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No fur? Peru treats native like a cur

Taking his prize dog out for a walk is no stroll in the park for Jaime Del Castillo.

"You hear people saying: "What is that? A big rat? A hairless pig?' " he says.

Scorn and ridicule are daily fare for the Lima physician and his pet, which is named Sipan after an Indian leader who ruled during the third century.

Sipan is a Peruvian hairless, a rare breed prized by pre-Columbian cultures like the mighty Incas but now in disfavor in the nation where they originated.

The breed's looks do little to inspire affection: Its body is furless, gray and wrinkled. A sharp red tongue hangs from its long and pointy snout. Atop its head stands a pathetically scant clump of hair, Mohawk-style.

In the United States and Europe, the Peruvian hairless and its close cousin, the Mexican hairless, have enjoyed a surge in popularity. But back home, where they are commonly found slinking around alleyways in urban slums or on poor farms, they are more likely to be cursed and kicked than petted and groomed.

So breeders in Peru are trying to rehabilitate the hairless, trotting them out at dog shows and working to re-establish the purity of their blood line.

"We want to teach people that this is a marvelous and affectionate dog that will never have a single flea," said Ermanno Maniero of Peru's International Canine Federation.

Historians say the Peruvian hairless was brought to the Americas 2,000 to 3,000 years ago during the migration from Asia across the Bering Strait. Hairless species of dogs are found in several places in the Americas, including Mexico and Argentina.

But in the shadow of the Andes Mountains, the Peruvian hairless evolved into a distinct breed. Ceramics from pre-Incan Indian cultures show the dogs growling, giving birth, suckling and copulating.

In centuries past, Indian cultures along the northern desert coast believed the dog had the ability to cure diseases like asthma and arthritis with their heat-conducting properties, Maniero said. Because they have no hair to serve as a buffer, the dogs' warmth pours directly from their skin _ making them a kind of four-legged hot-water bottle.

At the same time, the dogs' urine and feces are part of the Indian healer's medicine chest.

But in a sign of how the breed has fallen, only 12 puppy births were registered with the Peruvian Kennel Club last year. The breed's current population is unknown.

On a farm 45 miles northwest of Lima, veterinarians Manuel Gonzalez and Tetsuya Kubota are raising 50 hairless dogs in a quest to purify the pedigree after centuries of interbreeding.

Gonzalez says most of the interest in the dogs comes from outside Peru. There are Peruvian hairless breeders in Switzerland, Belgium, Puerto Rico, Germany and Portugal.

Maybe one day, Del Castillo says, Peruvians will again appreciate their native hairless.

"They are Peruvian and we are Peruvian, and what mother does not love her child?" he asks.

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