Hike in any of the foothills surrounding Taipei and you will see them - bitches with stretched, milky dugs, tentatively friendly pups and fearful, suspicious males. These wretched creatures are the unpalatable obverse of a chic mania for owning dogs. The small and cute quickly become the large and inconvenient. Impatient owners convince themselves that the dogs would feel more at home in the great outdoors, sustained by nature - because that, after all, is surely where they belong. There are an estimated 1.6 million dogs on Taiwan, one for every 14 people. According to Yen Yi-feng, director of the Taipei Municipal Institute for Animal Health, some 10,000 of them are abandoned annually in Taipei alone. Almost all strays are discarded pets, he says. Taiwan's favourite pet breed is currently the red toy poodle, which cost between NT$40,000 ($9,700) and NT$100,000 each. Celebrity model Lin Chih-ling owns one, and what better recommendation could you ask for? Such people will always have friends who would be proud to accept any future cast-offs. But for the rest, when the time comes, it is a trip up to the parklands of Yangmingshan or Hsin Beitou to let your dog off the lead for a run-around, and then a guilty tiptoe back to the car, and away. A single dog, new to the outcast scene, will be under a sentence of death if not adopted into the feral pack. Wildlife for food is very scarce, and the cast-offs' hunting skills are at best embryonic. So they become emaciated creatures depending almost exclusively on rubbish bins: a bewildered interloper is not tolerated at the sites of such a scarce resource. Finding a mate then becomes the key to acceptance - a rite of initiation into the new feral existence. Not that the Taiwanese don't take care of their dogs while they have them. There are even dog restaurants - not where dog is eaten, but where you are served your meal and your dog is served his. Usually you eat under the eyes of the owners' own prized pets, themselves the most effective adverts for these establishments. Out among the volcanic hills, the wistful look is unmistakable in the hungry eyes. The dogs gaze at you longingly, as if hoping you might be the one willing to adopt them and bring them back into the warm, well-fed existence they once knew. Lone curs will sometimes follow you for hours, at a cautious distance, every quickened pace you take a pain to you and to them - albeit in unequal measure. The hope that their former owners will one day return must be the most recurrent of impossible dreams for many of these desolate creatures - even in this year that celebrates their kind.