As China enters the Year of the Dog, cuddly images of man’s best friend are everywhere – on TV, as mobile memes, and on billboards.
But the celebrations are a temporary truce in a deep culture war. On one side, stands an army of dog lovers who adore their pets and treat them as family, on the other, those who view dogs as possessions, to be eaten or mistreated at will.
The “Changsha dog-beating incident” on 31 December was the latest event to highlight the cultural rift between dog-loving animal rights activists and those who either don’t see the point or are hostile.
As more Chinese adopt urban lifestyles and buy pets, commentators and animal rights activists predict divisions will deepen. Animal welfare groups say an animal protection law – combining sharper teeth and a gentler touch – is needed to manage the problem.
Beaten to death legally
A golden retriever named Cola catalysed China’s latest discussion of animal rights. Cola attacked several passers by in Changsha, Hunan province, after being left tied up by the roadside. The police were called. Unable to find Cola’s owner, a police officer beat the dog to death.
Reactions were fierce, and divided. The policeman received online threats and abuse from dog-lovers. His family was harassed. One person was arrested for posting his personal information. Others praised his heroism for tackling an aggressive animal that had to be put down, and showed appreciation by sending traditional silk banners.
Animal protection professionals say the Changsha controversy highlights the need for an animal rights law, as well as specific reforms to dog registration, welfare and management systems – all under pressure from rising pet ownership.
“The old management system obviously can’t keep up with new circumstances,” says Jiang Jingsong, a Tsinghua University academic and co-founder of animal protection site Dongbaowang.org, speaking of the Changsha case.
Greater affluence means that more city dwellers can afford a pet than 40 years ago, while demographic trends have produced many lone children and elderly people in need of companionship.
Dog ownership has more than doubled in Beijing, though exact figures are hard to come by. Registration and management systems differ from city to city.
Beijing Public Security Bureau’s most recent figures from 2012 show nearly one million registered dogs. Website Oriental Outlook says pet dog numbers doubled from 458,000 in 2005 to almost one million in 2013. Add in unregistered dogs, and Beijing has a canine population of more than two million dogs to 21 million humans (using 2013 figures).
Animal rights groups have sprung up too. Surveys by Animal Asia found China had about 30 animal welfare groups in 2006, whereas today there are more than 200, says Chen Minjie, head of the organisation’s dog and cat welfare campaign. Their list does not include numerous smaller, informal groups.
“There’s no single unified system in place,” says Chen, adding “In the future we’d like to see an independent dog registration body so this task can be done more professionally.”
Public security authorities handle dog registration in most cities, including Changsha and Beijing. A few, notably Shenzhen, give the job to urban management officials.
Beijing’s rules allow public security officials to destroy any unaccompanied dog without a registration tag, regarding it as a stray.
Dog registration fees shot up in the early days of widespread pet ownership to discourage people from getting pets. Nowadays, fees are being lowered or abolished altogether to encourage pet registration. Fees also include the cost of immunisations.
Today, registering a dog in Beijing costs 500 yuan (US$79) a year according to the Public Security Bureau’s 2017 notice.
Registration used to cost 10 times as much and at a time when people earned far less – in 2003 it was 5,000 yuan even though disposable income for China’s urban residents averaged 8,472 yuan.
“The 5,000 yuan fee was clearly aimed at making dogs unaffordable,” said Qin Xiaona, head of the Capital Animal Welfare Association in an earlier conversation with chinadialogue. After 2003, clauses about “strictly limiting” ownership were deleted from the regulations.
Shenzhen, Chengdu, and Chongqing have since scrapped fees. “In the past the government aimed to ban or limit dog ownership, but now the thinking is to guide and regulate it,” a Shenzhen urban management spokesperson told the media.
Some cities – including Beijing – limit the number or size of dogs in urban areas, but these rules are seldom rigorously enforced.
Messy and aggressive
Many people complained, when asked by the media, about being jumped on by unleashed dogs, of dog mess on the streets, and noisy dogs. Such problems are caused by lax owners so it is they who should be punished, argues Jiang.
“If you don’t do the small things properly, minor problems can escalate and people blame the dog,” agrees Chen.
Stray and abandoned dogs are often the focus of complaints. Chen says every dog shelter she can think of is full. Aita Foundation, a Beijing based animal welfare group, has taken to rehoming dogs over 1,000 kilometres away in Xi’an, finding homes for 61 Beijing strays there in a single year.
Some welfare groups took the Changsha incident as a chance to approach government agencies about working together, says Chen, whose organisation held a joint meeting with Nanchang public security authorities, alongside Nanchang Small Animal Protection Association.
But animal welfare activists say an animal protection law remains key to solving these problems.
Laws protecting animals have been proposed at the annual meeting of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, for years.
“It takes time to get a new law on the books, but we won’t give up,” says Jiang.
The draft of a proposed animal protection law was circulated at the meeting almost a decade ago, but nothing has been enacted since.
It covered feeding, care, breeding, and transportation, and it forbade abandonment and mistreatment while including measures to educate pet owners and protect non-pet owners’ rights.
At the end of the 2017 sessions, Youth.cn published a list of the proposals most liked by its readers. Topping the rankings with 145,318 likes was a proposal that cruelty to animals be punished with detention, put forward by representative Zheng Xiaohe.
“Dogs don’t live long enough to see more than one Year of the Dog, so we need to be kind to them in this one,” sighed Aita’s project officer Lu Ping.