Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Dog Merchants: How Movies Have Got Us Going to the Dogs

Do you love dogs? Then you’ll appreciate the work of my colleague, Kim Kavin, whose career as a journalist and a dog-lover is dedicated to the well-being of canines everywhere. Her latest book is a bold exposé of how dogs are exploited for human gain. The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers was published in May. Now a politician has been compelled, after reading Kim’s book, to introduce an amendment tightening a piece of “pet store puppy mill” legislation that’s pending in the New Jersey state legislature. If the amended law is passed, it should serve as a model for laws in other states.

Like any author, Kim wants to make sure her book is read. That’s why she’s posted on YouTube a series of lively video book trailers intended to warm the hearts of dog lovers everywhere. One called “The Blue-Eyed Mutt” actually went viral, seen by 23,000 people the world over. (See below!) Curiously, the inspiration for Kim’s trailers came from her knowledge of a dog who had conquered Hollywood back in 1923, the very famous Rin Tin Tin. This German Shepherd was an accidental star. He was rescued from a French battlefield at the end of World War I, learned some new American tricks, and found himself in the leading role in a silent epic from Warner Bros., Where the North Begins. So popular was Rin Tin Tin as a screen performer that he starred in 25 films, ultimately saving his home studio from bankruptcy. In the silent era, it was easy to make his appeal universal: his barking needed no translation, and the studio had only to replace the film’s English-language  dialogue frames with those in other languages. Kim followed this same logic, filling her trailers with adorable pooches and changing out the text to serve her own evolving needs.

Rin Tin Tin was so popular in his own era that suddenly the German Shepherd became the backyard pet of choice. Fads in dog-breeding continued in later decades, reflecting whatever was popular in local cinemas. In 1961, after Disney released the original animated 101 Dalmatians, suddenly every kid in America wanted a big white dog with black spots. When a live-action version of the film appeared in 2000, the yen for Dalmatians intensified. Something similar happened with Chihuahuas in the late 1990s, on the heels of a series of Taco Bell commercials featuring a particularly ungainly Chihuahua pup. And the sitcom Frasier started a rush on Jack Russell Terriers..

There is, of course, a downside to the public’s waves of enthusiasm for various dog breeds. Those good souls who dedicate themselves to animal rescue know that many families who fall in love with a cute dog at the movies or on TV are not prepared for the challenges of pet-ownership. Unscrupulous breeders are only too happy to pump out supplies of whatever sort of dog is currently in fashion. They’re not bothered by the fact that a number of the dogs they’re selling will be cruelly abandoned by their owners. That’s why, according to Kim, tenderhearted  rescuers are resigned to showing up in front of movie theatres with their own dogs in tow, begging parents not to succumb to their kids’ pleading for a real-life carbon-copy of the rambunctious critter they loved on screen. These rescuers, like Pati Dane of Dalmatian Rescue, try hard to explain that dog ownership requires expense and hard work, and that a plush toy dog would probably work better for many kids in the long run..

And that’s something to bark about.

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