There are three things for sure in this world: death, taxes and that the sometimes-radical animal rights organization PETA will protest the Westminster Kennel Club (or just about any) Dog Show.
For the last several years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has disrupted Westminster, the canine Oscars, inveighing against breeders. In 2009, PETA members stood outside Madison Square Garden wearing Ku Klux Klan garb and handing out fliers that compared dog breeding to the KKK's championing of a master race. In an opinion article this year, a PETA representative named Lindsay Pollard-Post rattled off a list of ailments caused by poor breeding. "Dogs deserve better than to suffer and die for a 'beauty' pageant," she wrote.
Before the formal "beauty pageant" began, I attended Westminsterr's companion Meet the Breeds event. As an incurable dog fanatic, I'd always wanted to do this, and boy, it did not disappoint.
The various breeds were a sight to behold. Some were dressed in costumes, others were quietly snarling at one another out of some subtle but unmistakable competitive instinct. All were vying for attention from the thousands who packed Pier 92 on the Hudson River last Saturday. Look at me! they all but shouted. Ask about me! Oh, and then there were the dogs.
The animals — I made interspecies contact with at least 100 of them — were much more relaxed, and just as happy to be petted as they were to take time-outs in their crates. I observed no snapping or snarling. Only a couple wore costumes (I saw a chow chow in a cheongsam).
Few targets of ridicule are as easy to hit as owners and handlers of competitive show dogs. Even before the 2000 film "Best in Show" brilliantly lampooned the bipedal entrants in the fictional Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show, there was always a way in which dog shows seemed to be more about humans than canines. That phenomenon was on full display Saturday. The only official competition was for best exhibitor booth. Just about everyone had brought his A-game.
The mastiff booth was decorated to resemble a medieval castle, with breeders and handlers tricked out like Crusaders and Sir Walter Scott heroines holding the leashes of enormous, tank-like dogs. At the Pembroke Welsh corgi booth, a woman dressed as the famously corgi-loving Queen Elizabeth II stood in front of a Buckingham Palace backdrop, occasionally interrupting her tutorials to perform blank-faced waves meant to impersonate Her Royal Majesty. The Saluki people built an elaborate set complete with Persian rugs, a plastic palm tree and an artificial campfire.
Most of the dogs I met were not scheduled to compete in the dog show proper. As several handlers explained to me, it's tiring to spend all day being petted by thousands of people, and putting a dog into competition on top of that would be asking too much.
Some were retired from the show ring, some sired puppies for their dog chow, others were rescuers, shepherds or therapy dogs. One Leonberger had been to MIT during finals week to provide succor to stressed-out students. Given that I never made it past trigonometry, I could only imagine how comforting that must have been.
This may or may not be news to PETA, but even if you're made a little queasy by the way humans have shaped the dog gene pool, and even if you'd never dream of not adopting from a shelter, you'd still be hard pressed to find among the Meet the Breed gang anything but animals that are deeply loved and responsibly bred.
There are plenty of places where animal rights activists are needed — puppy mills, known bad breeders, irresponsible pet stores, people involved in dog fighting rings — but Westminster and its ilk? Of course, PETA is there less because of specifics than the platform.
The crowds Saturday were enormous, pushing and shoving and holding their heavy coats in one hand (it was cold and snowing in New York), and snapping smartphone pics with the other. But amid the chaos, the underlying mood was one of unmistakable joy.
Tuesday night a beagle named Miss P took best in show. But even though only one dog could win, it's safe to assume that the rest went home with their egos and their health reasonably unscathed. Not that they weren't totally embarrassed by their parents.