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A New Breed of Animal Lovers Oppose Beijing's Dog Cull
May 17, 2009

Attitudes towards pet ownership and care are changing in modern China as pets become an increasingly important part of many people’s lives – as a failed dog cull by the Beijing Municipal Government demonstrates.


This past November, Nick Feng was in a panic. His beloved Labrador, Peanut, was in danger of being confiscated and killed by the police. Peanut had not attacked anyone; neither had he destroyed public property. Peanut was simply too large to live in Beijing.

The city had launched a large-scale dog cull targeting strays, unlicensed dogs, households with multiple dogs – and in Peanut’s case – dogs exceeding the height of 35 centimetres. Feng said, of the time, “I felt that there was nothing I could do, no one to help me out to tell me how we should deal with the dog, and nowhere that we could take him.”

Feng, a music magazine editor, belongs to the growing demographic of dog owners in Beijing. In modern China, pets have become an important part of many people’s lives. There are currently about 550,000 licensed dogs in Beijing, although some estimate the total number in the municipality at around 1 million.

Unfortunately, along with this huge dog population is the lack of education regarding responsible pet ownership. This has had major consequences throughout the country, including an increasing amount of stray animals and a lack of proper vaccination, leading to the spread of rabies.

Feng eventually located a dog kennel far from the city centre, where Peanut safely stayed until President Hu Jintao officially ended the cull in late December.

Luckily, Peanut had no run-ins with the police upon his return. Because of his size, Feng was never able to legally register Peanut in his city district, and now only takes him on walks well before sunrise or after sunset, to avoid the police. The rest of the time, Peanut stays safely confined in Feng’s 65-square-metre apartment.

Rabies scare ahead of the Olympics

protesters of one-dog policy

Protesters hold up signs at the entrance of Beijing Zoo

The November dog cull was in part the Beijing Municipal Government’s effort to curb the spread of rabies, which it saw as crucial to the preparations for the upcoming 2008 Olympics.

The Center for Disease Control in the United States cites China as having the second-highest rate of illness and death from rabies worldwide. It is the second-deadliest pathogen after tuberculosis, having claimed 2,651 lives in China in 2004.

Setting the trend in motion for other large-scale dog culls in China was Luoping County in Southern China’s Yunnan Province, where in August 2006, over 50,000 dogs were confiscated and bludgeoned to death – many right in front of their owners’ eyes.

The international and national media picked up the news, which shocked and appalled people around the world. Shandong Province also threatened a cull in late summer of 2006.

In Beijing, however, rabies was virtually non-existent before the cull. In 2006, according to an article in the Jing Hua Times, only ten people were diagnosed with the disease, nine of whom were actually infected outside the city but had come to Beijing for treatment.

But Beijingers, responding to the spread of the disease in other parts of the country, came in droves to hospitals around the city, seeking rabies shots for dog bites or cat scratches, many from their own pets. It sparked a rabies scare in the municipality.

Public protest

dog sign

A sign during a protest rally against the one-dog policy

Consequently, the municipal government launched the cull in eight major city districts. It used the Dog Ownership Regulations (first enacted in 1995 and revised in 2002) as a basis for the cull.

During the cull, the government monitored and shut down pet message boards on the Internet. Websites of international and domestic animal protection organizations were also blocked. Pet-related programmes were reportedly pulled from local television stations.

News of the cull spread through networks of Beijing dog enthusiasts via mobile phones and internet chat systems, eventually igniting anger and disgust among many of Beijing’s animal lovers, even though there were no verified reports of dogs actually beaten to death on the streets of Beijing.

This anger eventually culminated into a public protest. On the crisp sunny morning of November 11th 2006, over 600 dog owners and animal lovers congregated in front of the Beijing zoo, calling for the Beijing Municipal Government to end to the cull and revise the Dog Ownership Regulations to allow large dogs and multiple dog ownership in Beijing. Animal protection groups presented petitions to government departments with tens of thousands of signatures calling for new animal welfare legislation.

The petitions, as well as international media coverage of the cull and November’s demonstration in Beijing, combined with pressure from animal protection groups, both local and international, eventually led to government officials, including President Hu Jintao, ending the cull.

The domesticated dog has had a long history in China. The Chinese elite throughout the dynasties doted on their pet dogs. However, when the Communist Party took power in 1949, dogs became a symbol of decadence (or the bourgeoisie) and were virtually wiped out.

The dog in Chinese history

Twenty years ago, a dog cull in Beijing wouldn’t have caused a ripple among the public.

According to Jeff He, Communications Officer for International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in Beijing, the municipal government frequently implemented dog culls throughout the past couple decades as a way of controlling the city’s dog population. They eventually ceased when the municipal government implemented the first Dog Ownership Regulations in 1995. The reaction of Beijing’s citizens against this recent cull reflects the changes in attitude towards animals that has occurred in China over the past decade.

The domesticated dog has had a long history in China. The Chinese elite throughout the dynasties doted on their pet dogs. However, when the Communist Party took power in 1949, dogs became a symbol of decadence (or the bourgeoisie) and were virtually wiped out.

In the 80s and 90s, as China’s people began to acquire new wealth on the back of liberalised economic policies, dog ownership re-emerged as a status symbol. Today, pet dogs are viewed as more than an indicator of wealth among Beijing’s growing population of pet owners.

Also because of China’s “One Child Policy”, dogs have assumed the role of a second child for some families. Lonely elderly retirees who rarely have an opportunity to see their children or grandchildren find their purpose in doting on their pet dogs.

At the same time, many members of Beijing’s so-called “DINK” demographic (Double Income No Kids) have vetoed children altogether, instead choosing canine companionship.

IFAW’s He notes people’s need to bond with animals, especially young people. He also points out: “Due to the modern city lifestyle, people feel less attached to each other, and often get more benefit from the strong sense of loyalty they get from a dog.”

The Chinese language of pet ownership, too, reflects these changing concepts towards animals. Like in the West, the term companion animal (banlu dongwu) is slowly replacing the traditionally used pet (chongwu) when referring to dogs and cats.



Unfortunately, a general lack of pet care knowledge and education has caused problems since the reintroduction of dogs into mainstream Chinese society. Dog owners often do not pick up after their pets, resulting in an abundance of dog faeces on the city streets. Barking dogs can be heard throughout cramped apartment complexes.

When confronted with behavioural issues or the cost of treating health problems, people all too often abandon their pets to the streets. Spaying and neutering have yet to become common practice in pet care. As a result, it is estimated there are currently over 100,000 stray animals in Beijing.

Vaccination is another issue. While most of Beijing’s dog owners vaccinate their pets, many still find the process troublesome and costly as many widely used vaccines must be imported from abroad. These vaccines, when attained, are often administered improperly, particularly in the countryside.

Better practices among urban veterinary clinics means that the prevalence of rabies among family pet dogs is fairly low. But illegal pet markets and breeders, a thriving industry, continue to be a major culprit in the spread of diseases. In these markets, unvaccinated animals live in close proximity with one another for prolonged periods of time. Furthermore, most pet markets operate illegally and are therefore unregulated by the government.


Lack of animal welfare legislation

A major problem for the Chinese concerned with animal protection is that China has yet to enact an animal welfare legislation that will enforce humane treatment of both pets and livestock. Many argue that such legislation will reduce instances of animal abuse and enforce responsible pet ownership.

Zhang Luping, who operates one of Beijing’s most well-known animal shelters, the Beijing Human and Animal Environmental Education Centre, has lobbied the government continuously to implement animal welfare legislation. She is optimistic, citing the current administration, in her opinion, is becoming “more and more enlightened” regarding animal issues, and “within a matter of time, Hu Jintao’s government will enact legislation.”

Zhang started the centre in 1997 in response to the increasing amount of abandoned animals in Beijing. She works seven days a week, 365 days a year, running the Centre, usually eating only once a day and sleeping only a handful of hours each night. She funds the Centre herself, except for a small grant from IFAW to support medical treatment.

The shelter houses nearly 600 animals, many which have physical disabilities resulting from abuse or over-breeding. She knows every animal’s name, and refers to all of them as her children. In her opinion, “teaching people to respect life, and implementing a system of education will change a lot of attitudes.”


Positive developments

Indeed, more and more positive developments intended to deal with dog ownership problems in Beijing have begun.

In December, the Beijing Public Security Bureau (PSB) – which administrates the city’s police force – invited representatives from animal protection organisations, such as IFAW and Animals Asia Foundation, to visit their holding facility for dogs confiscated during the cull.

The PSB, who declined to comment for this story, has developed a series of educational programmes promoting responsible pet ownership in Beijing, focusing on vaccination, spaying and neutering, and responsible disposal of dog faeces. They have already implemented campaigns in Fengtai and Shijingshan district communities to raise awareness of these problems.

The PSB and IFAW also partnered up to launch a city-wide bus-stop advertisement campaign showing information for proper dog care. IFAW’s He is thrilled about the collaboration, for he feels that animal protection groups’ involvement is needed in this effort for truly “building a positive message and having results.”


*Note: This story first appeared in asia!'s July 2007 print issue.

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