Illustrator Berkeley Breathed On His Shelter Dogs

Illustrator Berkeley Breathed On His Shelter Dogs

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It's not a tittle to warm the hearts of dog huggers, and it's improbable that the three-legged canine on the cover would ever grace the centre spread of a puppy-of-the-month calendar. Unless, that is, the artist is Berkeley Breathed, the Pulitzer Prize-winning illustrator best known for his comic strips Bloom County and Outland, and the book is inspired by the ongoing tragedy of an estimated six to eight million dogs and cats in U.S. pet shelters, half of whom are destined for euthanization.

Pets discarded because they are considered too big, too loud, too rambunctious, too old, too smelly, too tattooed and too chartreuse (you'll just have to read the book), or simply too homely to parade on a leash are the subject of Breathed's wicked wit and delightfully skewed visual imagination. His new book of gloriously "flawed dogs," with their lopsided grins, crossed bug-eyes, scrawny legs, epic flatulence, nasty habits and beastly halitosis can't make the grade in a society so image-conscious that even animals must now conform to its contrived standards of beauty and perfection.

In a recent interview with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Berkeley Breathed (pronounced BRETH-ed) explained his provocative choice of words: "‘Flawed dog' means an unloved dog, and that was the punch line of the book-that when you get through it, you think I'm talking about the physical or mental flaws or whatever flaws we might be kidding about in the book. When actually none of the dogs are flawed, except for the fact that they don't have anyone to love them." Abandoned dogs languishing in last-chance shelters-certainly a topic worthy of our attention and our empathy. But uproariously funny? Well, yes.

Leave it to Berkeley Breathed to show us that dog lovers appreciate an irreverent sense of humour. To enjoy his unsentimental portraits of the rejects of the dog world is to cheer for the underdog and gleefully mock the less-than-perfect humans who can find no room in their hearts for dogs whose only flaw is their forsakenness. Ultimately, it is the humans who are the objects of his scathing satire.

These fictional dogs will never win a best-of-anything ribbon, but like their real life counterparts, they make a lasting impression on us with their distinct personalities, immortalized by an artist of sly, sophisticated humour. Notable among my favorite flawed dogs is dear Pepe, a cross-eyed mutt of ambiguous lineage who looks into the mirror and sees the ice cap-melting stare of Richard Gere gazing back at him.

Pepe has set his crossed eyes
On winning a dog show grand prize.
He looks in the mirrors
And glamour appears
He'll win when a pig up and flies.

And Breathed's illustrations are not just one-joke page flippers. Scrutiny of the background details in Flawed Dogs is an equally rewarding pastime: Pepe earns a delayed chuckle when one notices that the bathroom wallpaper is patterned with plump, pink airborne swine.

Hand a dedicated dog saviour a guaranteed heartbreaker of a subject and it might be too much to expect him to resist the urge to indulge the shrill or maudlin voice. This author steadfastly refuses to bludgeon our compassion buttons in the usual overwrought manner all too often marshalled in save-the animals advertising. Dog supporters are such an easy target, some marketers show little compunction in using guilt like a sledgehammer on feeble defenses, yanking our heartstrings as if they wore choke collars. In contrast, Breathed takes a humorous, resentment-free route to our tender spot for dogs, and in the process still manages to raise awareness for the plight of shelter animals. And he does so with compassion and commiseration, sharpened with a shrewd understanding of our lamentable human flaws.

Popular for his cheek and touted on the book jacket as being "at the top of his twisted form," we learn in this exclusive interview with Modern Dog that when it comes to animal welfare, the self-deprecating Berkeley Breathed is as unflawed as most humans get. Not only is he a hero to shelter dogs, beloved by millions of readers, and seemingly pleasantly surprised that his wife has not dumped him in a shelter for unwanted husbands, he earned a halo of admiration from me by proving he is no hypocrite on the matter of sacrificing animals to save human lives, even if it might someday affect his own children.

MODERN DOG: Flawed Dogs is refreshingly irreverent and free of overt sentimentality, a literary feat all the more remarkable given the heartbreaking nature of your subject. It is evident that you are mocking the flawed humans and clearly on the side of the dogs. But how did you balance your obvious compassion for dogs with your wicked, saccharine-free wit? How did you know where to draw the line between respect for animals and your natural impulse to avoid mawkishness?
BERKELEY BREATHED: In the fiction that I enjoy, I happen to loathe sentimentality. It works best as subtext, which I was aiming for with Flawed Dogs. Humour can be incredibly moving, but only if it hits you later. I was hoping for a book that doesn't wear its convictions on its fake diamond- studded collar.
MD: All the adults to whom I have shown Flawed Dogs (including the book store clerk and cashier) have been instantly charmed and amused and completely won over by it, but all have wondered why it is categorized as a children's book. The sheer expressiveness of the illustrations can certainly be appreciated by kids, yet the humour is dark and the narrative treatment subtlety nuanced. Why not direct the book at adults as well, since they are ultimately responsible for abandoning pets?
BB: Actually ... technically, it wasn't either categorized or shelved as a children's book. We had quite a few discussions about it. While I wouldn't hesitate handing it to an eight-year-old, it was really meant to reference the sensibilities of her or his parents. But a picture book is a picture book. Like animated films, they had better work on some level for children-or you've got yourself a heap of trouble.
MD: Your website bio shows a photo of a smiling boy, captioned "This is all the info we have." Were there some early experiences in your life that galvanized your proactive approach to animal welfare, or has this cause always been a "pet" project of yours?
BB: My wife, Jody, opened my eyes to animal issues 18 years ago. Previous to that, my youth was spent with a scientific, if not emotional, fascination for critters. On Jody's desk one day long ago was a postcard from some animal rights group showing a photo of a Beagle puppy in an aluminum research cage. Most of his left side had been burned to raw muscle, so as to better test-what? Artificial skin or bandages or ointment-whatever. He was looking at the camera with an expression of abject betrayal. I remember trying to imagine the thoughts of the worker assigned to burn a puppy's skin. Then I got very very angry. All the nuanced arguments for and against animal research vanished. This was a new form of evil, and I didn't need a corporation to ask me whether it was worth it if my own child was burned and needed whatever treatment they planned to profit from by burning puppies. I could now answer NO with a crystalline conviction. That photo haunts me to this day.
MD: All my favourite "flawed dogs" appear on the HSUS poster. ... Buttercup's companion and the members of the Piddleton Poetry Club, for instance, are perversely accurate. I wonder, what was the initial spark of inspiration for your various portrayals: composite "flawed" dogs you've known or the flawed people who turn their pets into leftovers at a lastchance dog pound?
BB: From whence the notions arise, we never know. That's as Shakespearian a phrase as I can conjure to basically say, "I just thinks ‘em up."
MD: What do you love and admire most about dogs, and why should they care about us?
BB: Not so much admire, as face with a sense of wonder. Of all the animals on the planet, who feel they can' t live their lives without a human lap underneath them as they sleep? Why don't bears or gila lizards or marmosets feel this need? I'm intrigued by anyone accepting my flaws with such little reservation, my wife especially. Why do they do this? I think-and I fear-that they simply don't know any better than to assume that I'm worth it. Again, like my wife. There's no explanation for dog love. Or marriage, come to think of it.
MD: Given your commitment to the HSUS and other animal shelters, I assume you have adopted dogs from a shelter, and in your author's photo you're holding a photogenic Dachshund. Could you describe your own "assortment of no-longer-flawed dogs"?
BB: Oh, that's quite a task. Attrition and age has made this a sad year for us at the J & B Dog Ranch-actual name of our place, I'm fully embarrassed to admit-as presently we feature only one flawed Bull Terrier mix named Ridley and one flawed Puerto Rican street fighter/lover named Pilar. Fortunately, there are always others around the corner, in more ways than one. They seem to find us, and our lives are the richer for it.

As our lives are richer for having Flawed Dogs to remind us that we have been entrusted with the welfare of companions who love us unconditionally, flaws and all. ■

Birgitte Jørgensen lives in Toronto and is owned by a completely unflawed black Labrador Retriever named Batai of Qawra, who recommends www.berkeleybreathed.com for its support of pet shelters, not to mention its Flawed Dog-O-Matic feature. Flawed Dogs is published by Little, Brown and Company.

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