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