Gimme Some Skin

articles
Dec. 7 1996 3:30 AM

Gimme Some Skin

Why shouldn't Dalmatians be made into coats?

Curella De Vil

Cruella De Vil

If she doesn't scare you

No evil thing will.

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If your multiplex is like my multiplex (and whose multiplex isn't?), when you go to a screening of 101 Dalmatians, you will see six previews. Here is what Hollywood is preparing for America's children: a cat movie, another cat movie, an ape movie, another ape movie, a dog movie, and another dog movie. In the second dog movie, the dog shares top billing with a dolphin.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

The coming plague of animal films is nothing new. The last few years have witnessed Babe (animatronic pigs, dogs, sheep), several Homeward Bounds (dog and cat), a couple of Free Willys (whale), and countless others I have, mercifully, been able to forget. Everywhere you turn, some movie is preaching interspecies comity and rhapsodizing about animals' superhuman intelligence. Any day now I expect my cat to strike up a conversation with me, probably about his three-picture deal with Castle Rock.

No movie embraces animal propaganda with as much enthusiasm as the new 101 Dalmatians, Disney's live-action version of its old animated feature. It is the heartwarming animal movie distilled into its purest form. The cuddliest animals (Dalmatian puppies) are threatened with the most horrible fate (clubbing, skinning, being turned into fur coats) at the hands of the most villainous villainess, Cruella De Vil. (Strangely, we are supposed to revile Cruella for designing fur coats, yet root for the hero, Roger, who designs violent, mind-numbing, soul-destroying video games.)

Naturally, Cruella gets her comeuppance--a variety of Home Alone-style agonies inflicted by farm animals. This teaches the requisite moral lesson: It is far better to torture a human being than to allow a single puppy to come to harm. In the end, the Dalmatians and their human masters live happily ever after. Children cheer. Animal-rights groups coo. Parents drive to the Pet Pantry to buy Dalmatian pups for Christmas.

After watching 101 Dalmatians, I too wanted to drive to Pet Pantry to buy Dalmatian pups ... and skin 'em. After 103 hectoring minutes of the movie, I wondered: What's wrong with Cruella De Vil? What's wrong with a Dalmatian fur coat? And where can I buy one? How much is that doggie in the window? While the ASPCA and PETA chapters compose their indignant letters to the editor and heat their vats of oil to a rolling boil, let me explain.

There's nothing wrong with Dalmatians that a good furrier couldn't fix. The movie 101 Dalmatians promises dogs that are good-natured, healthy, intelligent, resourceful, gorgeous. Except for the last part, this is a lie. Dalmatians are high-strung. They're hyperactive. They bark too much. They're bad with children. They shed constantly. They're hard to train. (The Dalmatians don't even perform tricks in 101 Dalmatians. An Airedale does the tough stunts; the Dalmatians merely bark on cue.) They're ill-suited to living indoors. Many of them are deaf, and all of them are dumb. They are, in short, lousy pets.

This inspires an equation: Beauty plus difficult temperament equals fur. We do it to minks. We do it to foxes. Why not to Dalmatians? Cruella has it right. A fur coat preserves what is desirable about Dalmatians--their beauty--and eliminates what is undesirable--everything else.

Illustration by Juliette Borda

There are two main objections to Dalmatian fur coats. The first is principled: Fur is wrong. It barbarically exploits animals, it's unnecessary, and so on. To this, I offer only the standard fur-industry reply: Fur farming doesn't have to be cruel. Minks live longer on fur farms than they do in the wild. Dalmatians, one imagines, could roam more freely on a large farm than in a cramped urban apartment. And Dalmatian farmers would not simply kill Dalmatians for their fur. Dog meat is prized in other parts of the world. (It used to be in the United States, too; on his Western expedition with Clark, Meriwether Lewis raved about it.) Dalmatian farmers can set up shop in places where dog meat is eaten. Maybe Dalmatian burger is an ecologically efficient substitute for beef (though it might dampen enthusiasm for McDonald's current 101 Dalmatians promotional campaign).

The second objection to Dalmatian farming is visceral. The mere thought of farming dogs for fur nauseates you. With this objection, I sympathize. Dogs are charming. People love their dogs, even their Dalmatians. They see something grotesque in the idea of making them into winter outerwear. It offends common decency.

Yet, we do cruel things to animals--smart animals, affectionate animals, cute animals--all the time. People raised on farms understand this. Pigs are sociable, loving, and a hell of a lot brighter than Dalmatians. Have you seen what gets done to them? Do farmers weep about it? Calves are adorable. But veal is delicious.

Of course, it is argued, the dog--man's best friend, the family pet--is different. So says modern bourgeois America, which has turned the pet into a full-fledged member of the nuclear family, even more sacred than other human beings (such as curmudgeonly aunts). Disney, by anthropomorphizing its critters, exploits this American mushy-mindedness, and makes us forget that pets are, in the end, just animals. But God gave man dominion over the beasts of the earth: If an animal has economic utility, we should farm it.

In 1991, when Disney re-released the animated 101 Dalmatians, demand for Dalmatians soared. Here is a prediction. This December, it will happen again: Tens of thousands of children will hound their parents into buying charming Dalmatian pups for Christmas. As before, many of those charming pups will, in two years, grow up into charmless dogs. Hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, will be abandoned or dropped at the pound. They will be shut up in cages. Later, they will be euthanized.

Now why is that better than becoming a fur coat?

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