China's Pet Owners and the Food Crisis

Chinese pet owners worry about their animals, just as American pet lovers do. But the U.S. news of American dogs and cats dying after eating tainted food made few waves here—even though the suspect ingredient is believed to be melamine in wheat gluten manufactured by the China-based Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd.  When my husband and I brought Maomao the cat to the vet for routine shots last week, we asked whether Chinese pet food—possibly using the same contaminants—had caused any animal deaths here. To our relief, the British vet hadn't heard of any cases. And Maomao's food was imported from France, so it was probably OK. The French know a thing or two about food.

Here in China, animals do fall victim to bad pet food—and a lot worse. Such as pets as food, which animal lovers apparently discovered earlier this year at a market in Tianjin. Many cats sold in the Hebei District pet market are bought by entrepreneurs who ship them to the southern province of Guangdong, where the felines wind up as restaurant fare. (Guangdong residents are notorious for eating "anything with four legs, except for the kitchen table," as a proverb goes. One popular dish of sautéed snake and cat is called "the dragon battling the tiger.")

So when pet cats belonging to Tianjin residents started going missing with unusual frequency, owners became suspicious. Earlier this year the discovery of fresh cat entrails near the gate of the pet market seemed to confirm their fears. Convinced their kitties had become cuisine, up to 100 cat owners gathered at the market gate on Feb. 11, hoping to rescue any remaining live felines. Their entry was blocked by dozens of security guards. Then, some 80 police showed up to prevent a fight between vendors and pet owners. When she heard of the fracas, Beijing animal activist Lu Di hired a truck and arranged for the animals to be brought to the Chinese capital. "We rescued 415 cats who would have been killed," says Lu, an octogenarian whose Little Pet Protection Association cares for abandoned and traumatized animals.

Animal-rights activists have their hands full these days. (Lu Di's organization alone is struggling to care for more than a thousand dogs and cats, housed in small flats in Beijing.) Not much is known here about the U.S. pet-food scare, she says, but a toxic brand of pet food called Hao Duo Yu did show up in Beijing late last year. A woman who kept more than 40 cats fed it to her animals; four of the felines died.

The recent U.S. pet deaths and illnesses underscore a scary fact: China's food-safety record is abysmal—for humans as well as animals—and in an age of globalization no one is immune. The industrial dye Sudan Red, a carcinogen, has been added to poultry eggs to make yolks darker, and industrial chemicals and pollutants are often found in food. The most serious recent case in China saw 12 infants who died and hundreds of others who suffered malnutrition from sham baby formula that contained few nutrients at all. With 34,000 food-related illnesses in 2005, Beijing is scrambling to ensure food safety for humans, much less for pets.

A dog's life can be even more fraught with risk. Because rabies remains endemic in China, city dogs are supposed to be inoculated regularly, registered with authorities for prices ranging from $125 to $500 a year, and in possession of a shot card that looks like a passport. When three people died of rabies in the southern province of Yunnan last year, authorities cracked down hard in July, reportedly killing 50,000 dogs in five days in a single county alone. Some of the animals were beaten to death in front of their distraught owners. The state-run newspaper Legal Daily called the killings an "extraordinarily crude, coldblooded and lazy way" to deal with disease. A similar crackdown erupted in Shandong province after an increase in dog-bite cases there. Thousands of irate dog owners wrote letters to Chinese president Hu Jintao, and Hong Kong film celebrity Jackie Chan campaigned to stop the cull.

When it was learned that rabies had killed 326 people nationwide in the month of October, city officials also went into hyperdrive. Authorities say Beijing has at least 1 million dogs in a city of 13 million people, with over half of the canines unregistered and only 3 percent inoculated against rabies. On Nov. 6, dog-owning households were instructed to strictly adhere to regulations limiting them to a single dog, and each had to be less than 14 inches high at the shoulder. Dog owners were given just 10 days to comply. Some gave up their animals voluntarily; others sent them to live in the country. Still others kept their furry companions in a sort of doggie limbo, walking them in covered car parks in the dead of night to avoid confiscation. About 500 dog lovers protested the new regulations outside the Beijing Zoo, brandishing stuffed animals.

The angst and anger of pet owners shows how far Chinese society has changed since the bad old days of Chairman Mao Zedong. During the ultra-radical 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, keeping pets was considered "bourgeois" and politically incorrect. Pet dogs were virtually unseen in the cities, while cats were tolerated, if frowned upon. When China opened its doors to Western-style economic reforms in the '80s, canines became man's best friend again. Some Beijing celebrities  went overboard, immediately acquiring gigantic canines, such as German shepherds and Tibetan mastiffs.

Now pet shops, grooming centers and even pet-friendly restaurants are springing up in Chinese cities. Recently, in a pet market in Chengdu, I saw a groomer who specialized in dyeing white poodles with splotches of fuschia, orange and chartreuse. Acupuncturists treat aging animals' arthritis. Fortunetellers divine their futures. Last year, when a female blogger posted video of herself killing a kitten by stepping on it with high heels, Netizens exploded with outrage and vowed to bring the torturer to justice; Chinese Internet police had to block all Web discussion of the "cat-killing video" to calm things down.

In the '80s, when I first worked and lived in Beijing, dog culls were routine, and there was little public reaction to them. Now animal-protection societies are starting to sound like the human-rights activists of old. I've been looking closely into the pet scene in China because my husband and I plan to get a puppy who can be a companion to Maomao (and to us, of course). I'll let you know how it goes.