Breeder of Westminster winner Uno has a few words for PETA
When we told you on Monday about PETA's request that the USA Network drop the Westminster dog show from its schedule, we were overwhelmed with the volume of comments and e-mails we received. More than 400 of you responded, and most were none too pleased with PETA's statements about the dog show world. (To read more, check out The Times' Comments Blog.)
One reader we heard from was Kathy Weichert, a breeder, owner and exhibitor of champion Beagles including Uno, last year's Westminster winner. We caught up with Weichert on topics ranging from Westminster (as you might imagine, she's a fan) to the animal rights movement (as you might imagine, she's not a fan).
PETA, according to Weichert, is "a radical group that believes no animal should be domesticated. They are targeting [Westminster] because it is highly visible around the world."
"Hobby breeders" like herself (as opposed to puppy mills, which churn out purebred dogs for profit), says Weichert, are not responsible for genetic defects in purebred dogs. "Reputable breeders, as opposed to mills or backyard breeders, would never intentionally or knowingly breed animals that were diagnosed or known to carry genetic or fatal faults." Small-time breeders, she thinks, "most definitely are a positive influence on the breeds," and breeders are among the most prominent donors to groups like the AKC's Canine Health Foundation, which research genetic disorders in dogs.
So what about breeds like the Pekingese and Pug, whose squashed faces can cause breathing problems, and the Chinese shar-pei and Bloodhound, whose wrinkles can become breeding grounds for infection? Do breeders contribute to such problems by locking these traits into their dogs' bloodlines?
On the contrary, says Weichert. "Those are breed traits! Those breeds have always looked like what they look like. No, those traits come naturally when breeding dogs of the same breed...Peke to Peke produces all puppies that look like Pekes!" Genetic problems, she says, will happen regardless of the care a breeder takes; it's just a part of nature. "Can [PETA] explain why children are born with allergies, Down's, deformities, mental retardation? No!"
Canine genetics -- like human genetics -- are not an exact science, Weichert says. But breeders like herself take every possible precaution by testing their breeding stock for health issues and knowing every intricacy of their dogs' lineage.
She scoffs at the suggestion that pet overpopulation is related to purebred dog breeding. For one thing, many hobby breeders like herself breed a relatively small number of puppies (Weichert generally breeds one Beagle litter per year, although she may try to breed two in 2009). For another, potential puppy buyers are thoroughly vetted (no pun intended) to make sure they're serious about pet ownership.
The screening process for potential Beagle parents is extensive; before a puppy is sold, the prospective owner must answer a litany of questions such as Why do you want a Beagle as opposed to other breeds? Do you have children or other pets? Do you have a fenced yard? How long will the puppy be left alone during the day? Do you or your family have dog allergies? Do you believe in crate-training? The idea behind the extensive questioning, Weichert says, is to make sure a puppy buyer is ready for the long haul; owners should be prepared to commit to a dog for its entire lifespan, often 15 years or more.
Buyers sign a "spay/neuter contract," which requires that "pet-quality" puppies (those who don't have a future in the show ring) will never be used for breeding. Another clause requires that the puppy will be returned to Weichert should the buyer be unable or unwilling to keep it for any reason.
K-Run (the name of her kennel) Beagles are decidedly not destined to end up in shelters; of that Weichert is confident. On the contrary, she says, "the majority of dogs in shelters are mixed-breeds and not purebred." And she takes one more precaution to ensure dogs she's bred won't ever wind up lost or homeless: she participates in AVID's Breeder Reader program, in which dogs are microchipped with her contact information so that she will be the first one notified should one ever turn up at a shelter or veterinarian's office.
She's been showing Beagles in the conformation ring since 1996; before that, she participated in hunting trial events with the breed for six years. She's had over 50 champion dogs (often working with her best friend Leah Bertagnolli, who shares the credit for breeding Uno), including a Rottweiler, a German Shepherd, and an American Staffordshire Terrier. Dogs like Uno, she says, enjoy performing and aren't one bit "miserable and uncomfortable," as PETA's Daphna Nachminovitch describes.
"Uno loved the show ring and actually missed it at first. I imagine it could be hard if the dog's temperament was not stable or they were with someone who did not care for them properly. Uno always came first with [handler Aaron Wilkerson] and every time I would see them in person, Uno was a very, very happy dog that loved what he was doing."
So what's Uno up to now? He retired immediately upon receiving his coveted Westminster trophy (traditional among Westminster winners), and he's now a certified therapy dog with the Delta Society. He's visited with patients at Ronald McDonald Houses and Walter Reed Hospital as part of his therapy work.
In fact, a fair number of the dogs Weichert has bred have gone on to more high-minded pursuits than the show ring, says Weichert. Some are therapy dogs like Uno, some compete in obedience and agility trials, and retiring show dogs are often given to junior handlers (kids aged 9-18 who compete in AKC events that judge their handling ability rather than the conformation of the dog they're showing). "These dogs give these kids a sense of responsibility as well as self-esteem and self-confidence," she says. Other retired show dogs are spayed or neutered and placed with owners in the market for an older dog who's already well-trained. These dogs lead happy, fulfilling lives, and Weichert (as well as many dog fanciers we've heard from) thinks PETA should back off.
So what makes dog shows so important to the people involved in them? Weichert's explanation is simple: "It's the camaraderie and the friendships and the bonding with the dogs and the goal to produce the happiest, healthiest dogs we can. It's about watching a puppy like Uno being born at 3 in the morning after you've been up for 24-plus hours and then seeing this magnificent animal that you have produced win not only the greatest dog show on earth, but hearts of millions of fans around the world! All you can say is, 'Wow, that's my dog.' "
Viewers love shows like Westminster as well, and they'd be missing out if USA opted not to air it, Weichert says. "It gives people a chance to see dogs that may never see in person, and also the [informational segments] direct people to the right way to start shopping for a puppy, instead of seeing cute Uno on TV and running to the first pet store they see. The announcers try to give a brief pro/con on every dog...It's just really informative and fun for people who are not around dog shows all the time like we are!"
We had one final question for Westminster's reigning owner/breeder: "If you could speak directly to PETA's Ingrid Newkirk, what would you say?"
Weichert's response: "I don't think you could print that conversation."
-- Lindsay Barnett
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Top photo: Uno competes at Westminster. Credit: Mary Bloom
Middle photo: Uno visits a patient at the Walter Reed Hospital. Credit: Eddie Dziuk
Bottom photo: Uno with a friend at the Ronald McDonald House. Credit: Eddie Dziuk