I danced and partied with the oldest dog in history for his 31st birthday
Every year in mid-May, tens of thousands of people travel to the town of Fátima in central Portugal to mark the anniversary of three shepherd children seeing a stunningly bright vision of the Virgin Mary holding a rosary in 1917.
I was watching the enormous crowd live on a restaurant TV around 30 miles away last Saturday, as I ate a quatro queijo pizza with a glass of fresh orange juice. Many of the pilgrims were waving candles, and some were weeping.
I was in the country on my own pilgrimage of sorts, having travelled to witness a miracle of a very different kind – but one almost as extraordinary.
Two days before, a local dog named Bobi had become the first canine in history to certifiably reach the age of 31. His owner, Leonel Costa, had arranged for his birthday party to take place the following weekend, which would allow more friends, locals, journalists and international veterinarians to attend.
In the 48 hours since news of his birthday was published in outlets around the world, Bobi had become a bit of a star.
His orange-brown figure, unrecognisable as any specific breed, appeared in countless articles and social media posts. Descriptions of the upcoming party were spreading widely too. And there I was, in the Portuguese pizza restaurant, the only overseas reporter with an actual invitation.
To add to the sense of a pilgrimage, my friend Chris and I had decided to forgo a taxi and walk the 90 minutes between our hotel in Monte Real and the dog’s home in the village of Conquieros. The sky was clear. We were very warm. It was mostly uphill. A bottle of red wine fell out my rucksack and smashed on the road.
When we arrived at last, in a fairly abysmal state, it took some time to work out how to get through to the courtyard which we could already see was covered in orange streamers. But as soon as we entered Leonel’s house – there he was.
Bobi was lying on the floor by the entrance, wearing a little party hat reading ’31 Bobi’. I gave him a scratch.
I find it hard to describe just how bizarre it is to see this dog, and know he’s 31. Over the course of the evening, he was very sociable. He would walk around the courtyard with a slight limp, getting fed slices of spit-roasted pork and playing with Ava Gardner, the three-year-old dog of a visiting Portuguese journalist. It was like being introduced to your friend’s elderly aunt, thinking she’s quite sprightly for 80 years old, and then discovering she’s actually the same age as Isaac Newton.
At one end of the yard, there was a blanket hanging on a wall with Bobi’s two Guinness World Record certificates (one for the oldest dog alive, another for the oldest dog in history) and a collection of balloons in front of it. There were also a couple of small models of Bobi that were presumably gifted to Leonel. I’d just brought him a tartan blanket.
Around three dozen people were milling about when we arrived, and we naturally gravitated towards the other English-speakers we could hear. Arleen and Alison were a mother and daughter originally from New Jersey, but the former is now in Florida and the latter in California.
As far as I could tell, Alison had visited Bobi on a trip to Portugal earlier in the year and been invited back for the birthday by Leonel. Like me, she had found it a difficult offer to decline. The group of us mostly stayed together through the day, enjoying the on-tap Sagres beers and a selection of the dog’s favourite meals: divine pork sandwiches and sardines with rye bread.
We also met a vet called Dr Karen Shaw Becker. You may have heard of her – after returning from the party, I found out she has more than 2.2 million followers on Facebook.
With Rodney Habib, another popular animal health influencer who was also at the event, she had written a bestselling book titled The Forever Dog about long-lived pets and the reasons for their longevity. The pair of them had travelled across the planet visiting very old dogs. Of course, the birthday boy was the ultimate test case. A significant portion of the party was spent listening to them delve into the science of Bobi.
This wasn’t their first time visiting him. On their previous trip, Dr Karen had swabbed some of his DNA and sent it off to be fed into a supercomputer at a lab in Hungary.
The scientists there are hoping to find examples of the Methuselah genome – named after the biblical figure who died at the age of 969 – which significantly lengthens the lives of dogs and other animals, including humans. Both authors were particularly excited about the length of Bobi’s telomeres, sections of DNA with a strong relationship to aging. What they learn could be used to increase the lifespans of all kinds of species.
But the dog’s ability to grow old gracefully isn’t just down to a genetic predisposition. Rodney told me Bobi’s gut microbiome is ten times more diverse than that of the average North American pet, thanks to his freedom over the past three decades to roam around Conquieros as much as he likes and to eat a diet of whatever his owners are eating.
However, some mysteries remain. Barrel-shaped Bobi is overweight, and he’s also larger than the breeds that typically hold the title of world’s oldest dog. (Most places describe him as a Rafeiro do Alentejo, but Rodney says he’s actually a mongrel, which would make sense as he doesn’t look much like the other examples of that breed to be found online.) Both of those facts should count against him when it comes to growing old.
And yet, there he was, lolloping around just outside the marquee where we were chatting. As the attendance at the party grew to more than 100, it became difficult to shake the idea that the unknown ingredient could simply be an owner who is willing to throw an event of this scale for his dog’s special day.
I managed to catch Leonel for a few minutes in the midst of the scene, as he busily tried to speak to all the guests he’d invited from Portugal and beyond. He’d already done two television interviews and seemed happily overwhelmed.
‘I’m 38 now, and I was seven when I first got Bobi,’ he told me. ‘He was like my brother, now he’s like my son.’
Towards the end of the day, the many people who had been milling around in Portuguese traditional dress made their way out to the road. It transpired that they were a local group of musicians and dancers, who were off to get their instruments before returning and putting on a show.
The profound joy in the courtyard only increased further when Leonel fetched Bobi from inside the house to join in with one of the dances.
The women and men took turns singing their folk tunes, while the accordion chirped along and the others held hands and hopped around in a circle, with the rest of us clapping our encouragement. Leonel, a dancer himself, moved along with the troupe for a while. And in the centre of it all, the oldest dog in history watched the legs going past him again and again, looking as if he would be happy for it to go on forever.
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