In August 2008, a powerful BBC documentary, Pedigree Dogs Exposed (PDE), rocked the dog world when it claimed to reveal the “greatest animal welfare scandal of our time.” Following its premiere, a review in a national newspaper said the show had “gone off like a bomb in quite a few British living rooms.” Four million British people watched, and the BBC received its biggest-ever viewer response to a single program. Middle England was outraged.
For decades, the details of dog breeding and showing had been closeted from the critical view of the outside world. While the comedy Best In Show famously took a peek and pointed a finger of fun at some breeders and exhibitors, PDE portrayed the pedigree dog world in a much more sinister light, and left the previously passive pet owner feeling furious and sad in equal measure. The eccentricity of the show world didn’t seem quite so amusing when people could see and hear that it apparently made dogs suffer.
It took filmmaker and dog lover Jemima Harrison two years to make PDE, but in just one hour, the scientific eye she cast over the dog-show world and the images she captured burned into people’s retinas as well as their minds. We saw a poor, beautiful Cavalier King Charles Spaniel screaming in pain because her skull was the wrong size for her brain, a Boxer having seizures, a German Shepherd hobbling around the show ring on strangely exaggerated limbs, a sweet show-winning Pug with a long line of Crufts winners in his pedigree and an equally long list of deformities. For many, it was an “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment as the program revealed how the show world had contorted some breeds into increasingly hideous and illogical shapes.
As Mark Evans, chief veterinary advisor at Britain’s biggest and oldest animal welfare charity, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), said to the camera, “We are extremely concerned at the very high levels of disability, deformity and disease in pedigree dogs.” When he watched Crufts, he said, he saw a “parade of mutants.”
The exposure left England’s Kennel Club reeling. It hadn’t come over well in the documentary, and Chairman Ronnie Irving had made some off-the-cuff remarks that would come back to haunt him.
For example, on the subject of inbreeding, he said, “I don’t want a bunch of scientists telling me they know more about it.” When pressed on the ethics of mother-to-son matings, he defended it and said it “depended on the individual mother and son.” (I’m sure I heard the sound of jaws dropping across the country at that moment.) Not long after the show aired, the KC rushed to ban such matings—it also launched a complete review of every pedigree dog breed in the UK and required breed clubs to adopt its Code of Ethics, which includes a clause that explicitly forbids the compulsory culling of healthy puppies—but the damage had already been done with that throwaway remark.
The Kennel Club says it was hit by a tsunami of hate after the program. At the recent KC Annual General Meeting, Irving said they had had “literally thousands of letters, emails and calls—some of them extremely aggressive and some actually threatening our staff in a very frightening way.” Irving went on to say that “maybe worse were the many letters that we received from otherwise apparently sensible, intelligent people who had obviously swallowed the content of that program hook, line and sinker.” On their own forums, dog breeders complained of being spat at in the street.
The dog show world closed ranks, licked its wounds and waited for PDE to become yesterday’s news. But the program had opened Pandora’s box, and there was no going back.
The domino effect was staggering. After more than 40 years of televising it, the BBC dropped Crufts, the KC’s own dog show. Three powerful welfare charities—the RSPCA, Dogs Trust and PDSA—spectacularly pulled out of attending the show due to adverse supporter pressure, and Pedigree withdrew its meaty sponsorship, although it claims this was a coincidence and wasn’t connected to the documentary. A marketing guru simply said that as a brand, Crufts had become toxic.
But was the program unfair to the KC? Could the club have done anything more to protect pedigree dogs from suffering? Was the public simply expecting far too much of it?