It was a storybook tale guaranteed to go viral.
A nice young couple from a small town in Michigan wants a second child, but as many heartbroken couples can identify, they’re having trouble. They feel their only daughter, who came after years of attempts at in vitro fertilization, needs a sibling to learn the value of companionship, caring, and responsibility. Unable to give her what any child deserves, they settle for a dog instead.
Not just any old dog will do. In the same way the Victorians used pets to teach their young about life, the idea is to take another invention of that era, the refashioned English bulldog, to use as a surrogate sister. Not just any dog, indeed. Remember, this couple has been through hell trying to breed. The choice of bulldog comes after a long history of disappointment and they’re not taking any chances. They want a type they’ve been told is “predictable” and “good with children.” Ranked among the top ten most popular brands today, like “Harper,” their daughter’s equally predictable name, “Lola” the reference to a schmaltzy pop song seems a carefully considered move no less planned than the decision to have a child.
The scheme is a smashing success. In fact this at-home mom kills two birds with one shot. A photographer of sorts, she records the warm and tender relationship developing between daughter and dog duo. A series of formulaic portraits, set against interiors composed entirely of catalog items in the latest color schemes, is as standardized, familiar and socially-acceptable as the name of the child, the brand of her canine companion, and the décor of their home which we can safely assume looks like any other on the block. If they wanted a color-coordinated, compliant breed that would sit still for the camera, they couldn’t have made a finer selection.
Bulldog sits immobile by girl’s side, dressed up like a doll. Bulldog struggles to keep standing with hulky, contorted frame and huge concrete head. Bulldog doesn’t budge in bed while child reads aloud, recalling those Victorian death portraits so popular in their day. Bulldog’s tongue hangs out strangely for effortless pose, weighty wads of excess skin and pink tutu making white dog look as comfy as the pink-and-white catalog comforter she matches. Bulldog stares lifelessly into camera with weird bug eyes from rocking chair where lethargic, half-lame Lola (tongue still out) most certainly did not jump herself. Bulldog gets festooned with canary yellow feathers but doesn’t dance like her namesake. Bulldog, who at Westminster and football games would need to be kept on ice or expire, could keel over at any moment wavering on a hot sand beach. Bulldog can’t swim but hangs like dead weight over side of a bathtub. Bulldog shows brief burst of activity (and a weakness for inbreeding) by humping sister full-frontal.
Kind of creepy? That’s not how most people saw these bedtime stories of beauty and beast, proof that giving an inconvenient truth the right spin allows people to believe what they want to believe. Conspicuously cute to inject the broadest audience possible with those warm and fuzzy cartoon feelings they crave at the end of a hard day, overstuffed with that wide-eyed Margaret Keane kitsch that still haunts my childhood dreams—super-sweetened for consumers who take raspberry syrup in their Starbucks—Mom’s at-home handiwork has earned tens of thousands of “likes” on her Facebook page, today’s new measure of newsworthiness. Headlines like the Today show’s “A girl and her bulldog: Mom’s photos capture ‘sibling’ bonding”—less than a year after that same show crucified the AKC for supporting bad breeding practices, specifically of English bulldogs—heralded a blessed event sure to move anyone but a heartless fiend to OTT tears of joy. “Harp+Zola,” “A Bulldog Is A Girl’s Best Friend,” “A Girl and Her Bulldog Will Teach You About Family”—the same media rallying mobs against leaving pets in parked cars, waging war on dog tattoos, and discouraging children from finding SeaWorld entertaining, was also helping to promote the priciest breed on the market for health care and endorsing a form of animal cruelty far more systematic, widespread, and right in our own backyards. Heartwarming stories on how gosh-darned great those little fellas are continue to give breeders, puppy mills, and the American Kennel Club (which survives on registration fees from both), the sort of advertising money can’t buy with a message loud and clear to anyone with eyes and ears: Bulldogs are the ideal pets to have with children. Buy a bulldog and your child will have the best friend on earth. Buy a bulldog and you can’t go wrong. Buy a bulldog. Buy a bulldog. Buy a bulldog.
Being a different breed of journalist, one with eyes, ears, and a mouth he tries to keep in sync with his heart and mind, I feel compelled to ask: Why does any of this need explaining? Being the most “intelligent” species on the planet, we’re supposed to possess some faculty for seeing beyond cheap tricks advertisers play on our emotions. We pride ourselves on understanding the long-term effects of our actions, predicting them with some certainty, using science and a higher moral ground for the greater good—then passing lessons on to the next generation.
That’s not what’s happening with bulldogs, deliberately designed for freakish deformities fans enjoy but which severely compromise the quality of the dog’s life, typically not long for its size. People don’t want to know the flat mug they absolutely adore, and all the zany cartoon noises like snorting and wheezing, are neither innocent nor innocuous. That wacky tongue hangs out impishly, but truth be told, involuntarily on a breed that lacks room in its gaping mouth we mistake for a smiley-face emoji. The sight and sounds of an animal struggling just to walk and breathe brings smiles to faces of children who don’t know better, and adults who should know better, while the poor wretches soaking up attention enjoy excellent chances of overheating, asphyxiation, and heart attacks under even moderate exertion. Old age is seldom a cause of death for bulldogs. Remember that poor pup who didn’t survive her basic obedience class at Petco?
Setting a good example for children? Bulldogs, it’s true, aren’t like most other breeds. The slightest stress that wouldn’t harm a normal dog can be fatal for one of these very breakable toys. Pneumonia is par for the course, as are dental problems. Those big buggy eyes that melt so many hearts are likely to require surgery shortly after purchase. The same goes for those hanging folds of opulent upholstery that make these ghouls look so goofy. Recipes for skin infection, those deep furrows must be cleaned daily for this breed’s miserable, and often mercifully-short life.
Still thinking of investing money, emotion, and family pride in a bulldog? Understand they’re notoriously prone to ear infections as well. One ear, nose and throat specialist—for humans—I know actually had his dear dog’s ear canals removed, which might sound draconian but deafness is a not uncommon option taken by owners who can afford such luxury. Then there’s the curly little “screw” tail that uncorks a bouquet of warm and fuzzy feelings. This comes standard due to an agonizing defect of the spine. Another selling point: bulldogs rank no. 1 for hip dysplasia, as per studies funded by the same AKC that promotes the breed. These dogs don’t ride skateboards entirely for fun. Extreme inbreeding to maintain extreme, disabling features that nature would never allow also predisposes these tragic heroes to hereditary illness, again, from a young age.
Still think bulldogs are cute? The model of family pet Mom and Dad chose because they were infertile lacks the anatomical and behavioral equipment for mating without force or giving birth without surgery. From the earliest days when these quirky inventions were first conceived—like some “creature of a diseased imagination,” according to one observer—the females have been unable or unwilling to care for their young—perhaps because they sense their mutant babies aren’t fit for survival? Moms must be monitored lest they roll over and smother their pups before we have a chance to smother them with love.
Every time I see yet another article on how gosh-darned great these little fellas are, or a Facebook post testifying to the cuteness of an image I find, to be honest, disturbing, I struggle to resist typing in the comment section: Who’s smarter—you or the dog? A look at the typical coverage of bulldogs by the media largely explains, without excusing, denial about the breed and soaring sales of sick dogs. The internet sensation called The Dodo (“For the love of animals”) posts endless stories on the more obvious, less socially-acceptable forms of animal cruelty—with spotlights on a circus elephant abused in faraway India, or “Cecil” the lion hunted down then savagely beheaded in exotic Zimbabwe—but continues to shy away from more mundane footage of, once again, our own backyards where we’d see our neighbors have paid breeders to keep on breeding animals who pick up the tab for their foolhardiness. Complicity to cruelty on an exponentially larger scale is ignored, or fudged, by the press for fear of offending readers or spoiling those warm and fuzzy feelings so many feel are the only purpose for dogs being on this planet. Instead, we’re served a sugar-coated selection of cabbage-patch Frenchies and pugs, or entire English bulldog families huddled on hot beaches where they’ll easily drop dead from exposure, or drown if allowed to cool off in the water.
The Dodo, when not bombarding us with misleading shots of cursed but irresistible flat-faced, half-lame marvels, is praising a nine-month-old bull pup as she struggles to overcome “a problem that is common in the breed where they’ve got some malformations in their spine,” as we’re told by the vet who narrates the video segment. The poor thing, miraculously, shows signs of perhaps one day beating the hand she’s been dealt against standing on her feet. Having labored since Cesarean birth to move (and breathe), she goes from being unable to walk at all to being barely able to hobble. To Dodo readers, this is cause for celebration. Hooray for Sam! A challenged Paralympic pup on an uphill climb, like The Little Engine That Could! Easy bait for Facebook likes and shares.
The very sources we look to for vital, no-nonsense information on choosing and caring for our companion animals are often the most likely to assume a ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ stance. As I know from personal experience, celebrity vets are notoriously bad at giving us the facts. Almost without exception, they ignore all the important studies, or slant their findings when cornered on live radio, and in any case fail miserably to warn their fans (who might not want to know, by the way) about problems in favorite purebreds. Vetstreet.com—a name that invites us to trust in scientific impartiality—performs some elaborate mental gymnastics to avoid offending readers or shattering illusions. Vetstreet, to be fair, does come out and admit the bulldog is an extremely unhealthy and delicate breed that requires a climate-controlled environment just to survive. “Because of his flat face and heavy build, he is highly sensitive to heat and must always live indoors.” Assuming it’s anything but perverse to breed or buy such an animal, Vetstreet goes on to tell us the same fragile flower that insurance companies rank as the most expensive breed for veterinary care, and that Vetstreet itself gives five out of five stars for magnitude of health issues, is “in general … an easy-care breed.” So long as you keep them inside. Vetstreet completes its full, about-face turn by inviting wary customers back into the guilt-free possibility of buying one of these money pits for their owners, and money-makers for vets. “He’s an endless source of amusement.”
It’s no wonder that bulldogs are so frequently abandoned. And yet despite all the mixed messages the media send about yet another poster child for all we’ve done to dogs in the name of kindness, tradition, or nurturing our young, there have been occasional cases of responsible reporting. There was the BBC’s documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed which opened with some gruesome bulldog surgery, and then the lengthy New York Times article warning consumers away from the breed. While neither of these prevented people from buying bulldogs in record numbers in the years that followed, at least now it can no longer be said there’s an excuse for not knowing what’s so terribly, awfully wrong about buying into this cycle of abuse, encouraging anyone to find these mutants cute, or believing in more than a marginal chance of finding a healthy bulldog that might enjoy a somewhat normal, quality dog’s life.
The bulldog’s many man-made afflictions may be “normal for the breed,” as breeders and veterinarians assure their high-roller customers, but these are most assuredly not normal for a dog, or any species that hopes to survive without repeat surgeries and constant medical care. The simple fact is, there are no “good” or “reputable” breeders of a type whose very breed standard is a recipe for sickness, deformity, and unnatural behavior, and all the DNA testing schemes and AKC honors in the world won’t help the bulldog as it’s currently defined. Anyone who needs a family pet to be unable to run, fetch or swim like any dog deserves to do, just to feel at ease with having it around their kids, probably should be buying stuffed animals instead. In fact a growing number of conscientious vets are sick of taking blood money and demanding the bulldog, and several other severely compromised types like the French bulldog and the pug, be banned in order to protect dogs from consumers.
Unfortunately for those we claim to love and protect, until human behavior catches up with our hearts and minds, it’s monkey see, monkey do. Until our mouths buddy-up with healthy brains, media and social media take note: Each time you play down the facts, you enable some of the world’s most affluent, educated, and imitated simians to feel justified in paying breeders to go on producing animals who suffer obscenely for your ambivalence. So long as you keep posting saccharine pics, and presenting hard data through a soft-focus lens to filter out the inconceivable—so long as you give consumers even a margin of choice for acting irresponsibly—you are contributing to a deliberate, conspicuous form of animal cruelty of industrial proportions.
Here's what they did to the bulldog.
The original type is seen on the right. The modern, deformed version is on the left.
Michael Brandow is the author of A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status Has Harmed Man’s Best Friend (Beacon Press, 2015).