How Much Was That Doggy in the White House?

So it’s done. The Obama family, ignoring pleas to save a dog from a shelter, chose a commercially bred Portuguese water dog, just six months old.

No doubt Bo will become a beloved part of White House life and lore. But as dogs are churned out by breeders, others face death for lack of shelter space. And Bo’s highly public story gratified human desires rather than the needs of dogs. Ten-year-old Malia Obama suffers from allergies, and the curly hair of Portuguese water dogs tends not to shed. But with just a little patience, the Obamas could have found a dog — one who wouldn’t exacerbate allergies — in one of the country’s many struggling shelters. In any case, why benefit a breeder for such a reason?

All the buzz about “Bo the Obamadog” adds up to good news for those who make a profit from treating animals as commodities throughout the world. David Frei of the Westminster Kennel Dog Show said: ‘I’m not surprised by the intense interest in the First Family’s pet. It’s something everyone can relate to.” The media also reported that Ted Kennedy bought three Portuguese water dogs from Bo’s breeder, and convinced the Obamas that such a puppy would be perfect for the White House. Just the kind of discourse that keeps breeders in business.

Meanwhile, people are working to change things in their communities. South Lake Tahoe, Nevada has just approved a ban on retailers of cats and dogs. According to Dawn Armstrong of the Lake Tahoe Humane Society & SPCA, the ordinance “may be the beginning of the end of the puppy mill industry.” It is at least a start. If it holds up to lawsuits, the ordinance will close a shop called Broc’s Puppies. Home-based breeders will escape the ban’s provisions, and be allowed to keep selling animals directly to buyers. Pressure should be exerted against these breeders as well; but the Obamas are making that argument a lot harder, by making pet-breeding look acceptable.

On the 14th of April, a cartoon ran in the Washington Post, created by Ann Telnaes, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose cartoons have been exhibited at the Library of Congress. It’s the image of a machinist holding a newspaper with the headline “Obama Puppy Debut.” With the other hand, the machinist starts up a crank attached to a mill that’s emitting dollar signs from its smokestack, and churning out assembly-line replicas of little Bo.

The head of the Humane Society of the United States used classic politic-speak to frame the puppy debut. Because Bo was bred for sale yet returned by the first owner, Bo is a “quasi-rescue dog,” said Wayne Pacelle.1 “There are reputable breeders of these dogs,” said Pacelle, whose group’s website says: “Thanks, Mr. President, for giving a second-chance dog a forever home.”2

But Bo’s breeder, Martha Stern of Boyd, Texas, doesn’t consider Bo a rescued dog. All buyers sign contracts requiring them to return the dogs if they’re deemed unsuitable, Stern said. Hardly a rescue, this is just the standard course of business for breeders.

Quasi-advocacy shouldn’t be the last word on this. The Obamas and the general public need to learn more about breeding businesses, and have serious conversations about making living, feeling beings into commodities.

Breeder Talk

In Pennsylvania, Craig Rader owns a business called 21st Century Media. Rader also owns Watson, a Portuguese water dog — Bo’s father. Several times a year, Watson is used as a stud by breeder Julie Parker. That’s how Bo was conceived, and a dog named Penny (owned by Martha Stern) gave birth to Bo.

Here’s how Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette tells the story:

“She was a real nice little bitch, very sweet,” said Parker, describing Penny. “We had no trouble.”

Ms. Parker already gets far more requests to breed Watson than she is able to accommodate, she said . . .

“He’s got a lot of the qualities that make the breed identifiable — a nice broad head, a lot of bone to him, a beautiful coat,” said Ms. Parker, who charges about $1,900 for Watson’s stud fee. “He brings a lot of things to the table for what you want to see in the next generation.”

Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy chose another product of the same Watson-Penny union for his new puppy, Cappy . . . At the suggestion of the Kennedy family, Bo was offered to the Obamas, who secretly met him earlier this year.

Most Researched Breed

Portuguese water dogs are members of “the most genetically studied breed in the world,” observes the Los Angeles Times. They are considered an easy sample to trace; all water dogs registered by the American Kennel Club derive from a small group, largely from two kennels, that came to the United States in the early 1950s.3 The breed’s notable size variation has led cancer researchers to use water dogs to look for genes affecting growth regulation.

Susan Becker, president of the Chicago-area Portuguese Water Dog Club, told the L.A. Times that intense genetic screening is part of the “philosophy of the breed”; so at dog shows blood is drawn from the dogs, and after death their bodies are often preserved for lab research.

When a Portuguese water dog belonging to soybean geneticist Gordon Lark died in the late 1990s, Lark longed for another water dog. Breeder Karen Miller sent the scientist a free puppy. There was one condition: Addison’s disease is relatively common in water dogs, and Miller wanted Lark to use the skills gained in plant research and apply them to Addison’s disease research, using the new puppy as a starting point. Knowing how heredity contributes to appearance, temperament and health would be useful for the dog-breeding business.

The project was undertaken by Gordon Lark and Kevin Chase at the University of Utah, and is now considered part of research that could benefit humans as well as dog breeders; President J.F. Kennedy suffered from Addison’s. Dog genome researcher Elaine A. Ostrander also points out the ways in which the studies can ensure we have dogs who race better, or even have a coat we might like:

It is certainly hoped that the disease-gene mapping will lead to the production of genetic tests and more thoughtful breeding programs associated with healthier, more long-lived dogs. It will be easier to select for particular physical traits such as body size or coat color, not only because we understand the underlying genetic pathways, but because genetic tests are likely to be made available as quickly as results are published . . .4

Scientists who study dog genetics have explained how the humans’ role in “unnatural selection” transformed wolves into toy dogs, and now predict DNA screens that will result in pets with virtually any desired trait an owner could want, as the New York Times has reported, including dogs who’ll “cock their heads endearingly” when they look at us. This sets the stage for intensified manipulations of human as well as non-human beings. “Free of most of the ethical concerns and practical difficulties associated with the practice of eugenics in humans,” the Times article states, “dog breeders are seizing on new genetic research to exert dominion over the canine gene pool.” Yet when a Doberman breeder can screen for von Willibrand disease, a bleeding condition that also affects humans, what are the ramifications for disability activists, many of whom understand the diversity of our genetic variations as ensuring strength and adaptability, activists who have worked to increase acceptance and accessibility rather than medical dominion over human genes?

Portuguese water dog breeder Karen Miller doesn’t yet know if the Obamas will donate samples from Bo to the genetic research cause, and plans to send Michelle Obama a T-shirt. But the questions for the Obamas are far more profound. The debate about “Bo the Obamadog” could, if it reaches its real potential, lead us to question the human fascination with manipulation, control, and dominance over all living beings.

  1. Sharon Theimer, “Promises, Promises: Is Obama dog a rescue or not?,” AP, 13 Apr. 2009. []
  2. See Amelia Glynn’s “Tails of the City” blog entry “Obama Skirts First-Dog Adoption Issue,” 12 Apr. 2009, at SFGate.com. Glynn says perhaps Pacelle’s remarks are “not surprising” given that the Obamas will donate to the HSUS — but refers to a piece in the Chicago Sun-Times which says the donation went to “a humane society.” So the media weren’t exactly crystal clear on who gets the donation, leaving concerned readers to speculate. []
  3. See Elaine A. Ostrander, “Genetics and the Shape of Dogs,” American Scientist, Sep.-Oct. 2007. []
  4. Ibid. []

Lee Hall is legal director for Friends of Animals, an animal-rights advocacy group founded in New York in 1957. Lee can be reached at: leehall@friendsofanimals.org. Follow Lee on Twitter: www.twitter.com/VeganMeans. Read other articles by Lee, or visit Lee's website.

15 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Synic3 said on April 20th, 2009 at 7:32pm #

    Mr. Hall,

    I am not a fan of Obama who is a repeat Bush, however every person
    has the right to pick the pet he prefers. Pets are important part of
    life and selecting a pet reflects many factors and preferences.

  2. chloe said on April 20th, 2009 at 11:50pm #

    Ms. Hall is correct that the Obamas’ decision sucks. “Selecting a pet” isn’t like selecting what flavor of ice cream you prefer; the repercussions of buying a dog from a breeder are profound and affect far more than just the person who’s getting the dog — especially in a high-profile situation like the one involving the Obamas. For that reason, anyone with any shred of social responsibilty would realize the Obamas’ dog situation was not not simply a matter of personal choice or a “right.” In this case, it’s a terrible wrong that the Obamas just perpetrated against our canine companions.

  3. Dave Lajeunesse said on April 21st, 2009 at 7:02am #

    This is surely an Obamanation. The spin about this being a rescue dog is misleading at best.
    Anything done supporting animal domination needs to be criticised by all concerned citizens. Most of our choices come from learned behavior and ignorance about animal rights. Engaging and educating the public is necessary in order to have any kind of lasting change for the good of the animals. The presidents selection offers a high profile piggyback opportunity to help get the word out about animal rights. Articulate composers like Lee Hall creat awareness in all of us.
    Thanks Lee.

  4. Ellie Maldonado said on April 21st, 2009 at 7:45am #

    What gives us the “right” to manipulate, control, and dominate living beings, whether human or nonhuman — in this case to make dogs marketable products that come in different shapes, sizes, colors, and length of hair? It behooves us to move beyond the notion that “might makes right”, which is really no right at all.

  5. Maryanne Appel said on April 21st, 2009 at 8:06am #

    It is regrettable that the Obamas have chosen to teach their children that dogs – and by extension, other animals – are simply commodities to please the immature sensibilities that so many of us refuse to relinquish, long into our adult years. Sadly, the lesson that was ignored here is that there is no need for anyone to have a pet, and that instead of breeding dogs and other animals, we should leave them alone to live their lives free of human domination and interference.

    If we took the time, and cared enough, to “listen” to what members of other species were saying, I believe we would hear a loud chorus of voices demanding that we just leave them be! Instead of acting in ways that satisfy our own desire to manipulate, dominate, and control, all we have to do is care enough to comprehend the needs and pleasures of other beings. Words aren’t necessary, understanding is.

    Of course, it goes without saying that homeless dogs, cats, and other animals in shelters or abandoned on our streets need lifelong care, and it is our obligation to provide that to them.

  6. Sophie said on April 21st, 2009 at 2:30pm #

    Obama’s aside, people who suggest that all pedigree dog breeding should be banned are clearly very ignorant of the relationship that exists between dogs and humans. Not all dogs are fashion accessories, many still do vital jobs in healthy collaboration with their owners, such as sheep dogs, cattle dogs, terriers, sporting dogs, rescue dogs etc. Some mutts may also be able to perform these tasks, but in many cases it is unlikely. And anyway if dog breeding were to cease what would be the outcome – dogs in zoo’s, dogs wild in national parks ? or extinction?

  7. lichen said on April 21st, 2009 at 9:01pm #

    Yes, it is very insulting that people insist on elite breeds of dogs with certain set traits and appearances, completely ignoring that each animal has an individual, unique personality regardless of hair type etc, and the nicest one might be one you rescue from a shelter. Furthermore, it shouldn’t be assumed that it is right to make dogs slaves who constantly work when you have no method of compensating them.

  8. Ellie Maldonado said on April 21st, 2009 at 9:28pm #

    Why do we expect dogs to perform tasks for us?

  9. Jeff Perz said on April 21st, 2009 at 10:50pm #

    Thank you, Lee, for this excellent article.

    It reminds me of something you noted previously:

    95% of domesticated dogs come from just three original founding females. Intensive breeding by humans over the last 500 years – not different genetic origins – is responsible for the dramatic differences in appearance among modern dogs. This conclusion was drawn by three teams of genetic researchers who published their findings in the journal _Science_.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2498669.stm

    You observed how this dispels the myth of ‘voluntary’ domestication by the campfire.

  10. Dave Lajeunesse said on April 22nd, 2009 at 9:28am #

    Sophie,
    Surely you jest. Healthy collaboration with their owners. What gives us the right to own any living thing?
    How can a cattle, sheep, hunting dog utilization be anything but abuse? Abuse of the dogs as well as the cattle, sheep, or birds suffering such harassment. These animals are nothing but slaves made to perform to meet our goals or standards.
    I believe, what ever the outcome dogs and all living things should be left to their own accord. Human animals should be nurturers not dominators. Domestication was not a choice made by the dominated.

  11. Brandy Baker said on April 26th, 2009 at 10:27pm #

    Good work, Lee.
    Instead of giving a pet that faces euthanasia (solely because of our throw away consumerist culture) a second chance, the Obamas followed the path of their elite friends and got a boutique pet.

    Dog breeding should be outlawed as long as we have such an overpopulation of pets.

  12. Wayne said on October 23rd, 2009 at 9:44am #

    Preserving a breed and its characteristics is, in my opinion a very good thing. PWD’s were nearly extinct and someone went to great lengths to bring them back. What can be wrong with that. Furthermore, what is more shameful is people who allow there unspayed dogs to have litters that will more likely wind up in shelters? or breeders who fill an individuals desire for a specific breed and preserve that breeds characteristics? Rescueing a dog from a shelter would very likely encourage or endorse people to not spay or neuter their pets, or at least send the wrong message to people who do not as they very well should. Congratulations to the Obamas for helping preserve a once nearly extinct breed and not encouraging people to allow their pets to have litters just to send them to shelters. Spay and neuter your muts!

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