By Elisa Kronish
You don’t have to bea cartoon connoisseur to know Berkeley Breathed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “ Bloom County” comic strip, as well as his “Outland” and “Opus” strips. His popular characters have appeared in daily newspapers all across the country. His artistic talent is obvious, but what you might not know about Breathed is that he’s a steadfast advocate for animal rights and shelter adoptions.
His involvement began with a postcard from the Doris Day Animal Foundation. “It was a picture of a Beagle puppy in a metal cage at a research center. They had burned his skin for some reason, I think to test burn medications or bandages,” Breathed says. “It was the tipping point for me,” he recalls. “I was able to answer the question, ‘Wouldn’t you want your child to benefit from this,’ by gladly saying, ‘If this is what progress means, then I’d have to say no,’” he says.
The incident galvanized Breathed to participate in animal causes, which led to shelters and the realization that they’re filled with loving animals who shouldn’t be there. His most recent book, “Flawed Dogs,” takes a comical, but heartfelt, look at a misfit group of 18 decidedly exceptional dogs at the fictional Piddleton Last Chance Dog Pound in Piddleton, Vt. The book is listed as a children’s book, but it resonates with anyone, old or young, who has ever loved a shelter animal. Through his silly, sometimes menacing, and often downright ghastly portrayals of these forlorn dogs, Breathed’s ultimate message is that the only reason they’re flawed is that they aren’t loved. We chatted with Breathed about his book, his purpose in writing it, and his own animal-related experiences
Tails: Do you have “flawed dogs” of your own?
Berkeley Breathed: We’ve had up to four dogs at a time, but we have two right now with a couple of children, too. There’s Ridley, a Bull Terrier, and Pilar, a Puerto Rican street dog—they have their own species now—picked up by a PETA director when they closed a horrible pound down there. She knew we were the kind of wack jobs who would take her. Pilar can be locked in a room eating from her bowl and spin around suddenly thinking someone’s trying to steal her food. She still has nightmares of her old days.
Tails: What would Ridley and Pilar say about “Flawed Dogs”?
BB: They would say, ‘For God’s sake, at least he didn’t put us in the @#*&% book.”
Tails: Who is “Flawed Dogs” intended for?
BB: It’s obviously intended for dog lovers, and it’s nice for dog lovers who hadn’t thought about shelter issues. But it’s too light-hearted to be an issue-oriented book. The subtext is effective, though. It’s the current. It’s the empathy we should be applying to dogs in shelters.
Tails: How do you think “Flawed Dogs” turned out?
BB: I think technically, it’s my best work by far. I still look at it, and I’m amused by my own pictures. I started it about two years ago and had lots of ideas that didn’t work, lots of half-painted dogs.
Tails: Your website (www.BerkeleyBreathed.com) has a mix-and-match dog game, the Flawed-Dog-o-Matic. Where did that come from?
BB: It was an idea the publisher had, and the first version was, ironically, a breeding machine.
Tails: Why did that bother you?
BB: Dog breeding is inherently unhealthy for dogs. It’s too bad there’s as much antipathy between breeders and shelters as there is. The people who profess to love dogs as much as breeders do are still doing something that is destroying the health of their dogs. Because the breeding process tends to make the dogs’ genetic marker weak, we make the point that shelter dogs can actually be stronger. With a breeder dog, you’re often buying problems. It’s cruel to the [guardians], and it’s cruel to the dogs. The industry exists because they’ve created the demand. The breeders aren’t filling a hole; there’s no shortage of dogs.
Tails: What would you tell people in terms of adopting shelter dogs?
BB: It’s like parenting. We’re telling little girls to value what they bring to the world, but the world is valuing them for their looks. In breeding, you’re being told to pick a dog by how it looks, rather than how he touches your heart. These [shelter] dogs have been passed over, and it’s only getting worse. We want people to rethink how they think about shelter dogs. Love is being bypassed in shelters, when there are people who could really use love. That’s what these stories are about. It is also a parable about how we treat each other. Over the next generation, we’d like to see the recognition that choosing a companion animal by something like the angle of his rear legs, is spiritually lacking.
For fun, we asked Breathed a few extra questions:
Tails: What was your first pet and what was his/her name?
BB: A snake named Smedly. His eating a goldfish whole for the first time was the most exciting event in my life until I slept with my wife 15 years later.
Tails: If you were a dog, how would you depict yourself in a cartoon?
BB: I’ve often thought dogs must think that we’re large penguins. Honestly, take our clothes off, and that’s what we look like. Some of us.
Tails: How do you spoil your dogs?
BB: Before we had kids, we actually gave them their own rooms and human beds. Now, if we use warm water to squirt the mud off their coats, it’s the highlight of their week.
Tails: What’s the best thing about having shelter dogs?
BB: They wake us every morning by nudging us with their noses and yelling at the top of their lungs, “God bless you for saving our smelly hides!” I figure that’s what they’re saying, anyway. As an example of the touching nature of Breathed’s book, here’s Barney’s story (image at left): “Barney’s pal had lived to autumn/When his years just up and caught ‘im./ Now Barney wonders who would want ‘im,/With Elvis Presley on his bottom.”
And, below, the powerful painting that sums up the stories: “So in this world/Of the simple and odd,/The bent and plain,/The unbalanced bod,/The imperfect people/And the differently pawed,/Some live without love…/That’s how they’re flawed.”
You can order reprints of some of the “Flawed Dogs” artwork at Breathed’s website, www.BerkeleyBreathed.com. Click on the “Online Store” link.