A rendering of what a healthier breed of bulldog might look like, based on input from veterinarians: A) short snout made longer; B) skin folds reduced; C) body made leaner; D) tail elongated; E) hips widened
In the first half of Georgia’s football game against South Carolina in 2009, Uga VII, who had been dozing on a bag of ice in his air-conditioned sideline doghouse, was cajoled onto the field to pose for pictures with some cheerleaders and Gov. Sonny Perdue. Uga (pronounced UGH-uh) wore his trademark red Georgia jersey and spiked red leather collar, and he looked bored as an ESPN cameraman shoved a camera in his wrinkly, smooshed bulldog face.
His modeling complete, the country’s most famous dog mascot appeared ready to nap again. “Sometimes he thinks he’s a lap dog,” explained his owner, Sonny Seiler, a prominent Savannah lawyer and the mercurial 78-year-old owner of the University of Georgia bulldog mascot dynasty. Seiler bears a striking resemblance to the Georgia bulldogs he has cared for since 1956. He has a round, droopy face and wide, slumping shoulders, and his courtroom antics are often described in words associated with bulldogs: Georgia Magazine said he possessed a “barrel-chested bravura,” while John Berendt wrote that Seiler “thunders and growls” in his best-selling nonfiction book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” in which Seiler defended a wealthy antiques dealer charged with the murder of a young hustler.
Before the game, I sat with Seiler in the front of his S.U.V., which was parked in its usual spot near the west end of Sanford Stadium. The car’s rear door was open, allowing fans a close-up look at the state’s most famous pooch. Not that there was much to see. Flanked by two headset-wearing security guards, Uga VII lounged in his crate with his eyes closed, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around him. “Over here Uga!” “Say cheese!” “Uga’s da man!” screamed a throng of fans, who snapped pictures and video of the sleeping all-white dog. (Each Uga has been a white male, leaving Seiler open to the occasional charge of doggy sexism and racism.)
“Uga is a celebrity,” Seiler explained to me as he cracked open a beer. “If we let him out right now, it would start a damn riot. He’s the dog version of Michael Jackson. People go crazy when they see him.” People also try to kidnap him. Dog mascots are a favorite target of fraternity brothers from rival schools; Uga I was nabbed twice in the 1950s and ’60s.
At the time of my visit, though, Seiler was less concerned with people trying to take Uga than he was with people trying to change him. In January 2009, Adam Goldfarb of the Humane Society of the United States told The Augusta Chronicle that bulldogs, often referred to as English bulldogs, are the “poster child for breeding gone awry.” The article came in response to a scathing British documentary, “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” that 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. Bulldogs were noted in all three reports as a breed in need of an intervention, with one going so far as to question whether it is ethically defensible to continue breeding them at all.
“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 the 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.”
A) Uga I, 1956-66. B) Uga III, 1972-81. C) Uga V, 1990-99. D) Uga VIII, 2010-11.
In the United States, some veterinarians, breeders and animal-welfare experts are beginning to wonder the same thing. Last spring, the Humane Society organized its first conference on the topic of purebred-dog health and welfare. The society’s chief executive, Wayne Pacelle, told me the conference signaled the beginning of a new era for his organization, which until recently has been focused on what he calls “more obvious” forms of animal cruelty. “Inbreeding and other reckless breeding practices may not be as bloody as dogfighting or as painful to look at as puppy mills, but they may ultimately cause even more harm to the well-being of dogs,” he said.
Though a number of breeds were discussed at the conference (including the Cavalier King Charles spaniel, which is beset with severe heart and neurological diseases), the bulldog stole the show. “It is the most extreme example of genetic manipulation in the dog-breeding world that results in congenital and hereditary problems,” Pacelle said.
Brenda Bonnett, a consulting veterinary epidemiologist and a speaker at the conference, outlined the results of her study of Swedish dog-insurance data from 1995 to 2006. She told conference attendees that bulldogs are significantly more likely than other dogs to suffer from a wide range of health issues, including ear and eye problems, skin infections, respiratory issues, immunological and neurological problems and locomotor challenges. (Statistics released in 2010 by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals revealed that bulldogs have the highest rate of hip dysplasia of any breed.)
A few months after the Humane Society conference, The Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine published a study of breed-related causes of death in American dogs. Researchers found that bulldogs are the most likely to die from respiratory illness and the second-most likely to die from congenital disease.
Though there is no recent comprehensive study in this country comparing the life spans of different breeds, a 2010 British study published in The Journal of Small Animal Practice reported that the typical bulldog lives only slightly longer than six years. “The bulldog is unique for the sheer breadth of its health problems,” says Brian Adams, formerly the head of media-relations at M.S.P.C.A.-Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. “A typical breed will have one or two common problem areas. The bulldog has so many. When I first started working at Angell, the joke was that these dogs are a $5,000 check just waiting to happen. But the joke gets old fast, because many of these dogs are suffering.”
A few months before my trip to Georgia, the British Kennel Club announced that it was revising the bulldog standard (a written template for the look and temperament of a breed) in an effort to make bulldogs sleeker and healthier. The new bulldog standard in England calls for a “relatively” short face, a slightly smaller head and less-pronounced facial wrinkling.
But the Bulldog Club of America (B.C.A.), which owns the copyright to the American standard, says it has no plans to follow suit. The American standard still calls for the breed to have a “massive, short-faced head,” a “heavy, thick-set, low-swung body,” a “very short” face and muzzle and a “massive” and “undershot” jaw.
A spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club told me that it won’t pressure the Bulldog Club of America to reconsider its decision. That may be because, despite their health problems, bulldogs have skyrocketed up the A.K.C.’s most popular breed list, from No. 41 in 1973 to No. 6 in 2010, one spot behind golden retrievers. (Bulldogs are the most popular breed in Los Angeles.) The breed is a rare bit of good news for the A.K.C., which is suffering a long-term decline in registrations.
When I visited Sonny Seiler in Georgia, he took partial credit for the breed’s increased popularity. “The more people hear about Uga and see him on TV, the more people want a bulldog,” he said. Though Seiler conceded that bulldogs aren’t for everybody (“They are high-maintenance animals with health problems,” he said), he dismissed any efforts to change the distinctive look of the breed. “Change this dog too much, and it won’t look like a bulldog anymore,” he told me on the sideline during the game against South Carolina. “Besides, Uga gets the best veterinary care, and we do everything to keep him safe. These dogs have a good life.”
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