NEW YORK — The air is redolent with talcum powder, hair spray, musky fur, wet towels and. . . . Do they still call it doggy doo?
And the noise: the whoosh-blast of hair dryers, some larger than vacuum cleaners, the metallic clatter of scissors, clippers and nippers.
There are barks and BARKS! yips and snorts, and baleful caterwauls. And everywhere the chatter of people in a knowing patois: champion this, whelp that, sire here and litter there.
We are backstage at humankind's original laboratory for genetic engineering.
Cage doors slam, heavy crates roll down the hallways on push carts. Quivering wet noses poke at passersby, and sometimes a sodden pink tongue emerges to slurp a nearby face.
Long before the biotech boom, petri dish or the electron microscope, 100 centuries before discovery of the gene and how to splice it, way back to the first faint pages of recorded history, men and women have indulged their wildest fancies to shape and reshape the dog.
And once a year, as they have for 118 years, the elite of American dogdom gather in New York City to celebrate their feats.
This is the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show 1994--money, fun, sport, glamour, competition, controversy and politics of the most fervent kind.
In other words, Americans earnest at play.
It did not just \o7 happen\f7 , you know, that there is a Chihuahua and a Saint Bernard, a golden retriever and a basset hound, a Chinese crested and a petit basset griffon vendeen--and more than 140 other breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club.
People composed them.
And what imagination. In all the world, in all history, no other animal has taken on such range of shapes, sizes, colors, personalities and function.
"Absolutely," confirms George Padgett, professor at Michigan State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. "There is no other species like it."
And now, at Madison Square Garden, during two lengthy days each February, more than 2,000 dogs and 10,000 people, having invested millions of dollars in the quest, meet under the TV lights in seven show rings to answer the question that burns in their hearts, if not necessarily yours: Who has the best dog in America?
Only one other sporting event, the Kentucky Derby, has been around longer. And probably none has accumulated so much hidebound tradition. There are larger shows, but none so prestigious. It's tuxedos and evening gowns, but watch where you step. Every dog here has already earned its title as a show dog champion in the AKC registry. This is the championship of canine champions, a combination Miss America Pageant, Olympics, Chicago livestock exposition and Palm Springs country club social.
Leave it to Roger Caras, author and voice-of-God ring announcer at Westminster, to describe these dog people: "At best, they are a strange lot."
Attention dog experts: Yes, we know you are reading. Yes, we know of the many boiling arguments about purebred show dogs. And yes, we will get to them in a minute. First, let's poke around the show floor a bit.
From 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. each day, Westminster competitors await their calls to the rings from "benching" areas beneath the grandstands. This is a crowded, jostling, aromatic bazaar where breeders and dogs--and their promises of puppies to come--display themselves to spectators, who have paid up to $57 for a ticket.
Over this din rises a thunderous, truly profound and satisfied snore. Cowboy, champion bulldog from Moline, Ill., has lapsed into repose at Row 4A.
"The snoring? Ha. I'm sharing a hotel room with a lady and her chow. She warned me about her snoring. Ha. Back home we sleep with 10 bulldogs. We take them with us in our motor home. Come here, Cowboy, give the lady a kiss," says Judy Johannsen, Cowboy's owner.
She is handing out business cards and espousing the merits of these onetime fighting dogs, with heads the size of soccer balls and rumps like beefsteak tomatoes; with their undershot jaws, smashed-in noses and comically bowed legs.
"I researched for the right breed. I wanted the least aggressive dog I could get. I supervise the animal shelter in Moline, and so I looked through 15 years of dog-bite records. Not one bite by a bulldog. After that, bulldogs chose me."
That a dog bred as a ferocious fighter has been transformed into one of our most gentle pets underscores the wonders of selective breeding on parade at Madison Square Garden. Darwin recognized that creatures evolve by the selection of nature. Dogs demonstrate the nature of humans to meddle.
For instance, what does an aging British lord do when he no longer can keep up with his setters in the hedgerows? \o7 Voila!\f7 He creates a dottering, jowly, oversized spaniel with undersized legs and a drowsy disposition. Almost anyone can keep pace with the clumber spaniel.