By Emily Mitis
In a hutong in central Beijing, a group of dog-loving seniors meets daily to relax with their pets and to interact socially. A clump of ornamental boulders provides seating as members talk to their dogs, speaking words of praise understood in any language. Two men with brushes groom any pooch that comes near while women hold smaller dogs in their laps.
On a recent evening, group leader Ma Zhi Cheng, 67, said: “We share dogs stories and more importantly can figure out as a group what is wrong if the dog is sick, so we can get it the right care faster.”
Such doting on dogs is a relatively new phenomenon in China. Once a common source of food, dogs have become trusted companions for a growing number of today’s Chinese. Thanks to the country’s booming economy, keeping larger high-maintenance pets is now more affordable in a country that traditionally focused on low-maintenance birds and crickets.
Add to that the fact that China’s one-child policy guarantees that when children leave the nest for college or a job, parents are left to search for surrogates to fill the emotional void, and you have a ready-made demand for the family pooch.
“They bring harmony, and give us fun when our children are away,” said Ma, who owns two dogs, Black Puppy and Stinky. He pets the heads of both at the same time, giving them a big smile and an adoring chuckle.
Dogs weren’t always given the royal treatment. Quite the contrary. Ma remembers times of famine and political strife when dogs were eaten as a source of protein. “This is our first time [having dogs],” Ma said. “Before we had pigeons as pets because it was cheaper.”
Canines aren’t in the clear yet, though. According to the Humane Society of the United States, China is still the world’s leading exporter of dog meat and fur, often shipping them in false packaging. The U.S. animal rights group PETA estimates that over 2 million dogs are killed annually for the Chinese dog trade.
But if Wei Shugin, 47, has her way, the trade in dog-related products will end. Wei runs a large pet stand in Tian Yi, a local shopping mall, that sells products for dogs such as food, medicine, leashes and an assortment of dog clothes and accessories. She and some of her customers often visit the most popular shipping roads where dogs are transported to dog farms for slaughter in order to rescue the animals. Wei estimates that her group saves up to 50 dogs a month.
“We care for the dogs, they are our lives,” said Wei. “I run my business with my heart, for the dogs.”
Wei finds people who are willing to raise the rescued dogs and provides free food and medicine to the adoptive owners, as well as helping them to register dogs with the authorities as is required by Chinese law. Each dog must be taken to the local police station and registered to a physical home address.
Back in the hutong, the group of seniors all have rescues, too. They say the national registration prices have prevented some others from saving dogs before, but the Chinese government has lowered the cost from 5,000 RMB ($771) to 1,000 RMB ($154) and made the application process less arduous.
“We are so happy to have our dogs,” said group member and owner of two dogs, Tang Jinke. “They make our life fulfilled.”