HAWAIIAN POI DOG
OTHER NAMES: Ilio
The Hawaiian Poi Dog or ?ilio (?ilio maku?e for brown individuals) is an extinct breed of pariah dog from Hawai?i which was used by the native tribes as a (spiritual) protector of children and source of food.
Hawaiian Poi Dog is also a term used in Hawai?i to describe mixed breed dogs and sometimes to people of mixed Hawaiian – Anglo heritage.
Most in Hawai?i use the term “poi dogs” to refer to mix-breed dogs, but also attribute specific characteristics to Poi dogs, including a “garbage gut” (ability to eat anything – including items considered unsafe), a strong will (poi dogs do not do tricks), and unique appearance of impossible mixes of breeds. As Charles Memminger describes in his column Honolulu Lite, “half-Chihuahua, halfwolf and half-Grizzly bear.”
The original poi dog derived its name from poi, the Hawaiian staple food made from kalo (taro) root. Poi was used to fatten the dogs for use as food, while meat was generally too valuable to be fed to them. In addition, no large mammals existed on the Hawaiian Islands (except feral hogs which also go back to Polynesian livestock), so such sizeable dogs as they were dogs were not useful for hunting in any significant way.
As it seems, the poi dogs were never deliberately bred to a standard, but human and natural selection ran their course regardless. The poi dogs encountered by European explorers such as Captain Cook were pot-bellied short-legged animals that associated freely with a village’s hogs, had very short hair that could come in any color (though as noted above, brown poi dogs were regarded as distinct enough to warrant a specific name), and a peculiarly flattened head. The latter trait is sometimes ascribed to the dogs’ diet in some unspecified way; considering that poi does not require chewing at all, the dogs certainly lost the need to maintain strong temporalis muscles, and a reduced temporal fossa will indeed cause a dog’s head to appear flattened. They were considered rather dim-witted and sluggish – any good hunting dog with acute senses would neither make a good poi dog, nor be particularly useful on the islands –, but on the other hand strong-willed and not easily commanded.
As the poi dog was really a two-purpose breed – food and a living “lucky charm” – unsuited for anything else, the breed declined to extinction as eating dog meat became unfashionable and the native religion was abandoned. Feral dogs of European settlers interbred with the poi dogs and by the early 20th century at latest, the breed was gone as a distinct entity. Yet even today one can find semi-feral dogs on Hawai?i which, again in the words of Charles Memminger, appear like “… a 300 pound, hairless, shivering puppy with an extremely bad attitude.” One particular famous dog very much resembling the original poi dogs was seen around 1960 at the Mauna Loa Observatory; it became known as “the phantom dog” to observatory staff due to its habit of unexpectedly arriving to feed at the garbage dump and disappearing again for some time whenever someone tried to approach it. Staffmembers were able to photograph the animal though. This generated some interest among researchers, and around 1990 it was attempted at the Honolulu Zoo to recreate the poi dog from Hawaiian stray dogs that might retain some amount of the unique genetic configuration. No significant results were ever achieved, and the program was abandoned after 12 years.