Handsome Dan, Ugly History

Last Friday, the Yale community came together to celebrate a day of immense importance: the first birthday of beloved mascot, Handsome Dan XVIII. The party spanned the entirety of Cross Campus and was nothing short of extravagant, boasting its own Snapchat story and bulldog themed games. The eighteenth Handsome Dan, also called Walter, was naturally the star of the show. He arrived fashionably late, his leash held by his caretaker, Kevin Discepello, MC’09, a former Yale lacrosse player who now works as the Assistant Athletic Director of Facilities, Operations, and Events. Walter sat enclosed in a small roped off circle for around an hour as loud music blared from speakers set up in Berkeley North Court. He seemed to enjoy the adulation of the crowds, but as the hot day wore on, students could be heard whispering that he looked tired.

From yaleathletics.com

According to legend, Andrew Barbey Graves, a Yale rower, bought an English Bulldog from a New Haven blacksmith for $5.00 in 1889 — although the Yale Alumni Magazine suggests that in reality, the first mascot was likely a purebred bulldog bought from an esteemed New Haven breeder. Charmed students soon declared Dan as their mascot; when asked to speak to Harvard, the enlivened dog would bark aggressively in response. After his passing in 1897, Dan was stuffed and put behind glass in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium lobby, where he is still on display. In 1909, in celebration of his life, the Yale Daily News first referred to the Yale freshman basketball team as the Bulldogs.

The tale of the first Handsome Dan is straight out of a story book, but his successors as mascot have met worse fates. Many Handsome Dans have died or retired due to disease and other health complications. The fourth mascot died after having his hind legs paralyzed in a car accident. Handsome Dan VIII had to be resuscitated after falling into a pool of mud at the boathouse and, some time later, died from acute nephrosis. Our eleventh Handsome Dan was retired due to crippling arthritis. Both Handsome Dan XIV and XVII died due to heart attacks. But developing alongside the comings and goings of Handsome Dans has been another, much more tragic trend — the sinister downturn in the health of the English Bulldog.

The English Bulldog, originally known as an athletic and tenacious dog, was bred for bull-baiting, a sport in which dogs would try to seize the snout of a bull and pin it down. But high demand for bulldogs that show the breed’s most recognizable traits — namely, the flat, wrinkly face, the big head, the short legs, and the prominent underbite — has since created dangerous breeding practices. For the past century, each generation has been unhealthier than the last. In “Can the Bulldog be Saved?” the New York Times cited three independent reports on purebred breeding which found “modern breeding practices — including inbreeding and breeding for ‘extreme traits,’ like the massive and short-faced head of the bulldog — are detrimental to the health and welfare of dogs.” The article went on to question “…whether it is ethically defensible to continue breeding them at all.”

The results of current breeding practices are ugly. The American Kennel Club notes on their website that “because of their brachycephalic (short-nosed) build, bulldogs frequently have breathing difficulties relating to their elongated soft-palate blocking their airways.” Dogs cool themselves off using heavy breathing, so breathing difficulties make bulldogs prone to overheating. Dr. Greco, who works as a veterinarian at Mill Pond Veterinary Hospital in Branford, Connecticut agrees, adding that they’re also “hard to breed because a lot of them have to have Caesarean Sections because their heads are so large.”

The deterioration of the bulldog was a serious enough problem to provoke Yale to change breed for Handsome Dan XVIII. At the initial request of Chris Getman, his last caretaker, Yale made the switch from the English Bulldog to the relatively new, healthy Olde English Bulldogge, a breed created in the 1970’s as a more athletic alternative to the English Bulldog. Diane Judy, who bred Handsome Dan XVII, told the New York Times that she no longer felt comfortable breeding bulldogs, commenting that she “adores” bulldogs but admitting that they are “a breed in trouble.”

Following the switch,many associated with Yale have offered positive feedback. Professor Laurie Santos, director of the Canine Cognition Center and Head of Silliman College, commented, “I think the switch was a wonderful idea. Olde English Bulldogges are known to be healthier than English Bulldogs.” Kevin Discepolo met with many breeders before making the final decision on our 18th mascot; “I wanted a dog that was active enough to go on hikes with me and would live a long time, without all the health issues bulldogs can bring.” Karin Shedd BK’16, who planned Walter’s first birthday party and works for the Yale Office of Public Affairs and Communications, also addressed the switch of breed, saying “I think they really hit the nail on the head with this type of dog… He doesn’t appear, at least to me, to have the same issues that other similar strains of bulldogs can have.”

But while Walter is less susceptible to health issues than past Handsome Dans, the breed switch hasn’t alleviated him from the challenges of on-campus stardom. Celebrity has been a health hazard for past mascots — three Handsome Dans have been retired due to “emotional instability.” Handsome Dan III was retired soon after becoming the mascot due to a morbid fear of crowds. Firecrackers set off at the Yale-Harvard football game are said to have “obviously hastened” the death of Handsome Dan VI. The Handsome Dan that followed also had his struggles, and had to be retired after becoming ill-tempered during a three year stint as mascot. His successor was retired after just two games due to an intense discomfort with public appearances.

When it comes to Walter, Kevin Discepolo made it clear that “people forget at times that he is still a puppy. He gets tired, and he gets hot just like a normal dog so there are times when we need to duck away or give him a little space to cool off.” Professor Santos shared a different perspective on some of these difficulties; she noted, “Walter faces the challenge of being a celebrity dog — lots of people on campus feel like they know him, but of course, he may view a lot of those people as strangers. He also faces the challenge of being part of large crowds of people in situations that are often frightening for dogs.” Dr. Greco agrees, adding, “while some dogs love socializing, working, and doing that type of thing, there are other dogs that get anxious or nervous and it can be terrible for them.”

To combat the challenges of being a celebrity dog, Kevin Discepolo sent Walter away for “obedience school” shortly after adopting him. Professor Laurie Santos is optimistic that it is possible to overcome the challenges of stardom. She commented, “The good news is that dogs can be trained to better get used to these sorts of situations and Walter’s keeper has shown an impressive commitment to making sure Walter gets the right kind of training and experience for the job. I think Yale is doing a great job trying to make sure that Walter has the training he needs to do his job in a healthy comfortable way.”

Discepolo and Yale rightfully received praise for the change of breed and their commitment to ensuring that Walter is trained to cope with the stresses of celebrity, but their motivations are suspect. There’s clearly a lot of love for Walter, but the language used to talk about him seems more descriptive of a financial asset, and not a living, breathing bulldog. “He’s been a great promotional tool for Yale Athletics to reach out to a wider audience. Coaches, when they have recruits on campus, are very anxious to see if they can stop by my office so the recruit can meet Walter,” Discepolo explained. It’s clear he has a role to play beyond just being cute: “When he is at an event, he is working.” The language gets more bizarre when Discepolo addressed the historic switch to the healthier Olde English Bulldogge to the YDN: “To have such a high turnover rate didn’t make sense.”

Thinking of Walter purely as a promotional tool is dangerous, especially since his popularity may affect bulldog breeding rates. Even as the English Bulldog’s health is deteriorating, the breed is surging in popularity. In 2010, the bulldog ranked 6th on the American Kennel Club’s list of most popular breeds, one spot behind Golden Retrievers. Popular bulldog mascots are partly to blame, and it’s not just Handsome Dan. Sonny Seiler, the owner of the University of Georgia bulldog mascot, credited his pet, Uga, for the breed’s popularity, “The more people hear about Uga and see him on TV, the more people want a bulldog.” Seiler admits that “they are high-maintenance animals with health problems,” but overlooks his university’s role in perpetuating these health problems.

Kevin Discepolo and Yale have taken the first small steps in combatting these problems by ending a 128 year legacy of English Bulldog mascots, but they should do better than Seiler and the University of Georgia. Publicity for Yale is important, but Walter is more than just a marketing campaign — he represents a responsible future in bulldog breeding. More than anything, Yale should be publicizing the importance of the breed switch. Handsome Dan’s instagram is a good place to start.