ShowSight Interviews Karen Staudt Cartabona, Majenkir Borzoi


  • December 03, 2018
  • By Allan Reznik

From the November 2018 Issue of ShowSight. Click To Subscribe. 

1. Where did you grow up?

I was born in New York and spent my early childhood in a Brooklyn apartment where there were no pets allowed. I kept tropical fish and caged birds and sneaked home various animal misfits: a mouse knocked unconscious by the trash man (I was allowed to keep him), and scruffy alley cats (which I could not keep). When my family bought a house with a fenced-in yard in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, my collecting of dogs and animals began in earnest. I discovered a circus headquarters nearby, Gangler Bros Circus. There I had hands-on time with ponies, trick dogs and other animals. I learned to ride on mean, because of being mistreated through training, ponies. I fell off quite often as they ran me under branches and into fences. In spite of this I was living a dream come true.

2. Do you come from a doggie family? If not how did the interest in breeding and showing begin?

No, my obsessive love for animals was limited to me. While my family were animal lovers, no one had anything more than an occasional pet dog. Without a doubt, I am one of the more unlikely people to have become this dog show enthusiast and dedicated breeder whose involvement has spanned more than half a century. My childhood years were spent poring over library books while I often visited the Bronx Zoo to feed and sketch my favorite animals. I also enjoyed wandering through the halls of many museums, and took art lessons at the Pratt Institute.

The first dog was purchased soon after my family’s move to Canarsie Brooklyn which was then still rural. He was a neurotic Collie named Shep, purchased for $15. Shep suffered from epilepsy and a form of rage syndrome. He would at times follow me about the house snarling at my feet and even bit me. Then he would dive under the bed while my father retaliated by throwing shoes at him. It is amazing that I didn’t develop a fear of dogs from this psychotic canine! In my early teens I applied for a job with Animal Talent Scouts, a modeling agency for animals based in New York City founded by Lorraine D’Esson. I was considered too young for the job, but saw my first Borzoi there. Two beautiful white males came up and leaned their heads against me. I thought I had never seen anything as beautiful and decided right then I would someday own a Russian Wolfhound. Years later while showing Tanya, my foundation bitch, at Westminster, Lorraine D’Esson noticed her CD in obedience, unusual for the time, and asked me if I’d be interested in a modeling assignment with her. This led to an interesting sideline career of modeling with my white Borzoi. They became the Wolfschmidt Vodka Borzoi and were also featured in many forms of modeling from cigarette ads to fashion shows, fashion magazines, movies and TV commercials. I still receive calls for an occasional assignment, but now that the age of elegance is over, “Designer Dogs” have become the norm.

3. Who were your mentors in the sport? Please elaborate on their contributions to your early life in dogs.

My earliest mentor was Louis Murr of the Romanoff Borzoi, breeder extraordinaire and all- rounder judge. Mr. Murr gave his valuable time to a young enthusiast when I turned up unannounced on his doorstep, eager to show him my newly acquired Borzoi. Mr. Murr brushed his indignant wife aside, left his dinner and walked me through the house and kennel, showing me paintings and statues. He had his daughter run several of the dogs, all while he explained the importance of various points of the Borzoi. Mr. Murr must have sensed something of the future passion in me for this breed. I still recall those early teachings and I even remember his response that first day. As he was pointing out to me what was correct in the proportions of the head of a Borzoi in an oil painting I asked, “Is that what you like?” Mr. Murr turned and glared at me. He answered, “It’s not what you like, it’s what’s correct that matters and don’t you ever forget it!” I never have.

In later years Mr. Murr came to the kennel and pointed out faults and virtues in my own Borzoi while explaining which dogs I should keep and breed and which dogs would be better off going to pet homes. He felt certain points were hard to overcome and would be detrimental to my breeding program.

So many people mentored me over the years, most long gone, who gave so much of themselves. High in my estimation is Sam Ewing of Eagle Irish Wolfhounds, a great instructor. Also I always learned from my peers when I did co-breedings with them. I spent many productive and enjoyable hours putting together pedigrees and planning future breedings with people such as Nancy Shanner McLean of Conamor Borzoi. Nancy owned the first stud dog I used. An extraordinary breeder of her era of several breeds, including Bull Terriers and Salukis. Another was Fred Edlin MD, Ridgeside Borzoi. While driving to dog club meetings, Fred and I played the game of “If you owned this bitch, who would you breed her to, why, and what would you get?” The results often opened our minds to combinations we had never considered and that at times became reality and produced outstanding results.

Even those who were rivals in and out of the show ring and with whom I often locked horns, I could learn from. Lena Tamboer (now a judge) and I could shoot barbs at each other with our eyes, but we worked compatibly and productively as part of a committee at the AKC offices to put together the first AKC Borzoi standard interpretation slide show. I still sometimes refer to it today when giving a lecture or symposium.

4. Your Borzoi are widely known, highly successful and well respected. What breeding philosophies do you adhere to?

I always refer to the AKC standard. Ours is one of the better standards in the world, taken from the original Russian. It presents a picture to my mind’s eye of the important things to select for. Louis Murr explained to me that it took him decades to find the right dogs to put his bloodline together. His advice was when I bred I could incorporate outcrosses but should always breed back to the main line. Murr insisted that it would never do me wrong, and he was right; with discretion and selection, it never has. The main line goes back quite quickly to the coursing dogs bred by the great kennels in Russia. It was Joseph Thomas, a wealthy American financier, who went to Russia in the early part of the 20th century and was able to bring foundation dogs back to America from such kennels as Perchino, owned by the Grand Duke Nicolai Nikolayevich. Soon after Thomas’ importations to America the majority of Russian dogs were destroyed during their revolution. To Joseph Thomas goes credit for saving the breed as we now know it. How fortunate I was to have been handed those genes to work with. I have also frozen some of my ROM producing sires over the decades. I am now benefiting from the use of semen from those early dogs. Very like looking into a crystal ball to learn what a stud dog may produce in a future litter by being able to check what he has produced in the past, and what has come down from him. In the 1990s I did quite a bit of co-breeding with top Borzoi kennels in the US, usually taking a pick puppy or even leasing the bitch. I also imported and exported dogs to and from Russia quite successfully both ways. One dog I sent to help reestablish the gene pool became a top producer of show and open field coursing dogs right through to the present.

While we select for phenotype to produce our show dogs, I have found genotype from dependable genes from those great Russian hunting kennels is indispensable in breeding correct Borzoi.

5. How many Borzoi do you typically house? Tell us about your facilities and how the dogs are maintained.

The present kennels are high on the side of a hill in Swartswood, New Jersey, overlooking the lake, ideal for raising Borzoi. We are surrounded by preserved and wooded state park land. Years ago we sold 100 acres surrounding our present 30 acres for Preservation which will always give us complete privacy.

We keep about 25 adults, some youngsters and raise a couple of litters every year.

The Grand Duke’s kennels were originally built in a hollow, the belief being this would protect the dogs from the Russian cold. Consequently the dogs suffered from conditions they called “rheumatism.” They advised opening the runs and the kennels “to the wind.” Our dogs are housed in small buildings, two or three dogs to each side opening into long kennel runs built up a slope. All runs open out to a large exercise field. The kennel runs are crushed stone, there is no cement, and the houses do not have heat. All dogs are turned out daily for exercise in small groups. They are fed a predominantly raw diet of beef and tripe. I believe in as holistic a life as possible. Puppies are born in the house and go out into the puppy house soon after weaning. Borzoi thrive on cold and snow. It is dampness and icy rain, and especially heat, which is unhealthy for the breed. The older dogs become house dogs mainly because we enjoy them. In the 1990s we kept as many as 60 adults, even ran a few milk goats to raise puppies.

6. Who were/are some of your most significant dogs, in the whelping box and in the show ring?

Majenkir is more about a bloodline than individual dogs; it is an amazing gene pool which has had the ability to improve nearly every line it has been crossed with, here in the US and around the world. Today it is unusual to find a top-winning or top coursing Borzoi that does not have one of the cornerstone dogs up close or generations behind in its pedigree. Every Borzoi in the present Top 10 carries some Majenkir in its bloodlines. You may have to go back four or five generations to find it; these dogs obviously have their breeders’ stamped imprint in type, yet the genes from the old Russian coursing dogs have been passed along to them through their Majenkir ancestors. Also in the Top 10 are two Borzoi bred by Majenkir and another two sired by Majenkir dogs.

The influence of Ch. Majenkir Regal By Design ROMX is apparent in more recent dogs. A Majenkir- bred son, “Max,” was exported to Japan where he became a top show dog and produced a legacy of top winners, among them the all-time top-winning Borzoi, GCHG Belisarius JP My Sassy Girl. “Lucy” was also the Number One Hound in the US in 2017. In the same year a Regal grandson, GCHS Raynbo’s Foolish Pleasure RN SC, was Number One Hound in Canada. Regal’s get have also produced top winners and producers in the USA, New Zealand, Australia, and Russia, among other countries. All of the aforementioned dogs go back to the all-time top-producing Borzoi sire, Ch. Majenkir Gyrfalcon Fld Ch ROMX-C, whelped in 1973. In 2004 a group called “Friends of Majenkir”commissioned a bronze statue of Gerry which is offered as a Challenge Trophy at the BCOA National Specialty to the Breeder of the Best of Breed Borzoi. Majenkir currently has won two legs out of the necessary three. The kennel has retired some lovely Challenge trophies at specialties including National Challenge trophies for Open Bitch, Best Bred By, and recently the Tamboer Best-of-Breed trophy. Retiring the Tamboer trophy was GCHG Majenkir Bookstor Vintage Glamour, a multiple BIS and No. 1 Borzoi.

In 2005 I was honored to have been selected as AKC Hound Breeder of 
the year.

7. Please comment positively on your breed’s present condition and what trends might bear watching.

The ability to import and export foreign dogs and frozen semen with comparative ease greatly helps freshen the gene pool. With the loss of so many prominent US Borzoi breeders over the last few decades our own gene pool has shrunk dramatically. As has always happened since the Borzoi is such a beautiful and artistic-looking breed, breeders must always keep in mind the importance of function in the living dog and beware of introducing exaggerations which are always detrimental and 
often irreversible.

8. The sport has changed greatly since you began as a breeder/exhibitor. What are your thoughts on the state of the fancy and the declining number of breeders? How do we encourage newcomers to join us and remain in the sport?

How I wish I could offer an answer. I have watched my own breed and show dogs overall go full circle from a small beginning in the 1960s, when a total of nine dogs constituted a five-point major. That many class dogs would usually only be present at the National. In the 1990s specialties and often supported shows brought out more than 200 Borzoi. Today we may have as few as 20 to 30 Borzoi at local supported shows or specialties except for the National, which still draws large entries. Not many years ago the entire family would come out for the weekend to cheer on Dad or Mom in the ring showing the family dog to his championship. Some even went on to become breeders. Now every other person owns either a rescue or a designer dog. I mentor and encourage as much as I am able to. I do not know a simple solution. So much of the problem revolves around the present state of the modern world and bewildering changes in our lifestyles.

9. Where do you see your breeding program in the next decade or two?

At this stage of my life it’s difficult to think that far ahead! I have been wanting to pass the torch for some time now; the plan was to retire at the 50-year mark in 2013. Then there is always that young dog coming up and that good bitch that should be bred to just that special dog! Sadly for the future of the breed, I have outlasted kennels which I thought dedicated and who would have been longer lasting. Fortunately there are still those quite dedicated breeders who seem to have the passion and pluck needed to continue a long-term breeding program. I am fortunate in knowing younger people who I plan to hand the show leads to. In California Stuart McGraw and Justine Spiers, are breeder/handlers. They understand and appreciate quality and it is my belief they are the future. In Michigan Lynne Bennett of Avalyn Borzoi keeps a small, quite outstanding kennel where she breeds top-quality hounds. Here on the East Coast my good friends and co-breeders, Howard and Karen Spey of Bookstor Pointers and Borzoi, share the passion. As is often said, “it takes a 
small army.”

10. Finally, tell us a little about Karen outside of dogs… your profession, your hobbies.

I am an artist working in pastels and specializing in portraits of dogs and horses. I relax by sketching my own dogs but don’t find the time to do many commissioned portraits. I love horses and riding. Sadly our barn is closed, and we found good homes for our three pleasure horses. I enjoy gardening and cooking, especially preparing Mediterranean-based vegetarian meals, incorporating veggies from the garden. I very much enjoy doing all things dog related and mentoring in Borzoi. At Judges Education I will often pull out a pencil and pad to draw what I am explaining, especially head profiles and toplines.

I cannot visualize a life without spending time with my family of dog friends and especially my 
beloved Borzoi. 

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