Before your eyes widen with rage and your temple veins burst, before you leave a profane comment at the bottom of this article, before you tweet about how I should be euthanized, and before you photoshop my face onto Hitler’s body and upload it to the Facebook page "Ryan Kearney Is Worse Than Michael Vick," know this: I think puppies are cute. Cuter than kittens, cuter than bunnies, cuter than ducklings and piglets, penguin chicks and panda cubs. Infinitely cuter, also, than human babies, whose cheeks cannot compete with puppy fur, whose eyes are as unmoored as puppies’ are expressive, and whose limbic flailing make a pouncing puppy look like an NFL-caliber wide receiver.
But puppies are not wide receivers, not of any caliber. They are dogs, and as such, they don’t have two feet and two hands but rather four paws that seem expressly designed to prevent carrying round objects, let alone catching airborne footballs. And yet, every year since 2005, the cable network Animal Planet has let loose a motley crew of these toddler-dogs in a stadium—actually an enclosed pen measuring roughly five yards by two yards, painted to resemble a football field—and broadcast the action as “Puppy Bowl,” complete with an NFL Films narrator (originally the legendary Harry Kalas, RIP, and now Scott Graham). The only "bowl" here is the one from which the thirsty dogs lap water with their coarse little tongues, and the “action” has nothing to do with methodically moving a ball down the field and scoring. Instead, puppies chase and sniff and mount each other, lose interest, nod off, wake up, gnaw plush footballs, and sometimes lift one in their mouth and trot into the end zone, adorably unaware of the significance of this act.
It’s unfair, of course, to compare the Puppy Bowl to its ostensible inspiration, the Super Bowl. One features puppies; the other features some of the world’s most impressive athletes. But what’s wrong with one is what’s wrong the other—and you, the viewer, ought to consider the moral consequences of watching either.
The Super Bowl is America at its most steroidal, figuratively—if not also, in some cases, literally. The pre-game shows are longer than the game itself, and the game is hardly short. Last year’s lasted 4 hours and 14 minutes. That was partly due to a half-hour power outage, but over the past two decades the game has averaged 3 hours and 35 minutes. That’s about 20 minutes more than the average NFL game, which itself is too long considering that it requires viewers to sit through more than 100 ads, spread over 20 commercial breaks, all to watch a grand total of 11 minutes of action. But the game isn’t just overlong. The in-game TV graphics, already too bright and embarrassingly elaborate during regular-season games, are cranked up to epileptic proportions for the Super Bowl. International conglomerates drop $4 million on 30-second commercials that are never as funny or interesting as Twitter would have you believe. And then there’s the always forgettable (well, almost always forgettable) halftime show, which reliably features either a senescent rock band (The Who, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones) or an insipid pop act (Bruno Mars, Nicki Minaj, The Black Eyed Peas) performing what amounts to a Girl Talk medley of their “greatest” “hits.”
But the worst thing about the Super Bowl is that it is a game of football, a brutal sport suspected of causing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is science for “rotting brain” and associated with “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.” The NFL has long denied any such link between football and degenerative brain disease, which makes watching games doubly troubling: It’s hard enough to watch men get concussed, break bones, and suffer “stingers,” all in hi-def slo-mo; in doing so, you’re also supporting a business that, out of greed and survival instinct, has covered up the horrific damage being done to its employees. In a recent New York Times magazine piece titled “Is It Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl?,” Steve Almond writes that...
...medical research has confirmed that football can cause catastrophic brain injury — not as a rare and unintended consequence, but as a routine byproduct of how the game is played. That puts us fans in a morally queasy position. We not only tolerate this brutality. We sponsor it, just by watching at home. We’re the reason the N.F.L. will earn $5 billion in television revenue alone next year, three times as much as its runner-up, Major League Baseball.
Put that way, it's not much of a quandary at all, is it? Not for Almond, who vows not to observe that "secular holiday," the Super Bowl. He loves the "grace" and "tension" and "chaos" of football, "but can no longer indulge these pleasures without feeling complicit."
This is what makes the Puppy Bowl, on its face, a genius act of counter-programming. The relative simplicity of its production and conception are a welcome respite from the pomp and circumstance and bone-crushing, brain-damaging violence of elite football. Also, it stars puppies. Everyone loves puppies. Compared to the Super Bowl—where you'll get only a brief puppy fix—the Puppy Bowl looks like the most harmless, lovable program on TV.
But it’s not. The Puppy Bowl has become a cultural behemoth in its own right, abiding by the American business ethos that if you don’t keep getting bigger, you die. This year’s Puppy Bowl, played in the “Geico Stadium,” features no less than 66 pups between the ages of 12 and 21 weeks. The halftime show features Keyboard Cat and Lil Bub, and there’s also cheerleading penguins, fan voting for the Bissell MVP, overpriced merchandise, a fantasy draft, and news broke Tuesday that Michelle Obama is going to perform a touchdown dance during the show. The two-hour show begins at 3 p.m., but will loop on repeat, with new content every hour, until 3 a.m. That's 12 straight hours devoted solely to puppies being puppies. (Maybe they should just become the Puppy Channel? Maybe not.) And if that's not enough, you can watch a live Puppy Bowl "practice" on your computer right now.
Cute, I know! But can we be sure that this puppy football is entirely safe? Not that the Puppy Bowl needs a concussion protocol, or to test for PEDs—though I did pose those issues to spokeswoman Melissa Berry, who replied, “All the puppies are safe and well taken care of.” All players receive a pre-game veterinary checkup, she said. A vet is also on site during filming, as is a monitor from the American Humane Association—an organiztion the Hollywood Reporter recently exposed in an investigation into “troubling cases of animal injury and death that directly call into question the 136-year-old Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit’s assertion that ‘No Animals Were Harmed’ on productions it monitors.” What’s more, Mother Jones this month raised questions about the Animal Planet show “Call of the Wildman,” alleging “evidence of a culture that tolerated legally and ethically dubious activities, including: using an animal that had been drugged with sedatives in violation of federal rules; directing trappers to procure wild animals, which were then 'caught' again as part of a script.” So while I doubt that Puppy Bowl players are harmed, it’s not inconceivable.
The Puppy Bowl’s heart is in the right place. The puppies come from animal shelters and rescue groups across the U.S., including The SATO Project, which rescues dogs from Puerto Rico’s infamous Dead Dog Beach. (Google it, if you dare. As Berry says, “It’s a pretty nasty situation.”) Having already performed in the bowl, which was taped in late October, those puppies that weren’t already in the process of being adopted or weren’t adopted by Puppy Bowl crew members have been returned to their keepers, ready to be adopted by one of the Puppy Bowl’s 12 million heart-melted viewers.
That's a lot of people, especially for basic cable, and they're all tuning in to watch something they could watch live, in person, for free, at their nearest pet shop. Does our obsession with puppies specifically, and cuteness generally, know no bounds? The internet replies: Nope, no bounds! We will look at puppies ad infinitum and sine nauseum, because evolution: The New Republic's Alice Robb noted earlier this week that "a team of psychologists led by Jessika Golle at the University of Bern argue based on students’ reactions to babies’ and puppies’ faces that there is a universal mechanism underlying our appreciation of both animals and babies." Hard-wired this way or not, we are a race of slack-jawed zombies, stalking cuteness. It’s a human weakness that’s worth fighting—especially if you love puppies.
There's a reason we have thousands of animal shelters and rescue groups in America: Some humans cannot resist “saving” a sad puppy they’ve spotted through a pet store window, impulse-buying it for themselves, a loved one, a child. That purchase may have temporarily freed one pup—at least until little Jimmy grows bored of it—but it also implicitly supported large-scale commercial dog breeders, otherwise known as puppy mills. All you really need to know about them can be found on Google Images. "There are about 10,000 puppy mill facilities in the United States pumping out three to four million dogs per year," says Melanie Kahn, senior director of the Humane Society's puppy mill campaign. That's around the same number of homeless, adoptable dogs that are euthanized in shelters every year, she said.
Christmas is an especially popular time for puppy purchases, and around now—late January, early February—says Kahn, "We tend to see a flood of puppies being given up to shelters by owners. A lot of them end up in shelters because having a puppy is like having a child.... They're a lot of work. You have to train them. They’re up every few hours at night when they’re young.” (Sixty percent of dogs in shelters were surrendered by owners. The rest are strays—abandoned by individual owners or puppy mills, or the offspring of the abandoned.) If everyone listened to the Humane Society and Animal Planet's pleas to adopt dogs rather than buying them—or, if you insist on paying for a dog, using responsible breeders—then it would not only put puppy mills out of business, but possibly solve the crisis of dog overpopulation in America.
There's a reason, though, that it's not called the "Dog Bowl": We are not nearly as obsessed with dogs in general as we are with puppies, and it stands to reason that Puppy Bowl viewers would crave ownership of a puppy, specifically. But most dogs, in shelters or elsewhere, are not puppies for a simple biological reason. "Lest we forget, puppies grow up,” Kahn, who has never seen the Puppy Bowl, says. "At some point they won't be little tiny and cute.” That's easy to forget when you're strolling around your local mall, looking for a gift for your teenage daughter or newlywed husband, or not looking for anything at all, and you pass a puppy bowl of a different sort—a glass tank with cedar shavings scattered thinly across the floor. Your human eyes meet a puppy's eyes. In that moment, for reasons evolutionary or cultural or some combination thereof, it's all over. You are sold. As Berry says, “I don’t know anyone who could not smile looking at a pile of puppies.”
I know one person, anyway.
Image via—where else?—Shutterstock.com.
Ryan Kearney is a story editor at The New Republic.