Interview with a purebred Basenji breeder Susan Kamen Marsicano of Apu Basenjis, by Allan Reznik.
Where did you grow up?
Susan Kamen Marsicano: My parents had a small, two-story brick home in Laurelton, Long Island, New York. My brother and I were able to walk on our own to PS 156, a public grammar school. I had a choice and chose to attend Far Rockaway High School, which meant I got on the Long Island Railroad every day to go to school. I was the school artist in both schools, Valedictorian in grammar school, and an Honor Student in high school. I didn’t grow up, or find my niche, until I was accepted into Cooper Union Art School at the age of 17. I left home shortly afterwards, got my own apartment (East 10th Street, $17.22 a month), and got my first dog right away,
Do you come from a doggy family? If not, how did the interest in breeding and showing purebred dogs begin?
Susan Kamen Marsicano: The Story of Apu Basenjis – My mother was young and trying to keep my asthmatic sibling alive (before there was good asthma medicine) when we were little. “Don’t get overheated!” was her constant cry—and remember, she had to worry about polio back then, and we had just come out of the war. I read the Diary of Anne Frank almost right after it was published (and to this day I recognize anti-Semitism immediately).
I brought every stray dog home. My flailing mother, without fail, had them all carted off. She was doing her best.
I left home at the age of 17 to go to art school in NYC. I left Long Island, got out of the subway at Astor Place in Manhattan, stepped over a sleeping derelict and so my life began, for real, at Cooper Union Art School. Cooper is a scholarship school. I was so proud to be admitted, and am still proud to be a CUAS alumna.
The day after I left home, I walked to the 92nd St. ASPCA in a blizzard (the subways weren’t running). That day I got my first dog that I could keep. She was a wee, prick-eared, cinnamon-colored, short-coated mix, with one ear a little floppy, about three to four months old, that developed distemper shortly thereafter. I named her Apu.
She got better. She went with me all over the world. We had little money, no car, but nice stuff, like Brie and caviar; some luxuries and none of the necessities. I won a Fulbright fellowship to paint in Firenze (Florence) for two years. Before Italy, Apu went to Cooper Union and the San Francisco Art Institute. She posed with all my nude models, striking the same poses.
Apu was one-quarter Basenji. I found this out in 1961, when Bob Mankey (Cambria Basenjis) chased me up Nob Hill in San Francisco, asking if she was a Basenji. He gave me his pamphlet on “The Basenji, the dog who didn’t bark and cried real tears.”
Later, back in New York, I lived on Pearl Street, in the financial district, and passers-by kept calling Apu, “Orange.” I finally ran into Elsworth Kelly (a famous New York sculptor/painter) walking his “Orange.” He told me that Orange was one-half Basenji, born of a Basenji bitch in Paris (belonging to Delphine Seyrig, who starred in Last Year in Marienbad), and he told me that Orange was, indeed, Apu’s dam.
Apu and I had more than 13 years together. I buried Apu in the myrtle-covered garden at Gansevoort Market and Little West 12th Street. A young girl, named Kyrie, poured a bottle of wine on her grave. Apu had liked to have a drink. The time was 1972 and the times, “They Were a Changing.”
Four months later, I went up to Harrison, New York, on Conrail, carrying a portfolio of drawings of Apu to show off. That day I got my first Basenji, Bomabwa Blushing Bride. Her breeder, Bobby Abelson, sent “Blush” home with me on the train in a Girl Scout Cookie Box, after giving me a short, concise briefing on the breed’s health and temperament issues. She told me to test Blush for HA [pyruvate kinase deficient hemolytic anemia, a fatal genetic disease that was plaguing Basenjis at the time—AR] when she was six months old. I remember that she typed out a five-generation pedigree for me, without notes.
Almost two years later, I bred Blush to Kathy Helping’s lovely Ch. Trotwood’s Headliner, and chose to name my Basenjis after Apu. At that moment Apu’s Basenjis was born, too.
Apu was named after the first truly great art films I ever saw. It was the first film of the great Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu, directed by Satyajit Ray, the Bengali master. Apu was the young boy in Pather Panchali and the main character in the trilogy. There is a dog drawn on the wall in Apu’s village and later the dog is there, too. Merchant Ivory has restored the trilogy of films. I recommend them as amongst the best films of all time.
My first dog show was a match in Providence, Rhode Island, around 1963. My brilliant sibling, Robert Kamen, had a great Dalmatian puppy bitch, Pill Peddler’s Pandora, that later went on to win a National Specialty. He took me along, in a blizzard, to a freezing armory in Providence. He said we wouldn’t be long. Of course, Pandy won Best in Match, so we were there a very long time, and it was very cold. I saw some of my first Basenjis there.
Who were your mentors in the sport? Please elaborate on their influence.
Susan Kamen Marsicano: Bobby Abelson, Ruth and David Hill, Sunny Shay, and Veronica Tudor Williams.
I got my first Basenji from Bobby Abelson (Bomabwa Basenjis). I was very lucky to have found her. She spent hours that first afternoon alerting me to the health problems in the breed, and telling me where they were. She had the great Am./Can. Ch. and Am./Can. CD Rose-Bay’s Gay Blade. “Rip” was winning the breed at shows and getting legs on his CD the same day. Bobby cared greatly about biddable Basenjis. I have carried that forward.
Ruth Hill and her son, David, were Rose-Bay Basenjis. Iremember Ruth, well past the age you’d think she’d want to climb four flights of stairs, coming up to see my first litter in 1975. David was a wonderful mentor.
In the spring of 1973, I took the subway to the Long Island Railroad, got off in Huntington, and hitched to my first match show. Blush rode in a brown cardboard cat carrier. I was wearing a long skirt and not very appropriate shoes. Right away, a woman yelled at me, “Who’s she out of?” I thought, “out of?” The woman continued, “She’s a typey bitch.” I thought, “typey?” This lady turned out to be the inimitable Sunny Shay, breeder of the famous Grandeur Afghan Hounds. She was a fan of ours from that day forward. Seems we also lived on the same block in NYC. She told me about Juliette De Baïracli Levy, too, the “mother of natural rearing” as well as the breeder of the Turkuman Afghan Hounds.
Veronica Tudor Williams awarded my Poet dog “Best Basenji of the Year” in 1976 or thereabouts. She understood breed type. She also used one of my Basenji drawings for her
notepaper. Veronica was foundational in our breed, in the UK, importing dogs from the Congo. She imported the great Fula OTC (of the Congo) in 1956.
The Apu Basenjis are widely known, highly successful in various disciplines, and well respected. What breeding philosophies do you adhere to?
Susan Kamen Marsicano: That’s simple: Good health, good temperament, good looks.
Do those things and be careful in placing your puppies, and their lifespan should be 15-plus years.
None of these three things can be without the other. I don’t believe there is any excuse for breeding a nasty dog. I don’t believe there is any excuse for not doing all the health testing required by CHIC.
In Basenjis, every dog, before breeding, should have had a DNA test for Fanconi Syndrome and for Progressive Retinal Atrophy. No one should breed a dog that doesn’t have an OFA number for his/her hips. It’d do our breed well if people would also get patellas certified. No dog should be bred from if it has Autoimmune Thyroid disease. All Basenjis should be thyroid tested in anestrus before breeding.
I am certain that Basenjis can be trained and do well in many dog sports, and I think they should be exposed to the field/Performance events (lure coursing and racing) when they are young. I know they can learn just about anything as baby puppies. They can learn Companion sports, such as Obedience and Rally, very young. People just need to give them the opportunity to excel. No dog should be kept just to feed egos at dog shows, and then rehomed when no longer needed.
The Basenji is an elegant sighthound. It needs to have far-seeing, obliquely set, almond-shaped dark eyes, a wrinkled forehead, and a free-moving gait that converges to the center of gravity. A Basenji that possesses a fancy side gait, but isn’t clean coming and going, is not typical to our breed.
How many dogs do you currently house? Tell us about your facilities and how the dogs are maintained.
Susan Kamen Marsicano: I have just had the passing of my darling, famous, terrifically accomplished two 15-year-old dogs. They left within two weeks of one another. That leaves my pack at seven Basenjis, plus two parakeets (don’t forget Heloise and Abelard). These dogs live in my house as my family. They are not crated. They have full run of the house. Five sleep under the covers in my bed, and two sleep in the living room. I do have a crate in the library, if I need it, and my office upstairs is also a place I use when I need to separate dogs during heat cycles. They do have their crates in my van, as no dog rides loose, and I prefer to ride them two in a crate. I train my dogs, and breed for biddability and good health, which helps them to be a happy pack.
I also have a large separate studio building that I designed. We submitted my architectural drawings for the building permit. The dogs’ fenced-in area is large enough to run agility, includes a dogwalk and a seesaw, and lets the dogs freely move from the house to the studio. Castleloft, as it is called, is a mixture of painting easels and weave poles and Rally signs. Each dog always wants their turn alone with me training in Castleloft. Alternately, they bathe in the Blue Stove beach, becoming willing models for my artwork. Sleeping dogs make great models.
Who were/are some of your most significant Basenjis, both in the whelping box and in the show ring?
I have often not bred a bitch more than once, and almost always not before they are approaching their fourth birthday. It makes me cringe to hear talk of the “breeding season,” as people approach every autumn as the time to find their next Best in Show prospect. If confronted, I hear, “Well, so many people want puppies.”
I am an AKC Silver Breeder of Merit. I have only shown my dogs from the Bred-by-Exhibitor class.
I founded the BCOA’s Performance Stud Dog and Brood Bitch Honor Rolls.
My dogs are ALL BCOA Versatile Basenjis. Two are Versatile Basenjis Elite.
I was most proud to have three of my Basenjis running in Masters Agility at the same trials.
I guess, recently, I am most known for my sweetheart Fern, who is a MACH Basenji, and a Bred-By champion. I think there are now four MACH Basenjis in the world (Master Agility Champion). She has been invited to the AKC Agility Invitational every year since 2012. She is a Therapy Dog, an Oval and Straight racing champion, a lure coursing champion, and she has Rally titles, etc. Fern took time off to have one litter of three. Two of them are Bred-By champions. Her son, DC Liner, has lovely pups out there that have been doing well, owner-handled, and three are major pointed. They are waiting to, perhaps, resume their show careers. They have been wonderful, friendly, typical, performing Basenjis.
Here is a list of the dogs currently sharing my life:
- Fiddle–Ch. Apu Sweet Baby James RN CA AX AXJ TKP RS-N JS-N GS-N MXF ORC FCh GRC MVB.
- Fern–Ch. MACH Apu Painted Sand RA MXG2 MJC MXF T2B2 THD TKP CL3 RS-N JS-O GV-N SC FCh SGRC ORC SOR CGC TDIA VBE.
- Liner–DC Apu i Liner SC RN CAA TKP FCh SGRC3 SORC JOR VB
- Gilda–FC Apu Painter Song RN CA TKP GRC ORC VBS2.
- Scarlet–FC Apu PiNache RN OA OAJ OF TKA RS-N SC THD FCh SGRC2 SORC JOR CGC TDIA VBE.
- Leaf–Apu Painted Cat Burglar RN TKP
- Goldie–Apu La Donna e Mobile RN TKP
Before them, recently gone:
- Sandy–FC Apu Sand Thru the Hourglass RA MC THD GRC ORC JOR CGC TDIA VBX
- M–Ch. Apu Little Red Lentil RE AX MXJ NF OAP NJP OFP THD GRC CGC TDIA MVB
- Amelia–FC Apu Afternoon of a Fawn RA TKN NAJ OJP NFP JV-N THD CL2-F CL2-H CL2-S MC FCh GRC ORC JOR CGC TDIA VBX.
- Guy Noir–Apu Guy Noir RA TKN NAJ OJP OFP JV-N THD CL2-H CL2-S CL2-F FCh SGRC ORC SOR CGC TDIA MVB.
Please comment positively on your breed’s present condition and what trends might bear watching.
Susan Kamen Marsicano: Conversation with an observer ringside at the Big E in West Springfield, Massachusetts: Observer, “Looks like a nice quality entry.” Me, “Unless you know the breed.” Observer, looking at me sideways, “Are they supposed to single track?” Me, “Uh huh.” Observer, “Then you should have won.”
A stable temperament is of utmost importance, and we do have some calm and friendly dogs in the ring, but I fear those remembered will be the ones that are not.
Absence of loin is not the same thing as short coupled. It makes for lack of flexibility. Underline. Underline means chest room, and not a straight line from the elbows to the tuck-up. The dogs should have a sternum, not a hollow front. Consider the air under the dog. They need to have a dark, far-seeing eye. Not only puppies have wrinkles. A gorgeous coat is not one that has to be doctored, or altered. It is bred. I prefer rich color on the dog, and I believe a brindle Basenji should be a red dog with tiger stripes.
The sport has changed greatly since you first began participating. What are your thoughts on the state of the fancy and the declining number of breeders? How do we encourage newcomers to join us and remain in the sport?
In my breed, nothing has made a change until COVID. I don’t think there are fewer breeders or fewer dogs. Same old, same old.
A friendly ringside atmosphere is a good thing.
Where do you see your breeding program in the next decade or two?
Susan Kamen Marsicano: I am actually done. I bred my last litter in December of 2018. I hope to have those two pups around me when I am 90. Some of the youngsters living with my friends can continue the line (pending continued health testing).
Finally, tell us a little about Susan outside of dogs… your profession, your hobbies.
Susan Kamen Marsicano: I have never had a hobby. I am a painter. I’m pretty good at that. The late judge Anna Katherine Nicholas wrote about my paintings in Dog World. I used to earn a living by doing paintings of all the famous dog show dogs with their handlers and the judges who put them up.
I produce the Rip Van Wrinkler, which is the newsletter for the Rip Van Wrinkle Basenji Club. That name is a pun on Rip Van Winkle and the Basenji wrinkle. The Rip Van Wrinkle club was founded in 1997. We have been giving our members the opportunity to experience all the things these wonderful dogs can do. Our matches have included agility, rally, lure coursing, and racing. We have never cared to do the politics to engage in official breed shows. We all get along fine the way we are. The Wrinkler won the Dog Writers Association of America writing competition in 2014 for Best Club Newsletter. My artwork, as well as several articles and photos from the Wrinkler, have also done their share of winning DWAA Maxwell awards.
I train dogs, and I make art. I encourage the people who have my dogs to allow the dogs to be versatile, and, above all, sleep under the covers.
Are you looking for a Basenji puppy?
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