Bulldogs have skyrocketed up the American Kennel Club’s most popular breed list, from No. 41 in 1973 to No. 5 in 2013, despite the breed’s serious health issues, including eye and ear problems, skin infections, immunological and neurological problems, and locomotor challenges. I wrote an article about the breed’s ailments, which didn’t win me many friends with the Bulldog handlers and breeders at a recent Westminster Dog Show. For more dog-centric tales, please read the book, Travels With Casey: My Journey Through Our Dog-Crazy Country.
Because of their flat faces, Bulldogs are synonymous with brachycephalic airway syndrome, which comprises a series of respiratory abnormalities affecting the throat, nose, and mouth. Dr. John Lewis, an assistant professor of dentistry and oral surgery at Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, said that the human equivalent to breathing the way some Bulldogs do “would be if we walked around with our mouth or nose closed and breathed through a straw.”
Yet despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, most Bulldog breeders—including several in attendance at Westminster—flatly reject the idea that anything seriously ails the breed. A typical response came from the Bulldog Club of America, which told me that “Bulldogs today look good, have excellent temperament, and are healthier than in years past as a result of good breeding practices.”
I found their denials delusional, and my Times story took them to task for turning a once athletic breed into a plodding, dysfunctional mess.
“Is there a bounty on your head?” Josh Dean joked near the Westminster benching area when I nearly bumped into Jay Serion, a Bulldog handler and breeder whose bulldog had won the breed competition here the previous year. I’d interviewed Serion before and after that victory, but on this day he was too busy to notice me.
I’d first become interested in Bulldogs back in 2009, shortly before attending a football game between the universities of Georgia and South Carolina in Athens, Georgia. I spent much of that game on the sideline next to the air-conditioned doghouse of Uga VII, the school’s Bulldog mascot. The dog wore a red Georgia jersey and spiked red leather collar, and every once in a while he would be led onto the field to pose for pictures and model his wrinkly, smooshed Bulldog face for ESPN’s cameras.
At the game I met Sonny Seiler, a lawyer and the mercurial owner of the Georgia Bulldog mascot dynasty. Sonny bore a striking resemblance to the mascots—all called Uga—he has cared for since 1956. He had a round, droopy face and wide, slumping shoulders, and his courtroom antics have often been described in words associated with Bulldogs: Georgia Magazine said he possessed a “barrel-chested bravura,” while John Berendt wrote that Sonny “thunders and growls” in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in which Sonny is a character. (He defended a wealthy antiques dealer charged with the murder of a young hustler.)
Sonny wasn’t in the best mood during my visit to Athens; he was tired of journalists asking him about the health of the Bulldog breed. Earlier that year, Adam Goldfarb of the Humane Society of the United States had told The Augusta Chronicle that Bulldogs were the “poster child for breeding gone awry.” Goldfarb’s quote came in response to a scathing British documentary, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, which highlighted the health and welfare problems of purebred dogs and claimed that breeders and the Kennel Club (the British equivalent of the American Kennel Club) were in denial about the extent of the problem.
Broadcast on the BBC, Exposed spawned three independent reports into purebred breeding, each finding that some modern breeding practices—including inbreeding and breeding for “extreme traits,” like the massive and short-faced head of the Bulldog—are detrimental to the health and welfare of dogs. All three reports called the modern Bulldog a breed in need of an intervention.
“Many would question whether the breed’s quality of life is so compromised that its breeding should be banned,” Dr. Nicola Rooney and Dr. David Sargan concluded in one of the reports, “Pedigree Dog Breeding in the U.K.: A Major Welfare Concern?”
Sonny dismissed any talk of changing Bulldog breeding practices, and he insisted that Uga VII was a vigorous animal who enjoyed his mascot duties. I wasn’t so sure. During my visit, the dog seemed most comfortable in the back corner of his doghouse—or, better yet, outside the stadium entirely. A few minutes before halftime, Seiler’s adult son, Charles, led Uga VII off the field by a leash to a waiting golf cart. The dog hopped on, and a young woman drove us out the stadium’s back service entrance, up a hill, around some bends, to an unspectacular patch of grass that doubled as his game day bathroom. When the cart came to a stop, Uga VII bounded off it and spent the next few minutes happily sniffing the grass, urinating on a tree, and defecating behind a bush.
When the dog was done, Charles ordered us all back on the cart. “All right, let’s go,” he said, and before I knew it, we were speeding back toward Sanford Stadium, Uga VII’s droppings (Charles didn’t pick up after him) a reminder to all that the world’s most famous mascot was here—and that celebrity dogs, like their human counterparts, get to play by different rules.
But Uga VII’s celebrity life would be short-lived. Six months later, while lounging at home, he died of heart failure. He was four years old.
When I returned to Georgia the following year to meet the school’s newest mascot, Uga VIII, Sonny insisted that the eleven-month-old was “a damn good dog. He’s healthy, and he has all the attributes we look for in a Georgia mascot.” But by the time he turned two, Uga VIII came down with lymphoma. Two months before I embarked on my cross-country trip, he died.
Despite their health problems, Bulldogs have skyrocketed up the AKC’s most popular breed list, from No. 41 in 1973 to No. 5 in 2013. James Serpell, the director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, partly blames the breed’s fame on a phenomenon called “anthropomorphic selection.” He argues that we’ve bred dogs like the Bulldog (and other short-faced brachycephalic breeds, including the Pug and the French Bulldog) in ways that “facilitate the attribution of human mental states to animals.”
“We have, to some extent, accentuated physical characteristics of the breed to make it look more human, although essentially more like caricatures of humans, and specifically of children,” he told me. “We’ve bred Bulldogs for their flat face, big eyes, huge mouth in relation to head size, and huge smiling face.”
Advertisers and animators have long recognized that giving an animal big eyes and a big head is a surefire way to endear it to humans. When Walt Disney created Bambi, the studio wanted the character to be an accurate depiction of a deer. But when the original Bambi sketches were deemed not cute enough, Disney shortened Bambi’s muzzle and made his head and eyes bigger.
In an essay in the anthology Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism, Serpell wrote that “if bulldogs were the product of genetic engineering by agripharmaceutical corporations, there would be protest demonstrations throughout the Western world, and rightly so. But because they have been generated by anthropomorphic selection, their handicaps are not only overlooked but even, in some quarters, applauded.”
Photo credit: Bulldog image courtesy New York Times Magazine.