How far are we willing to go to get our needs for affection and self esteem met? Farther than you would ever have guessed—gruesomely far! We are willing to breed dogs, or at least one breed, so that the dog’s face resembles ours (that is to say cute and pleasing to potential female owners) or so that the dog has masculine traits, that is to say tough, muscular, aggressive, fearless and often arrogant (pleasing to potential male owners). I know, o’ ye of little faith, you want proof of my outrageous claims. Behold!
We want dogs to look like us, or at least some of us want some dogs to look like us. Meet Sandra Sawchuk, the chief of primary-care services at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, speaking about the English bulldog, “They have goofy and loveable personalities that are incredibly endearing,” she said. But she took it a step further, arguing that the breed brings out a particularly strong parenting instinct in many people. “Even as adults, bulldogs look almost infantile—like plump little babies …”
Therefore, some pet owners can be said to project their need for giving and receiving affection onto their pets in part because of the pet’s appearance. Now meet James Serpell, the director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. Serpell says that our human tendency toward anthropomorphic selection—which he defines as “selection in favor of physical and behavioral traits that facilitate the attribution of human mental states to animals”—is partly responsible for the modern bulldog’s predicament. He argues that we’ve bred dogs like the bulldog (and other short-faced “brachycephalic” breeds, including the pug and the French bulldog) to play up the cute effect. Cute is pleasing to female owners. What about male owners?
In 1922, the Marine Corps selected the bulldog as its mascot as did a number of universities such as Georgia, Yale, and Georgetown which still have live bulldog mascots. Male owners and fans of the bulldog speak of it as strong and heroic despite the fact that they have trouble moving and breathing. The fans of the bulldog also are projecting onto the bulldog qualities that they want to believe they have. This helps them with the need of their false-self sensation center to feel good about its machismo identity.
None other than Charles Darwin directed a criticism of late 19th century dog-breeding. In his book entitled The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication Darwin wrote “Some of the peculiarities characteristic of the several breeds of the dog have probably arisen suddenly, and though strictly inherited, may be called monstrosities; for instance, the shape of the head and the under-hanging jaw in the bulldog…”
The catastrophe referred to in our essay title will illustrate that bulldog owners are more concerned about the titillation (a sensation which is also an afflictive emotion) that they feel when projecting on their pets than they do about the pet itself. True compassion for their pets is all but absent in the owners of English bulldogs whose main focus is, to say the least, ego-centric and callous. A surgical specialist, Nick Trout, treated a bulldog that was having trouble breathing. “The owner didn’t seem to realize that his dog’s heavy, labored breathing and snoring was a sign that something was seriously wrong” and that complicating the bulldog’s breathing-related problems is the “state of denial” of some bulldog owners.
Unconscious or unintentional cruelty is cruelty nevertheless. At the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, Dr. William Rosenblad remarked while looking at a picture of a bulldog skull “We’ve shortened the face of the breed so much,” he explained, “that there’s just enough space for everything to fit. The tongue, the palate, it’s all compressed. The teeth often look like they’ve been thrown in there. They have little tiny nostrils. The end result of all the compression is that many bulldogs can barely breathe.”
To further prove the point that the bulldog owners are often more concerned with the role that their pet fulfills in their own identity self-gratification than the welfare of the pet they supposedly love, we turn to Wayne Pacelle, C.E.O. of the Humane Society. “Breeding certainly has a place in the world of dogs, but this mania about achieving what’s considered a ‘perfect’ or desirable outward appearance rather than focusing on the physical soundness of the animal is one of the biggest dog-welfare problems in this country.”
Laurette Richin of the Long Island Bulldog Rescue opened the doors of her rescue operation in 1999. That year, 13 bulldogs needed homes. Last year (2010) it was 218. “This breed is so popular right now, and people fall in love with the dog’s face and buy it on impulse without doing their homework,” she said. “Then when the dog ends up being too ‘needy” or too expensive, people give them up.”
“Dump them” might be a more accurate description of the actions of the bulldog owners who find that a dog cannot fill the emptiness within their own identity that they alone are responsible for—an emptiness that they alone can fill.
References and notes are available for this essay.
For a much more in-depth discussion on Simple Reality, read Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival, by Roy Charles Henry, published in 2011.