Westminster Can't Handle the Truth

The big story out of Westminster this year isn't what's going on in Madison Square Garden -- it's what's NOT going on during the commercial breaks in USA's and CNBC's coverage of the country's biggest dog show. That's because Westminster has ended its two-decade sponsorship contract with Pedigree and sacked the dog-food maker over its popular advertising campaign that encouraged adoption of homeless dogs in shelters.

You might be scratching your head and wondering what could be wrong with a feel-good message like that, but then you probably aren't saddled with a guilty conscience like the good people at Westminster, who have finally been forced to come out and admit that they really only care about putting on a good show, and screw those sad mutts waiting for homes in animal shelters.

Not that they said as much in so many words. What they actually said was, "Our show is a celebration of dogs... When we're seeing puppies behind bars, it takes away from that. Not just because it's sad, but it's not our message."

Right, because their message is "Buy, buy, buy." Buy from pet shops, buy from breeders, buy from puppy mills. We don't care where you buy your dog (because the American Kennel Club will issue "papers" to any breeder, sight unseen, no matter how large or small) -- just buy. But whatever you do, do not under any circumstances adopt one of those needy dogs from a shelter. What kind of sick and twisted killjoy are you?

"Show me an ad with a dog with a smile; don't try to shame me," said David Frei, the Westminster Kennel Club's director of communications.

Apparently, viewers weren't entirely in agreement with Mr. Frei. According to Pedigree, it received $500,000 in pledges after its 2007 Westminster ad campaign. "People did not look away," said Melissa Martellotti, spokeswoman for Pedigree's parent company Mars Petcare US. "They were inspired to pick up the phone and make donations." Another Pedigree spokesperson said that shelters around the country had thanked the company for raising awareness about the plight of homeless dogs.

It is estimated that six to eight million animals are left at shelters every year and roughly half are euthanized. Most of these animals are young, healthy, and friendly -- and at least a quarter of them are purebreds. There is nothing "wrong" with shelter dogs and mixed breeds -- they are not inferior to the dogs you see prancing around the ring at Westminster (in fact, studies show that mixed breeds are often healthier and even smarter than purebreds) -- they simply lack Westminster's marketing might.

The Westminster Kennel Club, the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the various other kennel clubs are as complicit in the deaths of shelter dogs as they would be if they had administered the lethal injections themselves. Not only do they promote and breed purebred dogs -- and in so doing take away homes from shelter animals with every litter that they bring into the world -- the dogs they breed and their offspring also end up homeless. (Yes, even dogs from vaunted Westminster breeders end up homeless -- a colleague of mine once adopted one.) To add insult to injury, the AKC also actively fights spay/neuter legislation introduced to combat animal overpopulation and homelessness.

Deep down, Westminster officials know that they play a starring role in the homeless-dog crisis, which is why they must cringe whenever they see one of those heart-wrenching Pedigree ads. Let's face it -- the ads are effective. No, the dogs aren't "smiling," but they haven't given up, either. Like the millions of dogs in shelters across America, all they want is a chance to strut their stuff, to prove that they are, if not the best in show, at least the best in your living room.