“My colleague Mary just got a Cockapoo! She is taking a week off to train it.” My husband announced over dinner last night, rather excitedly. “Shall we get one, too? Those Shiba Inus look so cute!” His excitement was met with my silence. Well, we had this conversation so many times that I thought he should have known better.
I don’t blame him for his persistence, though. Loneliness seeped in quickly from the start of the coronavirus lockdown. Confined to our homes in an urban jungle like London, we all suddenly had more time at hand. So understandably, many found their solution, or salvation, from human’s best friend.
So much so that even the sky-rocketing puppy prices have not deterred them. Simon Usborne from The Guardian, quoted “£600 dogs selling for more than £2,500” and could be “priced at £5,000 or higher”. For the record, my husband’s colleague Mary’s enthusiasm for a cuddly companion set her back nearly a tenth of her annual salary.
What will happen to these precious “lockdown puppies” when the pandemic is over? I shuddered at this frightening thought.
One clue into their post-Covid fate can be gleaned from China’s Tibetan mastiff (藏獒) craze over the last decade, which in itself is a fascinating story.
Tibetan mastiff is a giant, lion-like dog breed native to China’s Tibet (西藏) and neighbouring Qinghai (青海) province. It has its origin as a herding and guarding dog for the nomads in the area. Long famed for its loyalty, ferocity and distinctive look, historians found references to the breed among tributes paid to Chinese emperors by nomadic tribal leaders as far back as Han Dynasty (汉朝).
Despite Tibetan mastiffs’ long history, it was not until 2004 when the breed started to attract attention in the Chinese pet market, thanks to movies such as “Wolf Totem” (狼图腾), “Tibetan Mastiff Bento” (藏獒情未了), as well as He Ma’s (何马) popular fiction “The Tibet Code” (藏地密码), which instilled a sense of romanticism and adventurism in the Himalayan plateau and its exotic dog breed.
As the mastiffs’ desirability soared, all sorts of myths and hypes emerged. Some claimed they had “lion’s blood” and could “fight three tigers”. Sure enough, they were soon elevated to the status of “dog of god”, and of course, with a price tag to match. For the newly rich in the country, it was a perfect accessory to show off their wealth given its rarity.
Back in 2009, a wealthy businessman from Xi’an (西安) spent an outrageous amount of US$500,000 on one mastiff named “Yangtze No.2”. Allegedly a motorcade of thirty Mercedes was sent to fetch this precious cargo. The record was smashed by another one, named Big Splash, which was sold for an outlandish price of US$1.5 million in 2011 to a Chinese tycoon, according to CBS News.
Many breeders, seeing the dogs as well-oiled money-printing machines, jumped on the “mastiff bandwagon”. To their dismay, few actually made money, as the demand evaporated, and prices plummeted from 2013 onwards and never recovered.
Partly the speculators had themselves to blame. Blinded by greed, many resorted to crossbreeding the Tibetan mastiffs with other dogs. Some went even further to inbreed, ruining the industry’s reputation as a whole.
By 2013, it became apparent that there was an over-supply of puppies. According to New York Times, “the market was saturated with crossbreeds”, “diluting the perceived value of the breed and turning off would-be customers”.
Another catalyst for the market crash was the Chinese government’s anti-corruption campaign. From the end of 2012 to 2013, high end luxury markets, from spirits to dining, started to feel the impact, which soon rippled through the mastiff market.
Government officials, who used to be delighted to receive these dogs as gifts in addition to cash and other valuables, shunned them completely for fear of being flagged for anti-graft investigations. Rumours flew around, true or not, of officials being arrested after people caught them with their lavish pet. (If this sounds any familiar, Yang Dacai (杨达才), a low-level bureaucrat from Shanxi province, nicked name “watch brother” for his collection of Swiss watches, was sent to jail in 2013 after being caught on picture wearing expensive watches. The luxury watch market in China took a big hit since then and many Swiss watch brands suffered.)
In the meantime, the market also took its toll from a tightening of regulation of owning big dogs in China’s largest cities, after several attack incidences, as the various myths around the mastiffs being debunked.
In particular, many owners found their dogs having troubles adjusting to life in low altitude cities, away from their high altitude natural habitats. They fell sick easily and often appeared frail and lethargic, the opposite of the “dog of god” image people had in mind. Worse, some started to develop skin problems, leading to a loss of hair especially around the nose and eyes exposing unsightly red swollen skin.
Mastiffs’ insatiable appetite also turned out to be a blow to many owners, as well as their wallets. It can cost up to US$ 40-50 a day just to feed one. Anecdotally, a mastiff thief, who stole a dog worth US$50,000, was forced to sell it for less than US$200 and unfortunately got caught while doing it after he was brought to his knees by the sheer expense of keeping it fed.
Or perhaps more fundamentally, people were just not so keen on these dogs anymore. They lost interest, rather quickly, like many other times in the past.
“Fads are a huge driving force in China’s luxury market.”
“In some ways, the cooling passion for Tibetan mastiffs reflects the fickleness of a consuming class that adopts and discards new products with abandon.”Source: Andrew Jacobs from New York Times (“Once-Prized Tibetan Mastiffs Are Discarded as Fad Ends in China”)
The biggest victims from the fad are obviously the Tibetan mastiffs.
At the height of the frenzy, breeders bent over backwards to care and produce the best looking mastiffs. Some farms reportedly had treadmills installed. One even went to great lengths of giving his dog a facelift (and suing the animal hospital after the plastic surgery ended in tragedy for his poor dog).
But as soon as the market collapsed, these mastiffs, once considered golden geese by the breeders, became liabilities that they could not wait to get rid of. At best, many dogs became homeless overnight and starved. At worst, some were shipped straightaway to slaughterhouses.
All of a sudden, China’s Tibet and Qinghai province were flooded with these giant abandoned dogs. And this led to the most heartbreaking part of all – the trauma soon spilled over to the local residents of these areas, who were forced to pay a heavy price for others’ greed and recklessness, as their life became terrorised by these hungry and aggressive creatures.
According to The Beijing Youth Daily, for a town as small as Qinghai’s Golog (果洛州) with only about 170,000 people, there were 14,000 stray dogs roaming around at one point, many of which were mastiffs.
Part of that was also down to the fact that the locals were reluctant to hunt any stray dogs for religious reasons.
Hunger soon drove this massive gang of mastiffs to attack the local population. Vulnerable folks, especially children, were mauled and badly hurt as a result. In the worst affected area such as Nangqian County (囊谦县) of the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (玉树), kids started to drop out of school because they were terrified of dog attacks.
Their plight and story was best voiced by this revealing 20-min documentary “Abandoned Tibetan Mastiffs”, produced by Gangri Neichog Research and Conservation Centre.
In the end, the local government and NGOs had little choice but to come together to set up dog homes to take in these stray dogs and sterilised them. But very quickly the ballooning numbers of the stray dogs put these homes under huge strain.
One dog home in Nangqian county had a whopping six hundred dogs. To make ends meet, the carers had to go around collecting leftovers from all local restaurants, monasteries and schools and purchased another 425kg of flour every day to top it off. The food bill alone came to as high as US$ 3,000 each month which pushed the home to the brink of financial ruin many times. But even with this amount of food, the dogs were still sometimes not fed enough and resorted to cannibalism.
Another dark secret of the mastiffs, which was less known, is that they, like other stray dogs, are carriers for a dangerous disease called hydatid disease (包虫病). The disease is a parasitic infestation of humans by the larval stage of a tapeworm. Dogs are definitive hosts which harbour these worms in their intestines. The infected dog can pass the infection on to humans should their faeces pollute the water source. The disease can be deadly if left untreated. From 2008 to 2013, in the aforementioned Qinghai’s Golog (青海果洛州), almost every one in eight people was infected by this disease, another dire consequence of being surrounded by these stray mastiffs.
There is no new thing under the sun.
From the highly prized pet to the worthless pest, China Tibetan Mastiffs’ boom to bust finds its parallel with many other incidences in history, from tulips, orchids to Rhizom (竹鼠).
Capital chases profit. But it also flees faster than you can blink when it sniffs the change of wind, wreaking havoc to the greedy while engulfing the lives of the innocents along the way.
I am no prophet but we human beings sometimes are so predictable.
I do sincerely hope that Mary finds her Cockapoo a lifelong companion and this unnerving episode of the “lockdown puppy” boom in this pandemic drama would have a happier ending.