It’s 6:05 a.m., and they are just warming up. Quietly, they roam the area at a swift trot, sticking their noses here and there beneath spiky bushes, tensed and calm at the same time.
Then, suddenly, the dance commences. “Macho,” a mighty, young and eager wire-haired male must have flushed a conejo (rabbit) near the solid rock wall, accidentally or not. In a split second, he pivots and starts the chase with enormously wide and high leaps across the thicket, blurting out those ear-piercing calls I have heard so many times before when my own Ibizans stumbled on potential prey. Only this time, I am not thinking “&*^!@” … I am just happy not to have to hold the dogs back, and excited to be able to witness what is to come.
The rest of the pack stops what they are doing, and from all sides the dogs cut across the thicket at breakneck speed to join the hunt. They are cheered on by their caçador, or hunter, igniting a spectacular fireworks-like display of the most unbelievable jumps, reminding me more of light-footed, limber wild cats than of hounds, and the most impressive caprioles recalling the powerful Lippizans from the SpanishRidingSchool. It’s all happening so fast, it is almost impossible to keep track, impossible not to miss some of the most breathtaking and graceful leaps and turns, and just as impossible to fully grasp the perfect choreography of their performance, worthy of the dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet. All with the single purpose of cornering and catching the Prey.
And then, just as fast as it all began, it ends. The rabbit finds cover under a huge bush. In the blink of an eye, the dogs enclose the bush, their tails dancing excitedly. Again and again, one of the dogs jumps into the bush, trying to entice the rabbit into making that one wrong move, knowing one of his mates waiting around the bush will surely catch it if it does … But this time, the rabbit stays put.
Land of Podenqueros
Spain is a country of hunters, and dogs are always at their side, mostly Podencos – what the Mallorcans call their Ibizan Hounds, short for Podenco Ibicenco – of many different kinds and sizes, depending on the region. Hunting with Podencos, however, has little to do with protection, care and wildlife balance, as Northern Europeans often understand it, although a licence is needed. Hunting with Ibizans in Spain is above all recreational, and meant for the hunter’s and dogs’ enjoyment – just like others might go fishing or dog-dancing after work to chill. Unlike most other European countries, Spain permits animal baiting. If it was ever outlawed, that would probably mean the end of the Podenco in its country of origin. Let’s not think about that.
Across the world, from the northernmost parts of Europe to Canada and the United States, we love our Ibizans dearly and try to accommodate their needs by going lure-coursing, tracking and the like. But it is only in parts of Spain – the Balearic island of Mallorca, in this case – that they can live out their full potential. After all, they were bred to suit this terrain called macchia, and this terrain exactly – the typical Mediterranean shrub land of rolling hills with hard and stony ground; clearances changing with dense vegetation; spiky, drought-resistant bushes, many up to several meters high, and manmade rock walls in between. Ideal for rabbits to live and hide. And ideal for Ibizans to hunt.
Beautiful Mallorca is a popular travel destination, and I had been there many times before I even knew about that special indigenous breed called the Podenco Ibicenco (or “Ca Eivissenc” in the local Catalan dialect). You don’t come across them as a tourist cruising the island, unless you know where to look. The kennels are mostly well hidden behind the owner’s house or located on out-of-the-way pieces of land. Unless you pay attention, you will probably not even notice the many signs on fences and gates along the roads that read Coto de caza privado, or “Private hunting grounds.” Most of Mallorca’s property is actually fenced, and so are most of the hunting grounds. Not effectively, though, since most fences and walls are no hindrance to an Ibizan on the hunt. So Mallorcans in some regions are not surprised to be awoken by a pack of Ibizans shriekingly chasing a rabbit across their premises.
The eastern half of Mallorca is probably the stronghold of Ibizans of the tall Mallorquin type – maybe not by total numbers (there are also many on the mainland along the coast between Barcelona and Almansa), but by density of dog population, for sure. After all, Mallorca measures only 60 miles from north to south and even less from east to west.
The village of Ses Salines (pop. approximately 5,000), in the very southeast of Mallorca, has one of the largest clubs de caza on the island: The Associació de Caçadors de Ses Salines y Colonia St. Jordi counts about 120 members, nearly the same number as that of the nearby, but much larger town of Llucmajor (pop. 35,000), which is the Ibizan epicentrum of Mallorca. I can only guess the total number of Ibizans in and around Ses Salines, but it must be several hundred, maybe approaching 1,000. All the hunters I have been able to visit at their homes and accompany on the hunt owned at least 10 Ibizans between two months and 10 years of age; some had close to 20 dogs.
Most of these hobby hunters engage in some breeding themselves – not to sell, but to swap and share with their friends in the club. My best bitch with your best male should make next season’s successful pack – that’s the idea. Most do not care very much about the FCI breed standard, absolute purity of breeding or beauty in general, nor about purity of coats or a full set of teeth, let alone testing for disease: It’s the hunting performance that counts to them. (Yet in all the years I have been working with Ibizans from Mallorca, I have not come across a single dog with any inherited form of eye disease or hip dysplasia, and only one case of deafness.) In line with this, most of Mallorca’s Ibizan population is not registered. It is only recently that the Real Sociedad Canina de España (the Spanish Canine Society, a member of the FCI) has made an effort to get more Ibizans registered so new lines can eventually be started to enlarge the genetic pool and thus preserve the breed as a national treasure.
The Hunt: Legend and Truth
The hunting season on Mallorca runs from June 24th (Sant Joan festival) to mid-January. For the first few weeks, hunting is only permitted on Tuesdays and Saturdays; later, four days a week. Due to the usually high daytime temperatures, hunting takes place at dawn or at dusk, for about three hours. Most hunters agree that early morning is better, since temperatures are lower, everything’s moister and carries smells much better, and the rabbits are more active.
I had often read that a Podenco pack consists of mostly females and one male only, because the males would be too greedy or the females more willing to share the prey. While most packs have in fact more bitches than males, I met one hunter who prefers males to females for their bigger size and more powerful jumping capacity, and his all-male pack gets on just fine! Some hunters prefer to go hunting on their own, others enjoy a friend’s company and so they mix their packs – each hunter brings, say four dogs, and – amazing to see – the dogs cooperate straightaway.
What I found particularly wonderful to witness was the degree of teamwork between the older and younger dogs: Even in a Podenco’s world, it is not all about power and speed and endurance; experience is a major asset, too! So while the youngsters are the more eager, continuously running and jumping and rummaging around, poking their noses into every little hole or crank, the older dogs are far cooler and seemingly more efficient. In fact, I had been wondering how a 7-year-old bitch would be able to compete – until she showed me and the younger dogs how to snatch a rabbit with seemingly no effort.
“La boca blanda”
One of the greatest legends about Ibicencos is their boca blanda – their “soft mouth,” meaning they will retrieve their prey alive. While it is in fact true that it is a (mostly) blood-free hunt, and the rabbits are usually alive when brought to the hunter, that does not mean that any of them will survive. From what the hunters told me, many would die anyway out of sheer exhaustion after a few minutes; others are suffering from severe internal injuries because, especially after a long and vigorous chase, the Podenco’s grip may have been that little bit too hard for the delicate animal. So the hunters break their necks straightaway.
For Ibizan lovers outside of Spain, the “recall” is often the one thing practiced until the dog is 15 years old and still does not deliver reliably, depending on the abundance of game in the area. To Spanish hunters that is not such a big deal. While their dogs also do not always come straight back at the hunter’s call (I was quite satisfied to see that, actually), and some are even discarded in their first season for not returning reliably, most will return within very short time – for example, after the current track is lost or a chase is finished. Surely, the hunters cannot possibly practice the recall more than many ambitious (or desperate?) Ibizan owners I know. So how can that be?
The big difference is likely to be that the hunters train their dogs to hunt, while we try to do the opposite (because we have to): We call our dogs back as soon as they get excited about something. We take them to places where game is rare, but if it shows up nevertheless, their excitement is even bigger. To a Podenco in Spain, a rabbit is no big deal. Of course they want to catch every single one, but if it’s not this one, they know there will be another. There are plenty of them, all nearby (they usually do not veer away from the hunter more than a few hundred yards; after all, the rabbits will not run very far but instead look for cover), and there is no need to stay away from their leader out of “fear” they might be put on a leash. And last but not least, the hunter’s water bottle is always a convincing argument for a dog to return regularly in arid terrain like this.
The weight and health question
Spanish Podencos are not always as rawboned as some breeders elsewhere would like to believe. All the dogs I met were well-nourished, some – especially the older ones – even to the hunters’ taste muy gordo, or too fat. Still, they did an excellent job. What astonished me most were their teeth – not a hint of scale on any of them, and they certainly never get dental treatment.
Having stumbled through this uninviting landscape myself and come home with countless scratches all over my arms and legs, I am the more impressed with these dogs’ robustness. Small injuries caused by stones and thorns abound, but, considering the risks they take, those are really negligible (although there are of course tragic incidents every season, too). The Ibizan really is an “off-road” hound!
Sharing the prey
Though I never witnessed a fight between the dogs over prey, even the best-performing Podencos are not always happy to hand it over to their leader and will not always let go of it immediately. On more than one occasion, it took the hunter quite a bit of persuasion, and once the dog even ran off with the rabbit still in its mouth to chase the next one.
The Hunter’s Role
Whenever I saw pictures of the hunt with Ibicencos, it was mostly older men with their packs. So I was not surprised to see them use a thick wooden walking stick. It was only on a real hunt that I discovered the real function of the gaiato (meaning crook), usually made of olive wood – it is much more than a balancing device! The hunters use it to direct the dogs into the vicinity where they suspect a rabbit. They use it to poke into bushes and the abundant typical rock walls with their big gaps where rabbits love to hide. And last but not least, it is on this walking stick that they collect and transport the slayed rabbits – four to five on average on a three-hour hunt, if there are enough rabbits around.
I was surprised to see how much help the podenquero is to the dogs in detecting the prey. Especially on familiar hunting grounds, he knows nearly as well as the dogs where to look for rabbits, will often flush one himself and send the dogs after it. Using very few commands, he really is more than just the director of the play – he is part of it.
And when later in the morning the sun and the heat have risen, and the curtain of the dog trailer has fallen, none of the dogs need applause. You can tell by their faces that a little water, shade and food are enough to make them content for the rest of their day …
The hunters on Mallorca, or at least those from Ses Salines whom we work with, are not as bad as often said or maybe elsewhere on the island or on the mainland. For as long as they keep their Podencos, they treat them well, have them microchipped and vaccinated (against rabies, at least), provide shelter that protects them from wind, sun and rain, and give them enough exercise and – above all – a job! The dogs are well nourished, in good health and mostly well socialized, tame and trusting with strangers. The hunters know each and every dog by name and ancestry, they love and caress them, and enjoy their dogs’ company.
But if a Podenco is not good enough for hunting, it will have to go. Quite a few do not perform well enough in their first season (i.e., they are not eager enough, not successful enough, run off too far or do not cooperate); others are too old to hunt or have and raise puppies, or may be injured or sick. Their owners then take them to the local dog pound (perrera) of Ses Salines.
Since 2003, the perrera no longer euthanizes dogs (as is still prevalent in many community-run dog pounds on Mallorca) because it is run by a German animal–welfare activist Elke Wember . Together with volunteers on Mallorca and in Germany, like myself, Elke not only takes good care of all these discarded dogs (not only Podencos), and has them examined and treated by a veterinarian, but also makes a major effort to find them good new homes. Since it is almost impossible to place a working dog like a Podenco with a Spanish family, most dogs are rehomed in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria or Switzerland, where there is a growing community of Podenco lovers who give these wonderful animals an appropriate second home, this time for life. Since 2008, we have found homes for about 200 Ibizans of all ages.
This is probably our final task with the Spanish hunters: to make them see their Podencos as true family members that deserve to stay in good care with them until the end – even if they won’t share house and bed with them, as we do, any time in the foreseeable future!