Crufts: Making dogs suffer for "beauty"

Competitions like Crufts encourage breeders to manipulate dogs' bodies as if they were modelling clay. Even dogs who will never set foot in a show ring suffer because of it.

 

Dogs love us regardless of how we look. They don't care if we have big feet, frizzy hair or an oddly-shaped nose. Whether we're dressed to the nines or we've just rolled out of bed, dogs are always happy to see us. Shamefully, humans have failed to extend the same kindness to them.

We've imposed arbitrary notions of "beauty" on dogs without regard for their health or happiness, and they are suffering for it. For a prime example of this trend, look no further than the canines who will be dragged along to Crufts, the country's largest doggie "beauty" pageant. Beneath the perfectly coiffed exterior of many of these dogs lies a slew of painful and deadly health problems caused by generations of breeding and inbreeding to achieve a certain "look".

The Kennel Club's "breed standards" encourage breeders to manipulate dogs' bodies as if they were modelling clay. Dachshunds are specifically bred to have long, "stretched-out" spines, which often cause them to suffer from disc disease or other back problems. Cavalier King Charles spaniels – the breed favoured by former US President Ronald Reagan – are bred to have skulls that are nearly flat on top, and more than a third of these dogs suffer from an agonising condition called syringomyelia, which occurs when their skulls are too small for their brains. Afflicted dogs often scream in agony, scratch themselves raw and become progressively weaker until they can barely walk. Some become paralysed. The "pushed-in" faces of English bulldogs and pugs make it so difficult for them to breathe that many can't even enjoy the activities that dogs love, such as chasing a ball or going for walks, without struggling for air.

Breeders also force closely related dogs to mate in the hope of passing down certain physical features that are favoured by show judges. This practice is so common that all 10,000 pugs living in Britain are descended from just 50 dogs. The lack of genetic diversity caused by inbreeding greatly increases the likelihood that recessive genes, which cause debilitating afflictions, will be passed along to puppies. As a result, roughly one in four purebred dogs suffers from serious congenital defects, such as hypothyroidism, epilepsy, cataracts, allergies, heart disease and hip dysplasia – a disease that can lead to crippling, lameness and painful arthritis.

Each of the 50 most common dog breeds is at risk for some genetic defect which can cause suffering, according to a study published in The Veterinary Journal . Labrador retrievers are predisposed to bone disease, haemophilia and retinal degeneration, and nearly 60 per cent of golden retrievers suffer from hip dysplasia. These dogs pay with their health – and sometimes their lives – because of the cosmetic standards promoted by The Kennel Club and Crufts.

Offering further proof that it is interested only in dogs' outward appearances, Crufts has decided this year to allow dogs in its show to be doused with "performance-enhancing" products such as hairspray and white chalk to erase "stains" on white fur. The excessive bathing, brushing, snipping and fluffing that dogs must patiently endure before entering the ring at Crufts is already an arduous and sometimes uncomfortable process. Spraying chemicals on dogs' fur could put their health at risk or cause an allergic reaction. At the very least, being forced to inhale the odour of hairspray is a terrible offense to their sensitive noses.

Even dogs who will never set foot in a show ring suffer because of Crufts and the breeding industry that it props up. Every new puppy born to a breeder means one home fewer for a dog waiting in an animal shelter. By driving up the demand for pedigree dogs and encouraging breeders to bring more dogs into existence when there aren't enough homes for those who are already here, Crufts sentences homeless dogs to euthanasia or life behind bars.

Dogs are smart, complex animals – not bonsai trees to be contorted into shapes that please us. Instead of tinkering with their genetics and entering them in silly pageants, we should let dogs be dogs and respect and appreciate them regardless of their outward appearance – just as they do for us.

 

A pug at Crufts in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Mimi Bekhechi began working for PETA in 2007. As PETA UK's Associate Director, Bekhechi is responsible for overseeing PETA UK's campaigns and marketing as well as its education and media departments.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.