Face of a Snake: Breed Standard and Poetic Licence

“A snake, am I? Perhaps you’d like to see how ssssnakelike I CAN BE” – Jafar

 

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Steller Sea Lion (coloured engraving), German School, (19th century) / Private Collection / © Purix Verlag Volker Christen

 

The history of The World’s Greatest Dog Show has had its Eastenders moments – the poison scandal of 2015, the streaker of 2010, the time that dog did a poo, most years. But the 2018 Crufts finale was a classic: in protest at the canine eugenics of pedigree breeding, PETA activists pitch-invaded the Birmingham NEC during the trophy ceremony, and were dramatically body-tackled by security as the winner was dog-handled away from danger. I was not personally present, because you have to pay extra for the Best In Show show, and the one year I did there was a cloakroom nightmare which I won’t get into here, and anyway you can see the dogs better on the telly, save your money.

 

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Ms Fr. Fv VI #1 fol.168v Illustration from the ‘Book of Simple Medicines’ by Mattheaus Platearius (d.c.1161) c.1470 (vellum), Testard, Robinet (fl.1470-1523) / National Library, St. Petersburg, Russia

 

However I was there the day before – Toy and Utility day, the best day – when a less publicised judging ceremony raised eyebrows, which I will get into here. So during selection of the winner of the Utility group, which includes Bulldogs, Dalmatians, Schnauzers etc, the judge awards second, third and fourth places to the Standard, Miniature and Toy poodles consecutively, in descending order of size. They were each black; identical, apart from scale, the most perfect representations of poodle standard. Everyone was like whaaaaaat. A chunky Akita deservedly took first place, but there were strong feelings in the arena about the poodle-washing of the competition.

 

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A fish., Catesby, Mark (1679-1749) / British Library, London, UK

 

Point on breed standard: the guideline or blueprint to which a dog must conform in order to be fit for purpose, for example wriggling into burrows and viciously attacking whatever might be in there (Dachshund). PETA’s problem with it is that breeding for certain ‘desirable’ characteristics (stubby legs) also perpetuates genetic weaknesses which affect the animal’s quality of life (back problems).

 

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Botanical and animal illustration of a plant, a squid, and a serpent. / British Library, London, UK

 

Flashback to 2016: I am in the famous arena for the first time, watching internet star Eric the Pekingese win best in group (Toy). The Pekingese is special because it is almost spherical, and in my opinion exhibits the breed standard farthest removed from anything occurring in nature. It was a moment for me, having cheered for Eric’s grandfather Danny as he won 2003’s Best In Show, when it was still on the BBC. A win tainted by controversy: Danny was accused of having had a facelift prior to the competition, but this was later revealed to have been a legitimate operation for his brachycephalic obstructed airway syndrome (hilarious bug face = bad at breathing).

 

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Drawing of a seal, Sir Francis Drake ‘s World Voyage Author: Fletcher, Francis; Conyers, John, transcriber / England [London]; circa 1677 / British Library, London, UK
I bring up the BBC because it was a damning BBC1 documentary, ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’, which in 2009 forced the corporation to stop broadcasting Crufts, on moral grounds. It’s now on Channel 4, obviously. The BBC was further accused of hypocrisy due to a synchronous Eastenders (like I said) storyline, which celebrated a prize-winning St. Bernard, a controversial breed, named Gumbo.

 

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Illustration of a lion, a leopard, a rabbit and an elephant. / British Library, London, UK

 

2012: I’m watching the judging of the Hound group, projected above life size on a friend’s wall. I have crafted bespoke dog-themed french fry holders for the occasion. As the most perfect Greyhound in all the world minces past the camera, a voiceover recites:

“Face of a Snake, Neck of a Drake”.
I looked up this horrifying phrase and it’s from a poem (?) written by a nun in 1486, and possibly the earliest ever codification of a breed standard:
“a head like a snake,
a neck like a drake,
a back like a beam,
the sides of a bream, (fish)
be footed like a cat
and have a tail like a rat”
Like… just let them have dog parts? If I have a point here, not necessarily saying that I do, I just felt like sharing, it’s that I probably won’t pay to go to Crufts again, and that deviation from breed standard produces healthier, happier dogs, with an evolutionary advantage. As I observed that nesting suite of poodles (back in 2018 now), surrounded by yapping, farting, straight white folk, I couldn’t help but wonder: are we, ourselves, the true victims of our cultural standards?
Just kidding. The dogs are the victims, stop enabling the pedigree illuminati and get a rescue x

 

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Owl mobbed by smaller birds / British Library, London, UK

 

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