This week’s column will be a little different, perhaps more personal than usual, but I believe a question I’m concerned with right now may apply to a lot of other dog people as well.

Should dog show judges have a conscience? That sounds like a weird question, I know: of course you need to have a clear conscience when you’re judging. If you aren’t confident that you have done the best job you possibly could, and put the dogs you’re judging in as close to the order of merit as you think they deserve – how would you be able to sleep at night? Maybe I’m naive, but I do think most judges are very conscientious in that respect. Some exhibitors may not agree, but I believe that when we encounter what we lightly call “bad judging” (and what’s bad judging to you and me may, of course, be a supreme example of expertise to someone else), it’s more often due to a judge’s different priorities than to his or her knowingly putting anyone than the dog they like best first.

What I’m talking about is something different, however. Politics and sports don’t mix, we’re often told, but how far should a judge go to be “politically correct” – and how can you be sure just what this is, for that matter? We have a very specific case in front of us right now. As published on Best In Show Daily a couple of weeks ago, AKC Chairman of the Board Alan Kalter and President Dennis Sprung have sent a joint letter to FCI, the international body that coordinates dog shows in most of the non-English-speaking world, asking it to pull the 2016 FCI World Dog Show from the designated host country, Russia. The reason, as everyone who’s been following the news recently knows, is that Russia recently introduced stringent laws against “gay propaganda.” Even being what’s called “gay-friendly” can land a person in jail for up to two weeks.

In their letter, Kalter and Sprung wrote that the “proliferation of anti-gay and lesbian laws in Russia today is both disturbing and shocking to our community.” For Russia to host such a prestigious dog show “flies in the face of the ideals of the human-canine bond.” They urged FCI to move the World Show from Russia to a “nation that respects and upholds human rights for all its citizens” and stated that “AKC cannot and will not support participation in the 2016 World Dog Show if it is held in Russia.”

No Choice in Host Country
For the record, the American Kennel Club, like its counterparts in most of the English-speaking world, is not a member of the FCI, so obviously had no say in the choice of host country for the World Show. It is also not clear if there is any statute that would allow FCI to go back on its democratically elected choice of host country for the World Show because that country’s political situation has changed. The sentiments expressed in the AKC letter are noble, however, and both Kalter and Sprung have been justifiably commended within the dog fancy for taking a strong and immediate stand.

Newly appointed FCI President Rafael de Santiago of Puerto Rico has responded, in part, that although he personally is against the Russian laws, he has to make sure FCI follows established statutes and procedures. “I guarantee you that our executive and general committees are working on resolving this disgraceful situation,” he writes. Obviously, the last chapter has yet to be written.

On the larger world scene, AKC’s attitude is mirrored by many who, for the same reasons, suggest a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will take place in Russia as well. This includes a number of celebrities, but not – so far – any world leaders. President Obama added his voice to a growing chorus of politicians and sportsmen concerned that the laws may be enforced during the Olympics, but pointed out that Russia and President Putin have to consider world opinion during such a highly publicized international event: It would not be a smart PR move to enforce the laws against foreign athletes and visitors during the Winter Olympics.

Judges and Exhibitors in Jail?
Dog shows, even an FCI World Show, aren’t nearly as high profile as the Olympics, of course, but the fallout from some foreign judges or exhibitors landing in jail for pro-gay statements would probably be more than the Russian authorities want to deal with. (Of course, no one knows exactly how many visitors to the World Show are gay, but if you include dog people who are comfortable with and positive towards gays, my guess is that a very high percentage of the foreign visitors might risk being put in jail.)

An editorial in the Los Angeles Times on August 22, 2013, addresses the question of a possible boycott of the Olympic Games, but the content can be applied to the World Dog Show as well. The editor states that the new laws, of course, “should be denounced by leaders everywhere,” but not be the basis for a boycott. Violations of human rights are common in too many countries; China is one of them, which didn’t stop U.S athletes and visitors from attending the Summer Games in 2008. Thousands of Americans travel to China every year, many AKC judges among them. (Full disclosure: I was one of them.) The LA Times goes further: “Even the United States wouldn’t necessarily be exempt from calls for boycotts; the death penalty, for example, has been abolished in almost all European nations as a human rights violation.”

Should You Go?
But even if you’re willing to take the probably small risk of landing in a Russian jail, should you go? That’s the ethical question that no doubt many American judges who receive invitations to judge either at the World Show or other Russian dog events will have to face. Is it better to keep the lines of communication open or should you simply stay away from a country whose politics you don’t agree with?

That question, as indicated in the LA Times editorial, applies not just to Russia today, but to many other countries in the past as well. I chose not to go to South Africa during apartheid in the 1970s or ‘80s; that was an easy choice. I remember being surprised that a fellow judge accepted an assignment in a Latin American country that was then suffering under an extremely repressive regime. This was long ago, and things have changed considerably, but it helps to remember that as far as anti-gay laws go, sex even between consenting gay adults was illegal in the United States as recently as 10 years ago. (Interestingly, being gay was legalized in Russia as early as in 1993 – long before in the U.S.)

I have talked to several different people about traveling to Russia. A reliable source at the American Kennel Club stated that although the letter from the chairman and president represents AKC’s official view, every judge has to decide individually what he or she feels is best, and no action will be considered against AKC judges who go to Russia. Several international multi-group judges who do not agree with AKC’s stance say they will continue to accept judging assignments in Russia. They believe it’s important now more than ever to stay in touch with Russian dog people, and they also feel that the talented and ambitious breeders there should not be penalized by being deprived of international judging expertise from the U.S. (No other country’s judges, as far as I know, have considered a boycott.) And before you say that these judges are willing to sacrifice principles for the opportunity to judge overseas, believe me when I tell you these are judges who receive so many invitations to judge all over the world that they have to turn a lot of them down.

No Negative Attitudes
I have been lucky enough to travel and judge in Russia on a couple of occasions. I had a wonderful time, was met with great kindness and hospitality by everyone I met, and did not encounter any negative attitudes toward gays at all. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, of course, the same as in the U.S.

All this was brought home to me when, soon after reading the letter from AKC to FCI, an invitation arrived to judge at the Eurasia show next year. That’s Russia’s biggest show, with some 13,000 entries over two days in a huge exposition center in Moscow. I’d love to experience this show, but should I go or shouldn’t I? Is there a difference between the days when I lived overseas and traveled to the U.S., both happily and frequently, at a time when being gay was illegal here, and going to Russia now that they have introduced laws that are aimed at curtailing the freedom of expression not just for gays but for anyone who’s gay-friendly?

Incidentally, the exact wording of the new law is not clear, but it’s important to note that it refers to “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors,” not to being gay or to private gay activity. Apparently, as long as you’re discreet about, it you can do what you like, but even holding hands in public could be construed as propaganda.

As I’m writing this, I haven’t decided. I don’t think I’ll go, but if so, there are other, unrelated reasons for this, and I’m not totally convinced that a boycott would have the desired effect; at worst it might even appear to be hypocritical.

What do you think?