THE Alpine monastery that bred the original St Bernard dogs more than 400 years ago is closing its kennels because it can no longer afford them.
Monks of the Hospice of the Great St Bernard, located in the mountains on the border of Italy and Switzerland, admitted yesterday they had run out of cash to continue breeding and caring for the huge dogs.
The news was announced at the annual service of blessing for the St Bernard as the first snow of autumn fell on a sports ground in the village of Etroubles in Aosta. The monastery largely relied on donations from animal lovers around the world.
The monks of St Bernard were the first to use the dogs to rescue people lost in the Alpine snow, relying on their thick, shaggy coats, their sense of direction and their instinct for sensing bad weather. It is estimated that the dogs, often referred to affectionately as “Saints”, have rescued 2,000 people over the years.
This week, as every winter, the monks began transferring the dogs to the monastic order’s “mother house” at Martigny, in Switzerland. The monastery of St Bernard is accessible only by experienced skiers in winter, and roads above the pass are already blocked by snow, with daytime temperatures dropping well below zero.
Giovanni Morsiani, head of the Italian St Bernard Owners’ Club, said that the first St Bernards appeared at the monastery in the 17th century.
The monastery was founded in 1050 by St Bernard of Monthen on Mont Jovis, above the St Bernard Pass, as a refuge for medieval pilgrims and travellers seeking shelter from avalanches and robbers.
The first St Bernards — originally guard dogs — are said to have been developed from the Roman Molossian breed, itself a variation of the Tibetan mastiff.