From The Sunday Times
March 8, 2009
Nothing’s breedin’ changed at Crufts, mate
Her film on the plight of inbred show dogs caused a storm. Jemima Harrison visits Crufts incognito to look for progress
The whippet breeder is outraged. “All this talk of health is spoiling our fun,” she complained. “Really, I could kill that Jemima Harrison.”
Indeed she could. She is standing right next to me. But she doesn’t know this, because I am at Crufts 2009 incognito. The Kennel Club has refused me permission to film. It says it doesn’t want me spoiling its day. I am, in the eyes of some here, the most hated woman in dogdom. The reason? I directed Pedigree Dogs Exposed – the documentary that my company Passionate Productions made for the BBC last August highlighting health and welfare problems in some of our best-loved breeds.
Now, unwanted but curious, I am back as a paying customer. And what do I think? I think it stinks.
It’s not the gamey whiff of the Irish terrier strung up on a table, groomed to millimetre perfection. It’s not the acrid aroma from the splashes of urine pooling by the rows of benches where hundreds of bored-looking dogs doze, waiting their turn in the ring. It’s the stench of continuing denial in the face of overwhelming evidence that there is something terribly wrong with our pedigree dogs.
The fallout from Pedigree Dogs Exposed was swift and substantial. The RSPCA, Dogs Trust and People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) pulled out of Crufts. So did Pedigree, the show’s main sponsor. Finally, after appointing an independent panel to advise on the health issues raised by the film, the BBC suspended its coverage of Crufts for the first time in more than 40 years.
“The majority of pedigree dogs are perfectly healthy,” has become the Kennel Club’s defence mantra. True, many of the dogs here at Crufts will live long and healthy lives. But saying this is not enough: it’s like Hannibal Lecter’s defence lawyer parading a stream of men and women through the courtroom and proclaiming: “Members of the jury . . . I give you . . . all these people the defendant didn’t eat.”
At the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, huge banners hang across the entrance to the show halls. They declare, “Crufts . . . celebrating happy, healthy dogs”, and I want to be convinced, I do. But I’m not.
It’s not that the basset and bloodhounds’ red-rimmed eyes are as sore and saggy as last year, because of course it’s going to take time to change things. No, the reason for my heavy heart is that, apart from a few pockets of hope, Crufts 2009 burns with resentment that outsiders have come in and turned the world upside down.
The past weeks have seen the Kennel Club alternate between accepting the charges levelled at it by its critics and stamping its feet like a spoilt child.
On Thursday I watch as Caroline Kisko, the Kennel Club secretary, tells a Sky News crew: “We shouldn’t be humanising this. What we are talking about here are dogs and dogs have a very different genetic structure to us.” She then adds that all this talk about “inbreeding” is boring. Boring? Try telling that to the whippets here. Many of the show dogs are very inbred and suffer from the immune system problems that occur frequently when you mate close relatives together for generation after generation.
After Pedigree Dogs Exposed, the Kennel Club announced that from March 1, 2009 it would no longer register the progeny of mother-to-son, father-to-daughter and brother-to-sister matings. These kinds of unions have traditionally allowed breeders to replicate champions – at the expense of genetic diversity. Banning such mating, then, is an important first step.
But at Crufts on Thursday, I overhear Jeff Sampson, the Kennel Club’s genetics adviser, tell one inquirer to the new Crufts Health Zone that the ban on incest matings is “just a PR thing”. Also in the wake of the programme the Kennel Club has revised 78 breed standards – the written descriptions that dictate what a breed should look like. There are 56 changes to the bulldog standard alone – although some are minimal. The bulldog’s head must no longer be “large”, just “relatively large”.
A more moderate bulldog does win best of breed at Crufts this year, but several very big, very wrinkled, lumbering beasts are awarded with rosettes in clear defiance of the revised breed standard. “The general public just doesn’t understand them,” insists one exhibitor, who thinks it is okay that most bulldogs are born by caesarean section, because, after all, “Victoria Beck-ham has them. They’re simply too posh to push”, he explains, eyes twinkling.
“Put your tongue back in,” says the owner of a rasping pug, who then helpfully pops the dog’s protruding appendage back into its mouth herself.
“He has an elongated soft palate,” she explains, “and his sister has luxating patellas.” Both are serious faults. And yet here they are at the mecca of pedigree dogdom. “They are a very ill breed,” she then whispers conspiratorially. “Some of the breeders are very bad.”
In the peke ring, dogs with the flattest of faces are still winning, again despite the newly revised breed standard that demands the dogs have at least a bit of a muzzle in order to ease the respiratory problems that are common. “Let’s go for a little walk,” says one owner to the ball of fluff at her feet that has just won its class. The peke walks about five yards, then refuses to go any further. I think of my own dogs, which cover up to 20 miles a day on Salisbury Plain.
Yet on Thursday the Kennel Club issued a statement stating it was “unfair” that its critics have forced it to rush through these changes. “We have been working on this for the past five years,” says Caroline Kisko. “But these things take time.”
A very long time. In 1985 the Kennel Club’s Bill Edmond answered the critics of the day with this: “We are coming to the end of a review of the breed standards where we are removing clauses in those standards that require exaggeration. We recognise, and most of the breeders recognise, that you don’t need exaggeration in any animal in fact. It’s a very big revision: we’re taking out clauses which were deleterious to the breeds.”
They said exactly the same to me in an interview last year – before the film was aired. And now they’re saying it again. Forgive me for thinking it’s groundhog day. Or perhaps that should be ground-dog day.