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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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.