When actor and supermodel Brigitte Bardot was asked why she never got a facelift, she is said to have replied that her dogs didn’t care what her face looked like.
Dogs don’t move out if your hair starts thinning or snarl at you if your ears protrude. Unlike human beings, they don’t judge us by our looks; they love us for who we are.
Some humans don’t afford dogs the same courtesy. This month at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, more than 3,000 dogs will be paraded around New York’s Madison Square Garden so that judges can scrutinize every inch of their bodies – from their inbred, squashed-in noses and surgically sculpted ears to their coiffured coats and stubby, amputated tails. The judges will look for “faults” much like internet trolls look for flaws in a celebrity’s injected lips.
Dogs deserve better than this outdated beauty pageant, which is why we should refuse to watch it.
It’s all about the owners and their egos, not the dogs, which are reduced to being living mannequins, to being tweaked and primped into something that they aren’t. They are often denied a normal life, lest they step out of their crates and get dirty.
And to increase the odds of producing a winning dog, breeders bow to the “breed standards” of the American Kennel Club, which values arbitrary physical traits over health and well-being. Breeders are like rats following the Pied Piper – except it’s the dogs who end up in the river.
This is why dachshunds have such long spines and short legs that makes them so susceptible to excruciatingly painful disc disease. It’s also why many Great Danes, bred for long necks and large heads, often develop “wobbler syndrome” – including a wobbly gait, pain and sometimes paralysis as a result of compression of the spinal cord in the neck area.
Cavalier King Charles spaniels that suffer from syringomyelia scream in agony because their brains are too large for their unnaturally flattened skulls. One veterinary neurologist, interviewed for the BBC documentary “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” described the brains of dogs with this condition as being “like a size 10 foot that’s been shoved into a size 6 shoe.”
English bulldogs, bred to have flat faces and unnaturally short airways, labor to fetch a ball, walk or even breathe. There’s a name for this problem – brachycephalic airway syndrome. Pugs, Boston terriers, French bulldogs and Pekingese (the breed of the 2012 Best in Show winner) suffer from it, too.
To ensure that these favored traits remain in a dog’s bloodline, breeders have arranged canine incest, forcing mothers to mate with sons and daughters with fathers. The consequences have been dire: Inbreeding increases the likelihood that recessive genes will be passed down to puppies, resulting in a host of serious congenital defects including epilepsy, hypothyroidism and elbow dysplasia, a disease that can cause lameness and arthritis.
The AKC freely admits that one of the main purposes of televised shows such as Westminster is to drive up business for breeders, and they often succeed in getting people to buy the same breeds in the show on impulse. But buyers soon discover that dogs are not props – they shed, make messes and require time, patience, walks, medical care, love and attention.
They also learn that animals are expensive to care for properly: According to a 2015 survey by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, more than 25 percent of respondents who gave up animal companions for a reason related to the animal said they could not afford veterinary care.
When the “puppy love” phase wears off, many who bought purebreds on impulse end up leaving them at an animal shelter. As long as breeders churn out litter after litter of puppies – many of whom will go on to have litters of their own – and dog shows such as Westminster guarantee that more dogs will be dropped off at shelters, the odds that homeless pups will be adopted remain low.
Beauty is subjective, but Westminster is undeniably an ugly business for dogs. Instead of celebrating these complex, intelligent, loving beings for what they are, it devalues them, treating them as if their comfort, happiness and very lives were less important than a trophy or a ribbon.
By turning off Westminster, we can send the message that dogs should not have to suffer for human vanity. If you’re ready to welcome a dog into your life, adopt from a shelter instead of buying from a breeder or pet store, and then have the lucky pup spayed or neutered to help end animal homelessness.
Ingrid Newkirk is president and co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. This was written for The Washington Post.