For a city that is bursting at the seams with people, the huge majority of whom live in apartment complexes, one might expect there to be few pets roaming Beijing’s streets of an evening. In fact, the capital’s dog population is exploding along with its middle class – the number of pet dogs in Beijing increased from 100,000 to 1.5 million between 2001 and 2007. Likewise, pet stores have popped up all over town, under-regulated and often overstuffed with animals.
Inequalities amongst Beijing’s dogs seem to mirror those amongst its human citizens. On any given day, I will see pampered puppies padding around in tiny booties, coats artistically trimmed, sporting designer dog clothes and sparkling canine bling. On the same street, I rarely escape the sight of a dog or pair of dogs clearly in poor health, with running sores and infections, untrimmed matted hair and a myriad of other afflictions. Their owners generally seem oblivious to the ailments of such dogs and many must suffer terribly from their own poor hygiene. Few dogs are fully vaccinated in China.
Aversions to spaying and neutering mean that the couple of million dogs in the city are constantly producing more dogs, usually in the course of a morning walk (in what can’t but be an equally intimate encounter for the respective dog owners as they idly look on).
Add these factors to the ongoing and evidently still profitable trade in dog meat (restaurants were banned from selling ‘gourou’ in 2008 for the Olympics but the specialist restaurant just down the road from my place demonstrates the short-term nature of that particular edict), and the means by which that trade is carried out (some say that beating a dog to death with a club, instead of, say, slitting its throat, enhances the flavour of the meat), and you get a dangerous environment for every down-at-heel mutt in town. The unwanted offspring, the grown dogs turned out onto the streets on which they were purchased for a handful of spare change as a wet-nosed pup in a back-alley pet market, would be advised to keep well out of sight.
A more caring future is undoubtedly within reach. On 15 April, a Chinese driver passed a truck on the highway packed with over 500 dogs heading for the slaughterhouse. He stopped at the next toll station and blockaded the truck’s path. After hastily sending out a plea for help on micro-blogging site, Sina Weibo, he was quickly joined by 200 like-minded citizens. After a 15-hour standoff, the driver agreed to release the dogs into the care of the group for around US$17,000. Many of the dogs were treated for dehydration and viral infection and suitable homes are now being sought.
As these values become more widespread in China, education campaigns take hold, and the regulatory environment gradually moves toward serious legal ramifications for purveyors of animal cruelty, change will come. I would, however, hold out equally serious concerns for other animals. Dogs are, after all, “man’s best friend”. What of China’s less cuddly creatures?