Leash of life

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 12:00am

LEANING AGAINST A wooden fence, Beijing dog dealer Zhang Guohua pulls a Pomeranian out of its air-conditioned kennel and pushes it into a visitor's arms. 'It's vaccinated. If you discover any sickness in it, you can come back and find me here,' says the grey-haired 42-year-old, looking as if he means it.

Zhang has moved up in the world. He formerly was one of Beijing's many illegal dog hawkers who hung around in alleys with puppies hidden inside their jackets. Zhang now is the proud owner of a new stall in Beijing's first legal, post-1949 dog market.

Other cities across the mainland are due to follow suit by legalising open-air dog markets. Long feared as a source of rabies - which killed 2,000 people last year in Beijing, a figure up 70 per cent from 2002 - officials have shifted their hardline stance against pet ownership and dropped fees, resulting in a surge in purchases and registration. Dog ownership is now sky-rocketing in the capital, standing at 418,000 at the end of July, compared with 140,000 in late 2002.

The Communist Party long discouraged keeping dogs as pets in urban areas, fearing they were a public health hazard and dismissing them as a mark of bourgeois, capitalist society. The absolute ban on dog ownership ended nine years ago, but authorities were still determined to discourage people from buying canines so they imposed exorbitant registration fees and strict limits on what breeds could be kept and when and where they could walk.

Some of those limits still apply. Dogs must not be more than 35cm in height, must be walked between 8pm and 7am and are banned from Beijing's central road, Changan Avenue. But the bad old days when the hated, government-appointed 'dog-beating squads' rounded up and destroyed people's pooches - often right before their eyes - are gone.

However, people have always loved dogs, and the restrictions only drove the trade underground. Accepting that they've lost the battle as city dwellers grow richer and develop more leisure interests, officials have opened Beijing's first legal dog market where the animals are sold from clean kennels and, crucially, are fully vaccinated and free of disease.

'We have to admit that as living standards rise, demand [for dogs] is growing,' says Liu Weimin, director of the dog management section of the Beijing Public Security Bureau. 'If sticks can't solve the problem, we should try carrots.'

Another key reason for the change is a fresh approach to dog management triggered by last year's Sars crisis. 'It's important that our citizens have their pet dogs vaccinated, which can't be achieved with the previous strategy,' says Liu.

Animal rights activists welcome the change, but say it has come too late. 'It's a simple fact that rabies can be controlled by injection, but the government has already spent too much time and energy killing dogs,' says Lu Di, founder of the China Small Animals Protection Association and a supporter of calls for animal rights laws.

To encourage owners to come clean and vaccinate their dogs, regulations issued last December cut registration fees to 1,000 yuan from 5,000 yuan, with annual fees reduced to 500 yuan from 2,000 yuan. That led to a rise in official ownership.

The next step is to regulate the illegal markets, where Lu says swindles are common. The little Pekingese with cute bulging eyes and glowing white fur may lose its shine after a wash, or suddenly fall ill because it wasn't vaccinated.

Last week, after a two-month trial operation, the Beijing Aisida Dog Market opened at Fatou in southeastern Beijing, just outside the fourth ring road. Covering 4.3 hectares, the market sports white-roofed shops with fenced-in kennels at the front. Veterinarians stationed at the entrance to the shops carry out health checks and make sure the animals are vaccinated against rabies before being sold.

'Each puppy has to show its proof of rabies injection before it comes on the market,' says the market's manager Mei Zhengsheng. 'When the puppy's sold, the seller must present the customer with a health certificate.'

So far 44 dog shops have been set up, each covering 344 sq ft. When it's fully built, the market will have 81 shops and 132 mobile stalls. Good conditions at the market have come at a cost. Compared with the maximum of 150 yuan monthly rent at the Liyuan black market of Beijing's semi-rural Tongzhou district, rent at the new site is 768 yuan, with water and electricity bills on top.

The higher costs and stricter requirements may yet deter many dealers used to the old, illegal market. 'I'm here to sell dogs I raised myself,' says Huang Chunsheng, a short, dark-skinned man carrying a cage at the old market containing four puppies. 'I earn 50 yuan at most for each dog. How could I cover the high rent if I moved to the new market? If this market is closed, I would rather sell my dogs privately.'

A middle-aged woman selling eight chihuahuas she says are purebreds, and who would only be identified as Ms Wang, shares Huang's view. 'There's no reason to worry about it. The government's policy is always a lot of bark, but little bite,' she says. 'If worst comes to the worst, I will continue to sell the dogs on the street like before.'

But for dog-lovers, the new market brings a mixed response. 'The environment here is much better than the market of Tongzhou,' says Bai Qiaozhen, a middle-aged woman with heavy makeup who is looking for a canine companion. 'I would rather pay more money for a healthy dog instead of crying over a cheaper one that can't live long.'

However, 25-year-old Beijing lawyer Grace Sun Jie, who has owned a Pekingese for about six years, feared that the regulated market could create a monopoly and make buying a dog unaffordable. 'If the government genuinely wants to encourage dog ownership, why not lift the other limits as well?' she says. 'I don't think it is necessary to forbid some lovely breeds just because they would grow too big.'

But some dealers, like Zhang, see an opportunity in the legal market. In July, Zhang and his wife moved their shop to the new location, becoming one of the 27 new traders.

'The new market is much closer to the city and is the first legal dog market supported by the government,' he says. 'Sooner or later the old market will be closed, and the earlier comers to the new market can choose a good location and enjoy discounts.'

Pleased with his move, Zhang is even planning to offer dog beautification services. 'The dog industry will boom in the future and with the policy loosening up, people will feel free to spend money on dogs,' he says.