Nearly 15 years ago, when Cassius would venture onto the streets of Shanghai for her daily constitutional, passersby would occasionally wonder why we were taking our rabbit for a walk. Cassie’s ears were, indeed, magnificent. But she was a miniature schnauzer, and I imagine her canine sensibilities were injured by being identified as a bunny.
Today Agatha suffers no such misperceptions — and it’s not just because her ears are less extravagant than Cassius’. Several other miniature schnauzers live in the neighborhood, from Ellie and Po (short for Elephant and Hippo) to a shaggy male who daily ignores Agatha’s advances. “Xuenairui,” (雪奈瑞) people murmur as Agatha trots past, using the Chinese word for schnauzer. Three samoyeds, a beagle named Juicy and a mutt called Teddy Bear live nearby. There are oodles of poodles, most in a caramel hue.
Agatha was born in Beijing, and her bloodlines supposedly stretch to Bavaria. It’s impossible to confirm her family tree but her open personality — she has yet to meet a person or rabbit she dislikes — attests to her pampered beginnings. The sprawling kennel where she spent her early months featured a doggie-bone shaped swimming pool, pedestal-mounted bronze statues of dogs and a stone-and-timber chalet that looked like it had been airlifted from the Alps and plonked in a dusty Beijing suburb. On weekends, dog owners flocked to the kennel grounds for picnics and barbecues, their pets engaging in ritual sniff-and-greets.
Dog ownership has skyrocketed in China, with 62 million canine companions registered nationwide, according to a survey by a Beijing consultancy. (Dogs are the most popular pet in China, followed by cats and turtles.) Even more dogs are believed to be unregistered because fees can reach hundreds of dollars each year. Animal shelters are packed with discarded pets.
Domesticated dogs likely originated in East Asia. There are many breeds native to China and its borderlands, from the pug, Lhasa apso and shih tzu to the shar pei, chow chow and Tibetan terrier. In the Forbidden City, imperial courtesans kept Pekingese in their sleeves, and the Empress Dowager Cixi gifted Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter one of these miniature lion dogs. He was christened Manchu.
But when Chairman Mao Zedong unleashed his socialist society, dog ownership, like golf or capitalism, was regarded as an otiose affectation. Dogs were banned from cities and offending animals exterminated. As a breed, the shar pei was nearly wiped out. Other animals were targeted, too. Beginning in the late 1950s, the Four Pests campaign tried to rid China of rats, flies, mosquitoes and, disastrously, sparrows. With no birds to manage the insect population, Chinese agriculture went haywire, contributing to one of the worst famines in human history.
Today, Shanghai is home to at least 1 million pet dogs. In a country where urban families were for decades limited to a single child and single women increasingly prefer to nest alone, dogs provide companionship. Two-thirds of Chinese pet owners are 35 or younger, according to the Beijing consultancy survey, and animals offer them a chance to flaunt newfound wealth. A few years ago, Tibetan mastiffs were so prized that a single beast could sell for $150,000. This month, Wang Sicong, the son of China’s richest man, posted on social media that he had bought his dog, an Alaskan malamute called Coco, eight iPhone 7s. (Last year, she received two Apple watches.)
In Shanghai, pets act as fashion proxies. Agatha is one of the few dogs in the neighborhood to venture outside entirely unclothed. In inclement weather, Shanghai pooches sport Burberry raincoats (real or fake, I do not know), plaid sweaters and individual booties to protect their paws from the pavement. Photo studios offer grooming and costume packages for pet portraits that can cost upward of $1,200.
Like with so many aspects of modern Chinese life, middle-class aspirations outpace local laws. In Beijing, dogs taller than 35 cm at the shoulder are banned in town, although when I lived there a couple years ago my residential compound housed huskies, golden retrievers, samoyeds and even an old English sheepdog and Irish wolfhound. During the occasional crackdowns on unregistered or oversized dogs, owners kept these pets inside during daylight, lest government dog catchers seize and bludgeon the animals to death.
Charmed by their poodles, corgis and bichon frises, Chinese are campaigning against an East Asian tradition as old, perhaps, as canine companionship: consumption of dog meat. Around 10 million dogs are killed for meat in China each year, according to animal-rights groups. Petitions opposing an annual dog-meat (and lychee) festival in the southern Chinese city of Yulin have drawn millions of signatures nationwide, while another such canine culinary event was halted by public pressure. China has no animal-cruelty laws, and animal activists say that stolen pets often end up in slaughterhouses.
Now an online campaign is calling for the relocation of the 2019 World Dog Show, which is to be held in Shanghai, unless the Yulin festival is closed down. One of the biggest canine confabs, the World Dog Show brings together around 10,000 dogs each year. In August, Shanghai hosted the 19th edition of Pet Fair Asia, at a time of record temperatures in the city. Around 60,000 people toured the fair. But a golden retriever and a bulldog died of heatstroke while waiting in line to enter the exhibition center, according to local media reports. Agatha did not attend.