Rivals for the love of dogs
Every Valentine’s Day weekend, purebred dog fanciers converge on Denver’s National Western Complex for five full days of dog shows. If you’ve never been, take advantage of the good weather and dry roads, and go.
Exhibitors compete for championship points, “legs” toward obedience titles and other certifications in sports or working tests. There are demonstrations of things like Canine Freestyle — elaborately choreographed human/canine dance routines. Vendors of every imaginable dog product hawk their wares. It’s five days of celebrating much that contemporary dogs and their people do together, and a window into a lifestyle that revolves around the human/canine bond.
As you drive down to the show, look for a billboard near the complex with a message from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), proclaiming in giant letters: “AKC Breeders Kill Shelter Dogs’ Chances.” PETA is known for its uncompromising animal rights stance and provocative advocacy tactics, insisting that if breeders really loved dogs, they wouldn’t deliberately breed more when so many are unwanted.
The love object at the apex of this triangle is the dog, with PETA and the dog fancy contending, not so much for dogs’ affections, (dogs love us regardless of our opinions) but over who can claim to be dogs’ legitimate lovers. These groups are often bitter rivals, seeing each other as unworthy and contemptible. PETA representatives spoke on KOA radio before the start of the Denver show, lambasting the breeders as heartless hypocrites. A national animal interest group responded by launching a petition to the billboard company demanding the PETA sign be taken down, calling it “hateful” and “obscene.”
In my 50-plus years of professional involvement with companion animals, I have been deeply embedded, at different times, in both camps. In truth, I see much more common ground between them than many of the partisans evidently do. They are driven to snarl at each other, I think, by defensiveness (the breeders) and despair (the animal rights advocates) that lock them into knee-jerk enmity instead of what could be thoughtful and productive engagement.
The AKC contingent insists that their puppies don’t kill shelter dogs’ chances, because the people who want their puppies seek the predictability that purebreds promise. True. But, individual puppies are not uniform, like manufactured goods. That consistency is largely an illusion — but a potent one.
Breeds fluctuate in popularity due to myths about them that inflate demand but don’t confer on purchasers the qualities needed to live with the actual dogs. These market forces create and sustain the commercial dog industry, which, whether operating from squalid or state-of-the-art puppy mills, still operates as an industry. Breeding stock are raw materials, puppies are products, and the purpose is profit. The relationship of the fancy to overpopulation is not simple and direct, but it exists.
Animal rights philosophy believes it is wrong to own other beings, treating them like things. But most of the energy channeled into PETA-style protests arises from not ideology but outraged love, frustration and despair. We humans have only stopped recognizing legal ownership of other humans in the last century or so, and we are still struggling over how to reconcile “inalienable human rights” with institutions, like marriage and parenthood, that retain social and sometimes legal power to dominate. We struggle because this isn’t easy; because emotionally, intellectually and economically, love is inextricably intertwined with how these issues are lived. Like all matters of the heart, it’s messy.
No one of us made this world, nor could any of us remake it perfectly. Yet each of us, with every word and deed, builds the world that will succeed it.
I’m convinced that we can — and must — learn to recognize the positive motivations in others, especially those we tend to dislike and distrust. But just as important, and much harder, we have to engage with those who criticize us, especially when they do so on moral grounds, using our own principles. Heinrich Blucher’s aphorism, “Optimists are fools, but pessimists are cowards” is both the most salient warning and encouraging prod for those who would face up to any of the conundrums of our times with hope.
I want hobby breeders to think more deeply about their practices and how they might mitigate the unintended consequences. This would entail being more critical of their own institutions, like the AKC, and aware of their own defensiveness when it rears up.
I want to see the animal rights movement step away from its absolutism and learn to see joy and love, in their everyday imperfect form, as seeds of moral progress, and apply their creativity and dedication to cultivating them.
I can even imagine these rival camps joining forces and recognizing that it is the commercial breeding “industry” that is an illegitimate application of capitalism to an area of life where it is simply not appropriate, and working out ways to advance the human/companion animal bond for the good of all.
Luckily, there is an example close to home. The Roaring Fork Kennel Club, which puts on an annual dog show and other events for the fancy, has its membership nearly equally split between those with mixed breed and formerly homeless dogs and purebreds. A few members breed, but all are involved in varied rescue efforts. Some of us are also PETA members, and don’t see anything contradictory about that. Liking and respecting each other, members share fun with their dogs, and when warranted, call each other on our partisan blind spots.
Can love for dogs bring the warring rivals together? I surely hope so.
Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.
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