Imagethief has been watching with come concern the Beijing city government’s drive to crack down on “stray dogs”. In the expansive interpretation of the authorities this means any unlicensed dog, any dog that contravenes the city’s 35cm height limit, or any dog that has the misfortune to be dog >n+1 in the household, where n is any other dog that the owners like better.
Mind you, this has zero personal implications for me. Being as I live in a two-bedroom apartment on the 17th floor and not, for instance, a ranch house on two wooded acres, I keep cats. It’s not that I don’t like dogs, it’s just that I’m not Parisian or Chinese and thus not compelled to keep an enormous dog in a tiny apartment that barely has room for me, Mrs. Imagethief, two ungrateful cats and some houseplants. Not only is space at a premium, but we also like to travel. The good thing about cats is they are similar to houseplants in many ways. They have about the same intelligence –although they barf more– and if well fed and watered they can be left on their own for a few days. If the cleaner drops by every now and then to make sure they are still fed and watered and no dried cat barf is bonding permanently with the carpet fibers, then all is good. If I could freeze-dry a dog temporarily while traveling, say in one of those 2001: A Space Odyssey-style tinsel-lined refrigerators, I might reconsider dog ownership in Beijing. But, you know, there’s always a chance the computer could turn evil and the dog might never wake up, in which case you’d have to dispose of an enormous, freeze-dried dog carcass. Although in a city where dog meat commands a premium, this might not be as hard as it sounds.
The challenges or apartment dog ownership don’t seem to be stopping my neighbors, however, despite a lack of dog freeze-drying apparatus. Although they appear to be normal, law-abiding citizens, it turns out that a vast number of them are apparently trafficking in contraband dogs. How else to explain the profusion of manifestly illegal golden retrievers and the one rottweiler (yes, rottweiler) that are often being exercised in the courtyard. If there was a reward, I’d turn the lot of them in and pocket the cash.
What has changed noticeably in the couple of weeks since the “strike hard at stray dogs” campaign began is that my neighbors have become much more furtive about walking the larger dogs. Whereas before you could pretty much count on a gamboling retriever or two (retrievers love to gambol) on any weekend afternoon, people are now hustling their dogs out under cover of darkness and walking them in discreet loops near the walls where they are less visible. This is a particular challenge for my rottweiler-owning neighbors. It turns out that a rottweiler is a hard animal to smuggle, especially if it is hyperactively sociable and prone to mob anyone who gives it a glance. Might as well throw a saddle blanket over it and claim to be walking your pony. Your hell-pony with especially large, sharp teeth, that is.
Truthfully, I think the dog campaign is misdirected. I can understand the licensing requirement, and even a drive to limit households to one dog. True, it cuts against the libertarian grain but, um, this is China. But I think the size thing is not on. After all, if a citizen wants to keep an inappropriately large wolf-beast in his miniscule shoebox of an apartment, that’s his problem. Well, and the dog’s, I guess. I don’t hear of many dog attacks in Beijing, and people don’t seem to be dropping dead of rabies in the city limits. I am far more likely to put a shoe in human feces deposited by one of the zillions of kaidangku-wearing babies than I am in dog-shit. (Saw one child busy leaving a load on Tian’anmen Square during the National Day flag lowering ceremony. Surely crapping in the sight-line of the Great Helmsman has to break some kind of taboo. But the cops were too busy hustling away black-market ice-cream sellers to care.)
Anyway, I think the whole dog campaign is misdirected. From a quality-of-life perspective Beijing would be a much more pleasant city if the authorities made 35cm the minimum height requirement for dogs. Think of the many benefits: People would think twice before keeping more than one dog. Sure you can put a dozen chow-chows in a siheyuan, but try putting a dozen Rhodesian ridge-backs in and see how long the furniture stays in one piece. Also, large dogs often have a more pleasant temperament I find. At the end of a long day, as I stagger home after 12 hours in the PR salt mines, the last thing I need is Fufu the Pekingese following me through the courtyard going yapyapyapyapyapyapyap! Listen: I am an avowed animal lover. I dote on my idiotic cats and to this day I am awash with guilt for every mean-spirited thing I did to any animal, no matter how lowly, as a misguided youth. (Well, except for the Flintstones-sized Roachasauruses we used to get in my house in Singapore. I’d kill them all if I could.) But more than once I have been sorely tempted to draw back my right foot and go for distance and hang time, like Hall of Fame punter Ray Guy. Plus, the nice thing about large dogs is that if the apocalypse comes they can be trained to guard or hunt, or provide meat for days. Imagine the whole family fighting over a Chihuahua haunch. Embarrassing.
But my influence over municipal policy is, alas, limited. Therefore it looks like all my neighbors will be walking their dogs under cover of night for some time to come. If I were them I might try draping the animals in camouflage nets to break up their outlines. Not only will that make them harder to spot, but any city management flunky who sees an enormous, shapeless, drooling green blob charging toward him will probably hightail it out of dodge and never come back.