Saint Bernard rescue dogs get rescued

Three Saint Bernard dogs frolic in the snow at their winter quarters in Martigny, Switzerland.Olivier Maire / EPA via Sipa Press
/ Source: The Associated Press

Swiss philanthropists are giving more than $4 million to keep the famed Saint Bernard rescue dogs working on the mountain pass that gave them their name, a key advocate said Friday.

Monks of the Congregation of Canons of the Great Saint Bernard have kept the dogs in their mountain monastery since about 1660. However, the monks said in October that maintaining the kennels had become too much of a financial burden.

Rudolf Thomann, president of the Swiss Saint Bernard Club, said two foundations were being created to care for the dogs and build a museum in their honor. The canines are credited with having saved some 2,000 travelers over the past 200 years.

One of the new organizations will buy nearly 20 dogs from the order, probably at the end of January, Thomann said in a telephone interview. The dogs will continue to winter in a kennel in Martigny, a city in the valley below the Grand Saint Bernard Pass and take turns at the monastery during the summer, he said.

“That was a condition of the monks,” said Thomann. “They would sell only under the condition that during the summer months, when the pass road is open, the dogs would continue to be up there.”

The foundation, which also will buy the kennel building in Martigny, is to be named for Barry, the famous Saint Bernard that lived in the monastery from 1800 to 1812 and helped save more than 40 people.

The Barry of the Great Saint Bernard Foundation will be created Jan. 28 with $656,000 donated by Christine Cerletti, a singer based in the northern Swiss city of Basel, Thomann said.

He said the foundation would partner with a second one created Thursday by former Geneva private banker Bernard de Watteville and his wife, Caroline. De Watteville said he would donate at least $3.5 million, Thomann said.

Museum will feature dogs
The De Watteville foundation is building a museum in Martigny that will allow visitors to see — but not touch — the dogs, who will be visible below a walkway outdoors or behind glass indoors, Thomann said.

“Accommodations for the dogs are being built into the museum, and we will bring dogs there every morning and then pick them up in the evening,” Thomann said.

He said the museum, to open in spring 2006, will be near the Giannada art museum.

Monks founded their travelers’ refuge atop the Saint Bernard Pass — 8,100 feet above sea-level — in the 11th century. They kept the large dogs not only for company and protection but also to rescue travelers lost in the fog and stuck in the snow.

The Saint Bernard’s strong adaptability to different climates, its stamina, double fur coat and extraordinary sense of smell and hearing made it ideal for Alpine rescue.

Now the dogs’ work is largely performed with the aid of helicopters and heat sensors.