HBO is now airing its downer documentary “One Nation Under Dog” that claims to be inspired by Michael Schaffer’s book, One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic Pet Food. The book sounds like a quirky take on the strangeness of dog culture from someone who recently had their baptism by fire; the official description of the book confirms this:
A witty, insightful, and affectionate examination of how and why we spend billions on our pets, and what this tells us about ourselves
In 2003, Michael Schaffer and his wife drove to a rural shelter and adopted an emaciated, dreadlocked Saint Bernard who they named Murphy. They vowed that they’d never become the kind of people who send dogs named Baxter and Sonoma out to get facials, or shell out for $12,000 hip replacements. But then they started to get weird looks from the in-laws: You hired a trainer? Your vet prescribed antidepressants? So Schaffer started poking around and before long happened on an astonishing statistic: the pet industry, estimated at $43 billion this year, was just $17 billion barely a decade earlier.
One Nation Under Dog is about America’s pet obsession—the explosion, over the past generation, of an industry full of pet masseuses, professional dog-walkers, organic kibble, leash-law militants, luxury pet spas, veterinary grief counselors, upscale dog shampoos, and the like: a booming economy that is evidence of tremendous and rapid change in the status of America’s pets. Schaffer provides a surprising and lively portrait of our country—as how we treat our pets reflects evolving ideas about domesticity, consumerism, politics, and family—through this fabulously reported and sympathetic look at both us and our dogs.
Such revelations are not rare, this blog is driven by my own bemusement at the current state of dog culture.
The HBO documentary, despite listing Michael Schaffer as a consultant an explicitly stating “inspired by” in the credits, has little to nothing to do with the advertised contents of the book. I suspect that the producers simply liked the title and threw Schaffer a credit as partial payment to use it. There is no wit, insight, nor affection on the film. In fact, it’s the opposite. The only segment that is remotely related to the consumerist pet industry is the footage about cloning, and instead of Prozac, dog parks, organic food, and adventures; the subtitle of the film reveals its mawkish content: Stories of Fear, Loss, & Betrayal.
The entire first part can be summarized: dogs bite people and their owners can be assholes. There is no moral or lesson or any take away other than a large hunting dog can rip a little girl’s ear off and get away with it if you hire the right attorney. If the film makers wanted to cover new and important ground regarding dog culture and “fear” they should have investigated dog fighting rings. What we get instead is something that an intern at some small town’s public access channel’s version of 20-20 or Nightline would get a C- for if they turned it in at their Broadcast Journalism 101 class at the town’s second-rate community college.
The second part can be summarized: some people like dogs so much they fashion their lifestyle around that bond. There’s a scene with people at a grief counseling group for dead pets that has no message, no argument, no point really. It’s exactly what you’d expect from people upset that their pets of 15 years died; if the implication that this is ridiculous and these people are fools for missing their pets then the only ones who look bad are the producers. Any episode of a “reality” animal show on A&E has more punch and interest than this whole segment.
The other key scene is an extended interview of a rich family who paid $155,000 to clone their dog. Other reviewers find this so shocking they mention it multiple times in the same paragraph. I find this sum unsurprising and unexceptional really. There are countless families in America who purchase homes with yards big enough for their dogs that easily add this sum on to the price of the property; the rent I pay is significantly higher because I need said space for my dogs and there’s no hope of recouping rent. An extra $900 per month (the difference between a $500 room rental and a $1400 small house with small yard rental) over the 15 year lifetime of a dog is $162,000.
People who show dogs regularly purchase RV mobile homes that can cost that much to be able to travel around to dog shows, I even know people in less tony dog sorts who do the same. There are also a plethora of similarly expensive things people of much more modest means purchase all the time that no one would consider worthy of a headline in the newspaper. A pack-a-day cigarette habit can cost you $30k over the 15 year life of a dog; the first 3 months of treatment for lung cancer can cost $35-50k, plus $15-20k per year maintenance, and another $40-60k in the last six months of life. I won’t hold my breath for Sarah McLachlan to come out with a public service video called: Think of the Lungs, Will You Save Them?
Heck, if we consider what most people spend on their dogs measured against their income or net worth, I don’t think the rich Florida couple is so far out of line as to evidence some problem with America and our relation to our dogs. When the day comes that gene therapy and genetic medicine starts producing real cures for humans and dogs alike, we’ll actually owe a debt to the advancement knowledge paid for by sentimental rich Floridians and the edgy Korean scientists who pushed the envelope.
The third part is really the worst and its most memorable footage is as misleading as it is maudlin. Whereas the rest of the footage appears to be current (within a 2-3 years) and captured by the production team for the explicit creation of the documentary, the producers make no effort during the documentary to mention that the scene where dogs are gassed in a dumpster is actually over 14 years old and lifted from a short film by Randy Benson called Man and Dog. That documentary won a Student Academy Award in 1999. The only clue that the footage is lifted is a mention at the end of the credits, “”Gas Chamber footage provided by Randy Benson.” There’s no hint at all that it’s sorely out-dated.
The original documentary, shot in 1998, was a full 15 minutes and told the story of the lone animal control officer working in a rural North Carolina county. The final title card explained how 7.5 million animals were put to sleep by animal control in 1998. The title card in One Nation Under Dog lists the figure as 2 million today but makes no mention how far this number has dropped since the original footage was filmed.
The new documentary also fails to mention that within a year of being shot and debuted the “shelter” shown in the video had been razed and replaced with a new facility where the dogs were given more humane lethal injections and no longer gassed. If you’d like the view the most emotionally disturbing minutes of that film, where the dogs are gassed, the video is available on youtube. A re-cut of this footage is what appears in One Nation.
I can only imagine that this footage was included in this 2012 documentary because the producers were lazy and uninspired and the focus groups came back “your documentary is boring, aimless, and lacks any emotional punch.” Then someone remembered that over a decade ago they saw some really shocking footage of dogs getting gassed and they figured, what the heck, this will spice things up like putting hot sauce on rancid eggs. Never mind doing something timely, never mind doing something relevant, never mind even doing a follow up or capturing this issue still happening, never mind presenting any of the advancements the last decade has brought (Can you say No-Kill?). No. Rehash some controversial and shocking footage and pass it off like it’s current and original work.
One Nation Under Dog the documentary is shallow drive-by “journalism” at its worst. Lots of sound, very little fury, and all signifying nothing.
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