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The Strange Case of the Mimick Dog

In the world of mysterious beasts there are some that seem to have found themselves confined to the dark, obscure corners of history, mostly forgotten to the point that no one really knows much about them at all, let alone whether they might have really existed or not. One of these is a curious beast that has been mostly regulated to the dusty confines of long forgotten texts and little-known accounts. It is an intriguing story of a canid creature of some sort that seems to have had some very remarkable attributes indeed, and which will probably forever remain beyond our ability to confirm.

What was often referred to as the Mimick Dog, as well as the Getulian-dog, and the more official sounding Canis getulus and Canis Lucernarius, was a canine creature said to have originated in the Middle East and Northern Africa, in regions such as Egypt and the Libyan peninsula. Descriptions of the animal usually include longs legs, a body covered with long, shaggy hair and described as looking somewhat simian, a short tail, and a sharp, pointed face said to be similar to that of a hedgehog. More than its appearance, it was the creature’s behavior that set it apart as truly strange, as it was known to have the ability to mimic anything it saw or heard, including complex human behaviors and speech, and such was this skill that the dogs were often said to be used in performances to wow audiences with spectacles of dance and various tricks, and there are various written accounts of this. Indeed it was said that these dogs were highly sought after for this purpose, and that many kept these as pets in order to have them perform for money.

Woodcut print of a Mimick Dog

One such account from Greek biographer Plutarch spoke of one Mimick Dog performing a solo play composed of several parts to the great amusement of the court of the Roman Emperor the Vespasian, and another comes from 1403 in Italy, in which a blind man called Andrew was said to have with him a reddish dog that could perform impressive tricks the likes of which no one had ever seen. One was for onlookers to bury coins, jewels, bracelets, and pieces of gold and silver and the dog would then seek out these items on cue by hearing the name called out and return them to their rightful owners, as well as to mimic people’s voices and various animal sounds, as well as various stunts, acts which caused those who saw it to proclaim the dog was a devil. Indeed, these curious beasts were so adept at copying human behaviors and sounds that they were often seen as either some sort of bedevilment or at the very least a strange mix between dog and ape.

Another attribute associated with the Mimick Dog was that it had potent medicinal qualities. Especially an opopanax, or medicinal resin made from distilled parts of these creatures was said to be extremely effective in the treatment of hydrophobia, which is a common symptom of rabies. Various ointments were said to be made of myriad parts of Mimick Dogs for the use of rubbing on cuts or sores as well, which were said to enhance the healing process.

An illustration of a Mimick Dog from the book Fabulous Beasts (1981), by Alison Lurie

Far from a mere piece of folklore, the Mimick Dog featured in two of Europe’s most well-known bestiaries, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner’s compendium of animals, the Historiae Animalium (1551-1558), where it appears right alongside known breeds of dog and species of canid, as well as Edward Topsell’s The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes and Serpents (1658), both rather well-respected tomes in their day. Topsell’s bestiary even says that the Mimick Dog was present in England, well outside of its supposedly native range. Other writers who mention the Mimick Dogs include the great Greco-Egyptian writer Ptolemy, who wrote of the creatures in his scientific work Geography, in which he claims they were quite common in Egypt, and one excerpt of which explains of the creatures thus:

It is apt to imitate all things it seeth, for which cause some have thought that it was conceived by an Ape, for in wit and disposition it resembleth an Ape, but in face, sharpe and blacke like an Hedgehog, having a short recurved body, very long legs, shaggy haire, and a short taile: this is called of some Canis Lucernarius. These being brought up with apes in their youth, learne very admirable and strange feats, whereof there were great plenty in Egypt in the time of king Ptolemy, which were taught to leap, play, and dance, at the hearing of musicke, and in many poore men’s houses they served insteed of servants.

Conrad Gesner

Again, as with Gesner and Topsell’s works, this was not a purely fanciful collection of fairy tales, but rather a scientific work and treatise that was written in all seriousness. This leads to the profound question of whether such a creature ever really existed or is just pure myth. Considering that it was written of in so many serious scientific works, it seems that it may have some basis in fact, but is it a misrepresentation of some other known species or a new species that has perhaps gone extinct and been lost to time? There have been many theories as to what these odd animals could have been. One is that they were simply poodles, but this would not explain their almost supernaturally keen ability to mimic things and the woodcut images present in the books do not really match up very well with a poodle. It could also be that, at the time, bestiaries were known to include quite fantastical creatures scattered amongst the real ones, to the point where it is sometimes hard to tell which are based on real animals and which are misrepresentations or outright fabrications, yet that the Mimick Dog was written of time and time again in various works seems to suggest that some real animal may have been behind it, whatever it may be.

Renowned cryptozoologist Karl Shuker, whose work on the matter first drew my interest to this creature, has suggested that they were perhaps monkeys or baboons, as their appearance could coincide with what the Mimick Dogs were said to look like, and they were actually at the time of these accounts on occasion kept as exotic pets. Baboons would also have the keen intelligence to be able to learn a wide variety of tricks, and could perhaps be capable of at least some of what the dogs were said to be able to do. Nevertheless, some of the people of the time, especially learned ones writing bestiaries and cataloguing these accounts, would likely have known what a baboon was, so why would they not just say that these were baboons rather than some unknown type of dog? Would they all make such a grave misidentification? Also, Topsell’s own bestiary has representations of what are clearly actual baboons, yet there those Mimick Dogs are within the same pages, and they are not quite like any other known animal.

Baboon

It is hard to say what to make of this peculiar creature. Is this just a mythical beast? Was it a known animal that was misidentified and if so how did it come to have so many mysterious abilities associated with it? Is it something that once existed but is now gone? If so, what was it? Was it a canid of some sort or something else? At the very least it seems that the story of this bizarre beast is not totally outside of the realm of possibility, not so far-fetched as to be immediately dismissed into the realm of improbable fantastical creatures. The Mimick Dog is one of those intriguing cryptids that seems to have slipped through the cracks to become rather obscure and forgotten, making it even more likely that we will never know just what it was.