditional role in the mountains of Switzerland.

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