Friday, April 9, 2010

Dogs: Love, Humor and Outrage--Short Takes for Thursday

This photo illustrates a little anecdote from the shelter Tuesday last.  This is not a photo of the exact dog I fell in love with.  Yet, it conjures the same emotions.  How will I be able to walk away from a sweet-eyed Beagle in a cage?

There was a new arrival in the isolation room, a 2-year-old Beagle named Lady. The isolation room is in the back of the main shelter, in a quiet area of the building away from the raucous activity of the main cages. Instead of cages, they are small well-lit rooms with tile floors and real walls and doors instead of bars and gates.

I quietly opened the door and stuck my head into the room, and I had to look all the way to the side where the bed was against the left wall.  On the bed was the limp body of the little dog sleeping off her anesthesia.  Or at least I thought she was sleeping. Two bleary eyes opend half-way, met my gaze.  Without moving a muscle in her body, her tail thumped up and down, up and down with surprising energy.  I crossed over to her and as gently as possible I put my head on the little point on top of her head, and cradled her face in my hands.  Lady struggled, and soon sat up, sniffing my nose, and licking my face with a dry tongue.

I whispered to her what a good girl she was, and her tail continued its greeting.  To get her to lay down and rest again, I got down on the floor next to her bed, and sure enough, she followed my lead and lay down.  I saw her smooth pink belly with a severe scarlet scar about four inches down its length. A few minutes later, her half-opened eyes closed again, and so I left the room as quietly as I came in. 

I felt a hollowneess in my gut, and a strange familiarity about the scene.  I was missing a creature from my recent past....If Lady doesn't get adopted soon (although I think she will), I don't think I could stand to leave her in a cage.  It was the same impulse that would not allow me to put Maggie in a boarding kennel, ever.

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Roxy, the German short-haired Pointer with the Dalmatian spots, entertained me as I walked her, and she lived up to her breed name.  The second she was outside, she stopped, her stubby tail pointing straight behind her, and she crept forward toward something I could not see yet.  As she crept, what held her attention soon came into view: a couple of ducks, monogomous, sitting in the grass next to the building.  But they quickly moved away, out of sight, and Roxy continued to stare, and point.  Perhaps her deafness, which makes her a difficult dog to adopt, allowed her to focus more intently. 

All at once, it was  the bird-feeder, full of sparrows and doves, which appeared.  The rapid movements of the birds caught Roxy's attention right away, and gave me enough time to capture her in a couple of photographs.

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I just watched a re-broadcast on our Public TV station of a BBC Documentary called Pedigree Dogs Exposed.  I had been aware of health problems associated with generations of inbreeding, but I was never confronted with the extreme cases of deformity and disease associated with this practice. Rather than propagating a species to preserve a particular breed's function, many breeds have been created for sport, and "perfected" to a breed standard that is often uncomfortable, painful, and rife with ailments. 

Depending on the breed standard, characteristics like flatter muzzles, larger heads, longer backs, shorter legs, and deeper skin folds are favored.  The "sleekness" of a German Shepherd's hindquarters is a perversion of the original prototype, and leads to lameness for the sake of breed-standard "perfection".  Inbreeding of Boxers leads to epilepsy occurring ten times more frequently than in humans.  Mother-son, Daughter-father and father-granddaughter breeding is commonplace, and in some cases 90 per cent of the breed's gene pools have been completely bred out of them.  In any other species where this  may occurr, those species would be placed on an endangered list.  In some areas, pugs have been so tightly inbred that the loss of genetic variation means that in essence there are only 50 pugs that can be deemed "uniquely" individual.

A shocking and heartbreaking genetic ailment caused by inbreeding in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels is called syringomyelia, a condition which occurs when a dog’s skull is too small for its brain.  One vet interviewed for the program stated that if one were to beat a dog with a stick to cause the amount of pain that is suffered with this illness, one would be prosecuted.

The outrage, in Britian at least, and perhaps less-known elsewhere, is that many of these dogs with visible or not-so-visible ailments routinely win Best in Show Prizes at events like Krufts.  (After the BBC aired this show in 1998, the Krufts show was not televised for the first time in 40 years.)  Although breeding practices cause serious problems, allergies, skin ailments, and more disturbing maladies, all in the name of sport, show dogs are passing on these genetic defects to scores of litters.

Even healthy puppies who are born without the preferred characteristics have been known to be "culled", or put to sleep.  The "ridge" of backward-growing fur on the Rhodesian Ridgeback has been linked to horrible spinal disease.  However, healthy puppies born without this ridge have been euthanized.

I am beside myself, ashamed even, for continuing to hold romantic and naive notions about dog breeds and the kindness and humaneness of those who breed and seemingly love these animals.  Dogs bred for sport, to win competitions, while the dogs themselves suffer stoically; dogs abandoned and abused and needing the care of a shelter....It motivates me to learn more....become an educated advocate....writing  meaningfully on behalf of these creatures who need us to speak for them.....

That is what I must take away from all of this....  That is a direction, a path, toward a vision of my better self....


  1. You're a good man. I just hate to see the animals in shelters on news stories etc. Breaks my heart and makes me want to adopt another. But I know the shelters are doing great things.

  2. Great article Tom! Of course how could you miss with such awesome photos! I too am ashamed at how we humans treat and exploit such a noble animal as a dog for our own foolish reasons. We've taken something as wonderful as a dog and diminished it to the point of being no more than a fashion accessory. They are fortunate to have found such an advocate in your voice.

  3. Rick, welcome to my pages. And thank you for your exceedingly kind words. I hope you will visit me often.

    Tom, I am happy (and melancholy)to relate that Lady found a home...not with me, I was too late in getting there. We have a quote posted in the shelter that says something like: my caring for one homeless dog won't change the world, but it will change the life of the dog.
    And for me, that's enough. I am glad to join voices like yours, Tom, who also advocate for these creatures.