The Hongcouver

Meet Zhuang Zhuang: Not your typical immigrant success story

How a three-legged stray went from the streets of Beijing to a life of luxury in Vancouver

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2014, 8:58am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:52am

There are plenty of Chinese immigrant success stories in Vancouver. But I doubt there are many less likely than that of Zhuang Zhuang.

I met the former Beijing resident in a shop in the well-heeled neighbourhood of Kerrisdale, where he was wetly introducing himself to fellow customers who made the error of coming within range of his tongue. “Great guard dog, I bet,” I said to his owner, Julie-Anna Vogel, as I wiped slobber off my hands. 

I took a closer look at Zhuang Zhuang, grinning up at us. An impressive white fluffball of a dog (a purebred Samoyed, as close as can be established), Zhuang Zhuang had only three legs but nevertheless looked pretty pleased with himself – as well he might. 

Vogel later described the unlikely path that brought Zhuang Zhuang into her life. She was living in Beijing in May 2012, with banker husband John and sons Hunter and Jack, when their pet dog Chowder died of heart problems. “Chowder was the love of my life,” said Vogel with a sigh. “A big dog with a big bark, but not a terribly friendly dog.

“I was writing a thank-you note to the vet, and I was getting the address off the internet, and like a complete masochist I go to the section of dogs up for adoption. The very last dog was Zhuang,” Vogel said. “He had been on their site forever, I think because he had the three legs. No-one wanted him.”

Zhuang Zhuang had been picked up by an amateur dog rescuer. His pure breeding suggests he was once someone’s pet, but had somehow ended up fending for himself on the streets of Beijing.  His back right leg was missing from above the paw. The location of the injury does not suggest professional amputation, but rather that Zhuang Zhuang gnawed his own leg off, perhaps after having been hit by a car or attacked by another dog. 

Vogel couldn’t resist going to meet Zhuang Zhuang. He bore little resemblance to the confidently regal beast he is now. For a start, his keepers had given him a radical shave to help him cope with the impending Beijing summer. “He looked like a big white rat,” said Vogel. He cowered from Vogel and her sons. “It took him about 10 minutes to walk over to me. He wouldn’t even go near the boys,” said Vogel.

The Vogels’ Chinese driver was with them. “Julie, you can’t get that dog,” he warned. “He’s broken.”

The family was due to leave Beijing and return to Canada within a matter of weeks. Vogel’s husband said she was crazy – there is no shortage of strays in Vancouver, after all. But the heart wants what the heart wants. A month later, Zhuang Zhuang was on an Air Canada flight to his new home.

Zhuang Zhuang now spends his days lolling around the Vogels’ comfortable Kerrisdale home, chasing squirrels through nearby parkland and licking random strangers. 

His missing leg barely slows him up, but there are other hints of his tough former life. His kidneys are in bad shape, probably as a result of drinking from dirty puddles in the Chinese capital, and he likely won’t have a full lifespan as a result. “But it’s quality of life, not quantity,” said Vogel. 

Zhuang Zhuang is also a little nervous about leaving home, suggestive of former abandonment. “He’s still scared when he first goes out the front door, as if he is worried we won’t let him back in,” Vogel said. “He’s probably a little bit anxious that he’s going to go out the door and never come back.”

His former fear of strangers is ancient history, however. “I have a friend who says he’s the Dalai Lama of dogs. People go up to him and he makes them smile,” said Vogel with a laugh. 

“Now, he couldn’t be happier. My husband says he should be named ‘ka-ching’, because he hit the jackpot.” Vogel agreed that Zhuang Zhuang probably has no idea just how lucky he is. “But I think we are lucky too,” she added. “He is a pretty great dog.”

The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70