Thursday, September 01, 2016

The Victorian Freak Show

From the comes the story of the Victorian freak show:

From the historic tour of the conjoined Colloredo twins in the 1630s, the freak show was born. Their journey sparked public interest in physical oddities and by the Victorian era, these strange sideshows were thriving.

It’s no secret Victorians were obsessed with the peculiarities of death, and their attraction to the living eccentrics of the freak show ran just as deep. With limited access to travel, men and women of the 19th century were intrigued by touring examples of the exotic. What’s more, with the rise of Darwinism came an increased fascination with the human form – its exaggerations and its abnormalities.

The showmen of these freak shows went to great lengths to make a name for themselves and their attractions. P.T. Barnum, who was known to spin elaborate backstories for his freaks, was regarded as the most successful showman of his time.

Is it an accident that P.T. Barnum was not only parading around freaks, but was also holding one of the first dog shows on earth in 1862?

I think not.

And while it's no longer "cool" to attend a freak show, it's still just fine to breed and display tea cup" dogs which have seizures because their brains are too big for their skulls.

It's still fine to intentionally breed dogs that are achondroplastic dwarves, or to intentionally breed dogs that have such massive cranial facial distortions that they either have to spend their lives in respiratory distress, or have their palettes re-sectioned and their noses trimmed and sutured.

It's still fine to breed dogs with heads so big and pelvis's so small that the dogs cannot mate on their own or whelp on their own; a "rape rack" is used for the former job, and a surgeon splits the dog in two for the second.

Of course there is a big difference between accidental and intentional congenital misfortune.

Those born with "lobster claw" hands, or a face covered in fur, are victims of a bad genetic roll of the dice.

In the case of Boston Terriers, Pugs, English Bulldogs, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Chihuahuas, Chinese Cresteds, and many other breeds, however, the deformity is intentional and the suffering is entirely predictable and entirely avoidable.

Why is this suffering allowed?  Here, surely, is a case for legislative intervention?

The Australians have started down that road. Australia's Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1986 sets out offences for intentionally or recklessly breeding an animal with a heritable defect that causes disease as listed in the Act.  So far, the law seems to cover only intentional breeding of dogs for Progressive Retinal Atrophy (in those breeds where dominant inheritance has been scientifically established), Hereditary cataracts (in those breeds where dominant inheritance has been scientifically established), Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscinosis, and Von Willebrand's Disease, but there is no reason not to include more visually obvious morphology-caused distress, such as breeding dogs without noses, and with heads too small for their brains.

Consider the two skulls below.  The one on the left is that of a Chihuahua with a "molera" -- a gap in the bone at the top of the skull because the brain is too big for the box.  A "molera" in an adult dog is  actually considered "normal " for the chihuahua! The skull on the right, is that of a child with a serious genetic defect that will require many surgeries and a great deal of pain to correct, if it can be corrected at all.

What kind of monster would intentionally breed for this kind of defect?

And the answer, of course, is a certain kind of breed-blind dog breeder who has "normalized" deformity and who ignores the suffering and distress of the animals that are put in their care.

Consider the wrecked hips and back of the German Shepherd that won Crufts this year, or the twisted spine and smashed-in nose of the Boston Terrier.  What kind of person thinks this is "cute" or that the distress caused by this kind of  "selection for defect" is a never mind?

There is a tendency to blame dog show judges, and they are certainly not without fault, but I think the problem here predates dog shows entirely.

The simple truth is that some people like to look at freaks and oddities. They think dwarves are amusing, and that a dog with bulging eyes and a smashed-in face is "cute," and they are all too ready to wave off any questions.

"That's normal for the breed" they say, never giving the slightest nod to the fact that this is a dog selected for defect at the hand of man.


Peter Apps said...

Thank you for the link to the Australian legislation. I have used it in a comment here;

David McLean said...

excellent article. i have been aware of this problem for many years. people have discussed it for decades, but those responsible have no interest in the well-being of their pets, so the situation is now even worse.