There is just 1 thing I know for sure about the Westminster Dog Show: there’s almost zero chance that I would have attended the event if not for the virus which upended the world. I have certainly never been anti-dog, but I’ve also never been a dog person. I didn’t grow up around them, and just ever took a slight interest in the ones I happened upon. But after living alone for more than a year, using rapidly plummeting inspiration to leave my flat (or actually do much of anything), I got a puppy.
It’s not a exceptional story, and certainly I had been luckier in my own circumstances compared to most, many others. But three months later, becoming an active consumer of this #pets-of-time Slack station, I was a prime goal for every time a colleague of mine asked in that channel if anybody who liked hanging out with puppies wanted to take on”an animal-related reporting assignment.” I explained, not realizing I had been volunteering to pay the most prestigious dog show in the U.S. I was originally reluctant –nervous about leaving my pup Lima for eight hours, the longest we had ever spent apart–but eventually left her with a sitter and drove up from Brooklyn, where I reside, to Tarrytown, N.Y., with TIME video manufacturer Joey Lautrup along with my friend and former colleague in Quartz, author Sarah Todd.
I gently anticipated to have nothing to write about. What, after all, could be stated about a 144-year old event that had not already been said? And, in fact, I continued to believe I wouldn’t write anything until we were driving back home in the day, when, with a few space, I realized the profundity of my entire day in the dog show. I’d gone into it thinking of it as a type of inconsequential novelty; I left feeling that it had helped focus the lens through which I want to go through the post-pandemic entire world.
As soon as we pulled into the stupefyingly extravagant grounds of this Lyndhurst Estate –castle, rose garden, vast stretches of manicured greenery, bowling alley (really)–I had been on the lookout for what anyone whose familiarity with this parallel world does not extend past the 2000 mockumentary masterpiece Best in Show would expect to see. That is, the surreal human behaviors and individual choices of those who look, to outsiders like me, strangely obsessed.
They were not difficult to locate : Here was the owner with the face of her spaniel embossed on a pendant necklace and across the side of her leather purse. There was the poodle getting a blowout by a handler working together with the seriousness of a bomb squad technician. If I had been the type of person who would, I might have tweeted:”Overheard at Westminster Kennel Club: A few months ago, a dog and his father were entered into the same competition, and the younger pup won. Afterward, the distraught owner of the older dog emailed the owner of the younger dog, saying that because his offspring had beaten him, the older dog was now in therapy. ”
The areas of the grounds roped off for parking looked like those in a multi-day music festival. RVs, vans and trucks had rear doors open and gatefolds down, with groups of people congregating about, sitting in camp seats and on coolers–except their tailgates, instead of beer and barbecue, were written largely of fancy dog-grooming infrastructure. Even I could tell that which dogs were to compete: they stood like statues atop platforms of different construction as their owners buzzed around them with hairspray, blow dryers and whatever else was in the vast cabinets of supplies by their sides.
A standard poodle getting groomed from the parking lot area in the 2021 Westminster Dog Show.
Elijah Wolfson for TIME
The puppies that already had their day, on the other hand, looked and behaved…such as dogs. Golden retrievers bounded across one of the many grand yards, lap dog-types circled their owners together with urgency, long-haired varieties panted, tongues outside, in the shade.
Inside the contest grounds, what struck me most wasn’t the dogs, but how incredibly ordinary everything was. At least, relative to the last 16 weeks of pandemic life.
The leading dog series at the U.S. is generally held in Madison Square Garden in February, with tens of thousands of spectators in attendance. For apparent reasons, the Westminster Kennel Club transferred its signature event to a outdoor place this year (significance February in New York was out of the question), and restrict attendees to just the dog-essential (and media ). The reduced number of people allowed inside supposed they could enforce a key rule: if you wanted in, you had to prove you had been completely vaccinated, or that you had a negative test within the past 72 hours. The upshot was the vaccinated could walk around without masks, and those who weren’t were mostly confined to an”unvaccinated area,” and had to wear masks when they left the cordoned zone. All of us wore coloured wristbands that publicly declared our status.
Neither dog nor human bemoaned the forced exodus from The World’s Most Famous Arena. According to the a variety of dog handlers and other professionals I spoke with, most of the dog show circuit occurs in outside places; in usual years, Westminster-at-MSG is among the few outliers. Presumably, the puppies were into this new arrangement. For those humans in attendance, it was just agreeable. It was a balm.
I am, by nature, a very skeptical person. Some individuals would (and have) known as me judgmental. I’m particularly dubious of anyone with a”thing.” If you are not sure what I mean, let me give you an instance. When I was in college, there was a pupil in my graduating class who didn’t wear socks or shoes on campus or in classrooms. This was his”thing.” This (true misanthropic) stance towards other people has extended to individuals who are, say, actually into saving the whales, or actually in to document collecting, or really in to dogs. )
During my day in the Westminster Dog Show, though, I felt none of that cynicism. Rather, I felt gratitude to be around people who not only cared, but expressed their dedication unabashed