Plans by the monks on Switzerland's Saint Bernard Pass to sell their famous dogs has caused an uproar. Dog lovers say the pass just wouldn’t be the same without them -- ven if they don't tote brandy.
Tough times without Tasso
The highest church in Europe lies in the Swiss mountains. The handful of Augustine monks who live here see it as an oasis of tranquillity, where travelers can seek shelter and spiritual solace.
But for hundreds of years, this hospice has also been home to a dozen Saint Bernard dogs. Traditionally used to rescue people trapped by avalanches, they now attract thousands of tourists each year.
Father Ivan Kull said they’ve become too much for the monks, though.
"We think we’ve got enough to do, caring for people here," said Kull. "We don’t want to look after the dogs anymore. It takes up too much time and it’s costly."
So the monks declared they would sell them and were stunned by the response.
Father Ivan said the hospice has been besieged for weeks.
"Everyone wants to know what we’re doing by selling the dogs," he said. "I’ve had calls every two minutes from people wanting to adopt them; there are television crews on our doorstep. It’s absurd."
The St. Bernards, however, have already been moved to their winter quarters down in the valley below the church. The plan is to sell them as a group for breeding. The price is rumored to be $800,000 (€630,000).
the Matterhorn in Switzerland
Their handler Bernard Leger isn’t sure how long he’ll have a job. He’s disappointed the monks want to sell.
"I love these dogs and I love my job," said Leger. "They are big dogs, but very friendly, good with children, kind and gentle."
Contrary to popular belief, it's actually been 50 years since a Saint Bernard rescued anyone lost in the snow. At 80 kilograms (175 pounds), the breed is just too heavy for modern helicopters.
And that barrel of brandy around the dog’s neck is a myth. No Saint Bernard ever carried one.
Dogs = tourists
The plans to sell the famous dogs puts more than just tradition at stake. Switzerland’s Saint Bernard region is not rich. Without thousands of tourists travelling up the pass to see the dogs, many locals believe their businesses will go under.
Tourism director Dominic Fumeaux said the dogs must stay in the area. "We are not prepared to let them go," said Fumeaux. "It’s just too important. We’ve got to find a solution even if we have to buy them ourselves."
The monks want to spend more time on the tourists and less on the dogs
Martine Villetaz, who runs a hotel and gift shop on the road up to the pass, is already worrying. She thinks the monks need to pay a bit more attention to the real world. "The Saint Bernard is a symbol for everything Swiss," she said. "It’s like the Matterhorn and Zermatt."
According to Villetaz, the region needs the St Bernards. "The monks can’t just think about religion," she said. "The dog is important for the economy and without it, I’m not sure we could survive."
Nothing to worry about
The monks are surprised by the anger their plan's have sarked among the locals. Father Ivan said people are worrying unnecessarily.
"The Saint Bernards are not on the brink of extinction," he said. "There are plenty of them around the world and others in Switzerland."
The buyer would be required to bring the dogs up to the hospice every summer. "So I don’t think there’s anything to worry about," he said.
The hospice on the Saint Bernard pass is a thousand years old, and some things, like the daily calls to prayer, haven’t changed at all. Many hope the hospice’s most famous symbol won’t change either.
But that will depend on finding a buyer who can afford the dogs, who will keep them in the region, breed them, and take them up to the pass summer after summer.