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.
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.
- Sharon Theimer, “Promises, Promises: Is Obama dog a rescue or not?,” AP, 13 Apr. 2009. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- See Elaine A. Ostrander, “Genetics and the Shape of Dogs,” American Scientist, Sep.-Oct. 2007. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]