Over a charming photograph of a squat English bulldog, the cover of the New York Times Magazine recently asked its readers “Can the Bulldog be Saved?” The accompanying article was written by the immensely talented Benoit Denizet-Lewis and it reflects both the warmth and thoroughness which ordinarily characterize his journalism.
The article was an exposé of sorts, shedding light on perceived problems resulting from modern bulldog breeding practices. While most will find that it presents a fair discussion of a somewhat obscure controversy, one can also imagine that it will elicit some defensive emotional responses from purist bulldog enthusiasts. Such reactions likely will not surprise the article’s author or dissuade him from the convictions he has expressed, as he essentially argues that similarly irrational emotional behavior is a large part of the subject problems. But that doesn’t mean that his opinions are unassailable.
My criticism of the article, and I do have one, does not seem to me to be emotionally motivated or made from a defensive posture (although anyone reading this has a right to know that there is a little bulldog in my life of whom I am quite fond). Instead, as I explain below, I think there’s a problem with the philosophical and scientific underpinnings of the article and I don’t agree with it’s fundamental message that we have an ethical duty to avoid breeding dogs prone to the health problems discussed in the piece.
Modern Bulldog Breeding Practices
The thrust of Mr. Denizet-Lewis’s article is that American standard-setting bodies such as the Bulldog Club of America are encouraging bulldog breeders to produce dogs with morphological traits with proven links to health problems such as brachycephalic airway syndrome, chronic inactivity, joint dysplasia, and obesity. These problems, in turn, lead to a decrease in overall quality of life and a shortened lifespan for the dog. Mr. Denizet-Lewis argues that these practices are tolerated because many of these same traits — such as a short muzzle, “smooshed” facial features, pudgy body, and relatively short and feeble limbs — come together to create an outward appearance that humans are predisposed to find infantile and “cute.” In short, we want cute dogs more than we want healthy dogs.
For Mr. Denizet-Lewis, that’s a problem. While his article presents a discussion of both sides of the issue, it strongly implies that the current bulldog breeding practices are unethical because they don’t place an adequate premium on producing dogs prone to good health and long life (see, for example, the dramatic closing lines of the essay, on the untimely death of bulldog and former University of Georgia mascot Uga VIII:
But Uga VIII wouldn’t last that long. Soon after my visit, the 2-year-old bulldog came down with lymphoma. A month later, he died. When I spoke with [his owner] midway through this season, he said the search was on for Uga IX.)
It’s journalism, but with an advocate’s tone.
In a nutshell, Mr. Denizet-Lewis argues that, given the current state of our cumulative scientific knowledge, we should be avoiding breeding bulldogs that are prone to developing health problems as a result of their morphological traits. Outward appearance, he argues, is just not as important as longevity, mobility, or vivacity.
It’s a respectable position and I am incapable of criticizing much of the logic supporting it. There can be little debate that some of the physiological traits set forth in the BCA’s breed standard (the BCA holds a copyright on the American bulldog breed standard, which is used by the American Kennel Club when conducting competitions and evaluating breeders) drastically increase the likelihood of certain health problems. For example, the BCA’s standard calls for a “very short” face and muzzle. You don’t have to be Dr. Dolittle to realize that it is more laborious for a short-faced dog to breath and cool itself than it is for a dog with a comparatively longer muzzle. Ergo, bulldogs are more likely than many other breeds to suffer from brachycephalic airway syndrome and heat-induced health problems.
Nor can I criticize the notion that current bulldog breeding practices (the ones that produce dogs that exhibit these traits) are motivated by a desire to increase the breed’s popularity by tapping into the latent human preference for pets with infantile appearances. Do I think the bigwigs at the BCA have scoured the relevant scientific literature and devised an evil plan to exploit our psychological hard-wiring? Of course not (and that doesn’t appear to be what Mr. Denizet-Lewis thinks either). But I do think they have developed conclusions — through passive observation, statistical tracking, and the accumulation of anecdotal “data” — as to what “look” prospective bulldog owners prefer. And it just happens to be that in this case there is science supporting their conclusions about our preferences.
In other words, I acknowledge that standard-setting bodies are encouraging bulldog breeders to produce dogs prone to health problems in order to increase the popularity of the breed. I just don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that.
Mr. Denizet-Lewis attacks the current breeding practices for two similar but distinct reasons: (1) they shorten the lives of bulldogs and (2) they harm the welfare of bulldogs. (He also notes that bulldog owners — constantly at the vet’s office, often forced to spend thousands of dollars a year on treatment, and needing to take various special precautions to ensure the continued health of their dogs — are suffering as a result of the current breeding practices. But that isn’t really a basis for an ethical critique. Bulldog owners don’t have to buy bulldogs. If they don’t like what they’re signing up for, no one is forcing them to play.) I think there are problems with both of his arguments.
Breeding Exclusively For Longevity Will Diminish Useful Diversity
To begin with, when it comes to breeding for longevity, the slope is quite slippery on the way from the position espoused in Mr. Denizet-Lewis’s article to some much thornier and unpleasant results. If we accept that we have a duty to breed for longevity, then we must also accept that all the breeds that we know, love, and make productive use of in modern human society eventually are going to disappear. If we all have a duty to breed our dogs to live as long as possible, then all breeds but one won’t make the cut as potential mates. As we inch towards a world in which all dogs are afforded the longest lifetime their genes (and our meddling) will allow, we will erode all of the rich diversity which currently colors the modern canine world. All breeds except for that one left standing at the end of the proverbial day would cease to be.
That would have serious “real-world” consequences. Dogs are the most physically diverse land animals on our planet. And their unique physical diversity allows them to contribute to human society in a wide variety of wonderful ways. The breadth of these real-world contributions (from tracking missing persons and guarding property to providing support and therapeutic companionship) necessarily will be compromised if we breed their physical diversity out of them.
Similarly, regardless of whether you view the companionship provided to a garden variety human owner by an ordinary, non-working, yard-and-living-room pooch as a “contribution to human society,” you have to recognize that breeding for non-diversity will restrict the degree to which dogs will be able to provide such companionship. The diverse living conditions in which we humans live render certain types of dogs wholly impractical as companions to certain types of people. Many people live in environments that all but prevent them from owning large, aggressive, or high-energy dogs. These people (urban apartment dwellers and the elderly, for example) will be denied the opportunity to form life-enriching relationships with canine companions if we do away with all the small, docile, and low-energy dogs through selective breeding for longevity. Mr. Denizet-Lewis doesn’t mention this in his article, but it is precisely because most bulldogs are low-energy and inactive that they make such good companions for certain types of owners.
A Lack of Evidentiary Support
There’s another problem with Mr. Denizet-Lewis’s position and I feel much more strongly about this one: when it comes to the welfare side of the equation (his argument that we have a duty to avoiding breeding dogs prone to health problems because it harms their overall welfare), he cites absolutely zero valid evidence showing that bulldogs have had their welfare compromised by modern breeding practices.
To understand this criticism you must first understand what the word “welfare” means in this context. A common dictionary definition of “welfare” is “a state of being or doing well.” But an ultra-comprehensive study recently published in the Italian Journal of Animal Studies drilled down deeper into the definition of the term as it is used in the animal ethics context. The authors of that interdisciplinary study reviewed a wide body of literature and attempted to define the term “animal welfare,” as it is used in all of its scientific, philosophical, and social contexts. Its authors conceded that the term itself “is not well understood” by those that use it and found that it has been given diverse and competing meanings over time. That being said, they also make it clear that the most fundamental and universal element of welfare is the notion of “subjective experience”; in other words, the subjective feelings and experiences of pleasure, happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment correspond with positive welfare while the subjective feelings and experiences of pain, suffering, unhappiness and other negative experiential states correspond with negative welfare.
I just re-read his article and can confirm that there are exactly two places therein where Mr. Denizet-Lewis attempts to provide evidentiary support for the notion that modern bulldog breeding practices and their attendant health consequences are negatively impacting the welfare of modern bulldogs. As I explain below, neither is valid.
The first is his discussion of a British study commissioned by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (link to full-text of study):
“There is little doubt that the anatomy of the English bulldog has considerable capacity to cause suffering,” Dr. Nicola Rooney and Dr. David Sargan concluded in one of their reports, “Pedigree Dog Breeding in the U.K.: A Major Welfare Concern?” “The breed is noted to have locomotion difficulties, breathing problems, an inability to mate or give birth without assistance. . . . Many would question whether the breed’s quality of life is so compromised that its breeding should be banned.”
While the authors of the RSPCA study are quick to state that the bulldog’s limitations diminish its “quality of life” (and they appear to use that term synonymously with the term “welfare”), they don’t cite any studies suggesting that the breed’s common “locomotion difficulties, breathing problems, [and] inability to mate or give birth without assistance” actually cause the dogs to experience suffering, pain, unhappiness or any other negative experiential state. In fact, they go to great lengths throughout their report to explain that their is a complete absence of such evidence:
There is remarkably little explicit recognition of the welfare issues that may be associated with the extreme morphologies selected for in some registered breeds, and few peer-reviewed papers documenting their effects.
The impact of these behavioural deficits [such as locomotive difficulties] on the welfare of the dogs is even less well documented than the impact of anatomical extremes, but it is equally an important and valuable area for future research and attention.
Once this absence of empirical evidence is exposed to the reader, the RSPCA’s statements that the bulldog’s physical limitations diminish its “quality of life” and “[have] considerable capacity to cause suffering” don’t really sound like reasons to think those physical limitations are harming the bulldog’s welfare, do they? It seems to me that they ring pretty hollow. They would more accurately be characterized as guesses that such results follow from the health problems commonly experienced by bulldogs.
The second purported evidentiary basis for the welfare side of Mr. Denizet-Lewis’s position is even more dubious. It reflects comments made to the author by James Serpell, a highly-esteemed University of Pennsylvania professor whose research focuses on issues of “humane ethics and animal welfare”:
Serpell told me that [the bulldog’s physiological] handicaps can be easily masked by an outgoing, playful personality. “Bulldog breeders will insist that their dogs are happy and have a very good life,” Serpell said. “But a dog can love its owner and be happy at times, but that doesn’t mean his life isn’t needlessly compromised. In many ways, dogs are their own worst enemy. They don’t complain. They just kind of plod along, trying to make the best of things. That’s how I see many bulldogs. They are severely handicapped because of what we have done to them, but they still have these amazing personalities that shine through despite it all.”
Read Professor Serpell’s words closely. He doesn’t say that there is evidence suggesting that bulldogs experience suffering or any other negative experiential state as a result of what he characterizes as their “needlessly compromised” or “severely handicapped” physical abilities. Indeed, and to the contrary, his only references to their subjective experiences are positive ones (“a dog can love its owner and be happy at times,” “they still have these amazing personalities”). This, to me, does not qualify as evidence supporting the claim that bulldogs have had their welfare compromised by modern breeding practices. Frankly, it is closer to evidence to the contrary. While it is important to note that Professor Serpell may indeed have uncovered reliable scientific evidence for the welfare claims made by Mr. Denizet-Lewis — I freely admit that I have not read his papers but I do intend to forward this essay to him for his comments — Mr. Denizet-Lewis didn’t build his argument around any such evidence.
In other words, Mr. Denizet-Lewis has cited no meaningful evidence in support of his claim that modern breeding practices (and their resulting health consequences) actually have a negative impact on the welfare of bulldogs. If his article is part of a push to influence standard-setting bodies or effectuate legislative intervention to solve this “problem” then this lack of evidence needs to be a part of the resulting discussion.
Don’t Just Assume You Know How Your Dog Feels
I recognize how tempting it is to engage the same quasi-logic as have Mr. Denizet-Lewis and some of the sources cited in his article (namely, performing a thought experiment whereby the thinker imagines himself in hypothetical situations [such as being constrained by health problems] and then attempts to approximate the resulting changes to his welfare). But modern brain imaging technology and the work of some brilliant psychologists have recently taught us some fascinating and very surprising things about our inability to perform such approximations accurately and about the nature of our experiential responses to perceived “hardships” such as severe health problems. A fulsome discussion of these studies is beyond the scope of this article but it suffices to say that in many ways we grossly over-estimate the negative impact which perceived “problems” will have on our subjective experiences of pleasure, happiness, well-being, and fulfillment. (If you are more interested in this stuff, a good place to start is Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s wonderful book Stumbling on Happiness. It’s funny, accessible, and completely mind-blowing.)
And it hardly needs explaining that the gravity of these errors is compounded when we try to imagine the experiential responses of other species to similar phenomena (as Mr. Denizet-Lewis seems to have done in connection with his article). Endowed with powerful brains that generate a unique kind of self-reflective consciousness, human beings spend gobs of intellectual capital reflecting on the significance of their personal circumstances. Such self-reflection plays a tremendous role in shaping our worldly experience. Because I am able to consciously evaluate and compare myself with other people (both actual and imagined), I am also able to make judgments about whether I would be happier if I were more or less like them. And, more important for purposes of this discussion, my subjective experience of happiness is based heavily upon such evaluations and judgments. In other words, if I don’t know that a better alternative exists, I’m unlikely to feel dissatisfied with and displeased by my present circumstances.
Well, when it comes to the health problems discussed in Mr. Denizet-Lewis’s article, that’s precisely the situation that bulldogs are likely to find themselves in. They can’t self-reflect. So they have no idea that there are other types of dogs that breathe more fluidly than they do. They have no idea that there are other dogs that cool themselves down more efficiently than they do. They have no idea that other dogs have higher energy levels than they do. Professor Serpell was right, but only partially so, when he said of bulldogs that “they just kind of plod along, trying to make the best of things.” Because they are “just plodding along,” but they’re not “trying to make the best of things,” because they aren’t capable of reflecting on their limitations and “trying” to stay positive, as that anthropomorphic statement implies.
All that being said, it is very important to note that I stand firmly with the RSPCA in their call for more research on the impact of breed-specific morphological traits on animal welfare. If we’re breeding dogs whose physiological traits give rise to chronic or severe pain, anxiety, fear, or unhappiness, then I believe that we can begin to fashion ethical directives and even progressive laws that restrict breeding for such traits. But Mr. Denizet-Lewis has not convinced me that we have reached that point with respect to the bulldog and its physical limitations. Thus, for the time being, I’m going to continue thinking what I thought before I read his article, which is that we know precious little about how happy any specific dog is and that, for the moment, we’re generally far too ignorant to stand behind most broad prescriptive statements made relating to that topic.