“Back in the day,” I was the art critic for my college newspaper and wrote under a by-line. Because no one knew the face that went with my name, I was able to enjoy an anonymity that allowed me to study unharassed and slip in and out of art galleries without notice. This was important to me because I sometimes reviewed the work of artists who were also my professors. Risky business, that.
On the occasion that I reviewed a particularly disappointing show, I didn’t pull any punches. The paintings lacked clarity and fell short of the artist’s stated goals, a pet peeve of mine in a visual medium. I concluded my article with a flourish (I thought) by opining that the artist’s craftsmanship was shoddy, and that if he insisted on leaving the edges of his canvases unprimed, he would do well to wash his hands before lifting his paintings. It was an unvarnished review that reflected my opinion, and once I submitted it to my editor, I thought nothing more of it.
The next morning, the entire art department was buzzing over the article. Some had agreed with my assessment, others didn’t, but seemingly no one ignored it. Amidst this fuss, I entered the department office to collect a grade and realized that here, too, the staff was talking about the review. All I wanted was to get my grade and leave in a hurry, and when the secretary asked for my name in order to retrieve my grade, I gave it to her before thinking.
A crypt-like silence fell over the office.
I’d “blown my cover” and had instantly made my life more difficult.
Days later, I whined about this to a friend who listened patiently, blinked his eyes, and then said dryly, “What did you think was going to happen after trashing someone you might need?”
The other day, the on-line edition of the UK’s The Telegraph published an article in which The Kennel Club (the British version of the AKC) warned that dogs are being increasingly “marginalized” in British society and treated as a “nuisance” that must be controlled and restricted. The Kennel Club statement went on to lament that dogs are being “ghettoized” as they’re pushed out of neighborhoods and are “no longer accepted as they once were.”
And all I could think after reading the piece was this: “What did the Kennel Club think was going to happen after they responded as they did in the aftermath of the “documentary,” Pedigree Dog Exposed?
For those just tuning in, Pedigree Dogs Exposed was a piece of “shock journalism” that purported to expose the appalling health and welfare of purebred dogs in the United Kingdom. The filmmakers showed videos of selected dogs to underscore their assertion that pedigreed dogs suffered from diseases bred into them by breeders who had little regard for the dog’s soundness or comfort – all to pursue an exaggerated sense of beauty that would win them a ribbon at a dog show.
Four million people watched that highly biased film when it aired on the BBC in 2008, and the public outcry was seismic. Disgust of epic proportions was leveled at purebred dogs in general, their breeders in particular, and the Kennel Club especially. The RSPCA withdrew from Crufts along with various sponsors and trade exhibitors, and the BBC, which had broadcast Crufts for 42 years, withdrew its coverage in 2009 never to renew it again.
Scarcely heard were the voices of the outraged responsible and ethical owners and breeders whose protests over misrepresentation were minimized and attributed to self-interest. Instead of standing by them, the Kennel Club shifted blame to the breed clubs and all but suggested their collusion with inhumane breeding practices. Instead of aggressively responding point by point to the filmmakers’ misleading, if not sweeping generalizations of the dog fancy, the Kennel Club tacitly seemed to agree with them when they chose to review breed standards for every breed, request regulatory powers from the Government that would empower them to take action against breeders who failed to comply with health standards, and by mandating compulsory health checks at Crufts for all Best of Breed winners in fifteen “high profile breeds.”
In light of such a reaction, what was the general public to think but “guilty as charged?”
Some people saw the fingerprints of animal rights activists all over the documentary and the Kennel Club’s response to it. Of that, I have no certain knowledge, but of this I’m pretty sure. The dog fancy is not without flaws, but neither is it as villainous as the documentary painted. Sadly, viewers were never treated to a rebuttal with any teeth.
In over 100 years of selective breeding, most ethical and caring breeders have done the best they could with what they had in the days before the canine genome was mapped. Wouldn’t it have been a more positive tact for the Kennel Club to use The Telegraph article to show how far we’ve come, and that in 2013, breeding and science are merging as advances are made in identifying genetic markers? Corrections don’t happen overnight, but we are heading in a positive direction, and faster than once would have been thought possible.
Instead, the Kennel Club voices its vexation over dogs being marginalized in their county. If the Kennel Club is now distressed by the current climate facing dog ownership, I can’t help but think that they were complicit, if not unwitting accomplices, in bringing it about. Did the club think that by appearing to be sensitive to the documentary’s charges, they would continue to “feel the love” of a country that had always loved its dogs? Had it never occurred to them that by acting as if monsters existed, they were creating a real one, instead?
What did they think was going to happen when they failed to go to bat for the responsible owners and breeders in their country with passion? What did they think was going to happen when the mud that was slung at purebreds would trickle down and eventually stick to all dogs? Was there not one person who realized that while you can’t please all the people all the time, you can never please any of them enough if they have an animal rights agenda?
If dogs are being marginalized, I would want my kennel club to go on the offensive with a media blitz of stories, videos and photographs featuring the dog/human bond. I’d want them to take back my sport and my reputation.
Purebred dog fanciers have the best PR in the world at their side – their dogs, but there is strength in numbers united under a common banner. Sadly, the Kennel Club lost the battle for its responsible constituents and may well have lost the war. We in this country, however, still have our dukes up and more and more of us are catching on.
What do we think will happen when children meet our friendly dog who’s only too happy to plant a kiss on their nose? What do we think will happen when our dog reminds someone of a terrific dog they knew as a kid? What do we think will happen if we get engaged, become proactive, “get in the game” and never give up?
**Update: In a vigorous debate over this issue, my opponent called me a “sock puppet.” I’m rather fond of sock puppets and proudly display one at the top.