Who let the dogs out?
Updated: 2012-08-16 09:19
By Eric Jou and Darnell Gardner Jr (China Daily)
A couple takes their dog to Coolbaby Dog Park near Beijing's Chaoyang Park. The city may need more dog parks as the canine population grows. Photos by Darnell Gardner Jr. / for China Daily
Twice a week, Chen Xingzhi and Berber leave their apartment in Beijing's Chaoyang district and walk together to the Yuan Dynasty Relics Park.
Chen, a retired businesswoman, has a group of friends she regularly meets at the park. Berber, a lively 1-year-old teddy bear puppy, is no less gregarious.
"Berber has lots of friends here," Chen says. "It's a really nice environment. He loves it."
Chen is one of a growing number of Chinese choosing companionship in the form of the canine.
But as China's dog population grows, dog owners like Chen remain uncertain as to how good a home the country's bustling metropolises can provide for their beloved pets.
Mary Peng, co-founder of the International Center for Veterinary Services (ICVS) in Beijing, thinks conditions for canines are improving in major cities like Beijing.
"There are regulations about the size of dogs, but overall Beijing has generally become very dog-friendly. Beijing is on the forefront," she says. "But Beijing is not representative of the whole country, it is the exception."
Chen voices a similar sentiment, recalling that not long ago bans on bringing dogs into public places were more strictly enforced.
"The government is much more tolerant than before," she says. "Previously, they didn't allow dogs in parks like this."
Peng says health concerns contributed to authorities' low tolerance for dogs in the past.
"There was a ban on dogs for many years after the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76). Dogs were the primary carrier of rabies, and that was a major public health issue," Peng says. "You couldn't have dogs for many years. You started to see dogs again in the early 1990s."
Rabies still claims more than 2,000 lives each year in China, according to the Ministry of Health.
Peng says two decades after prohibitions on dog ownership were relaxed, fear of disease continues to fuel animosity toward the animals.
Still, Beijing residents aren't letting the possibility of infection deter an infatuation with dogs.
Beijing resident Xian Hui is happy with Tiger, his 3-year-old golden retriever. Xian says he's never been bitten before and isn't losing any sleep over rabies. He thinks most people's fear of dogs is unwarranted.
"Dogs are generally friendly creatures. We tend to treat Tiger like a child that can't talk but is nonetheless a member of our family," Xian says. "People who are afraid of dogs usually just don't understand them."
Xian says he normally walks Tiger around his neighborhood, but that the two also sometimes venture to nearby Coolbaby Dog Park, located near the eastern edge of Beijing's Chaoyang Park.
Coolbaby offers a space where dogs can shed their leashes and run about within an enclosed, controlled environment.
Zhao Mangang, Coolbaby's manager, says he thinks Beijing needs more canine playgrounds like this one.
"Personally, I don't think there are enough dog parks in Beijing," Zhao says. "I think every district should have at least one."
Zhao thinks the amount of traffic Coolbaby gets on weekends is indicative of Beijing's need for more dog parks. He says on weekends, with about 300 customers, the park is full to the brim.
While Beijing dog owners get by with just a few dog parks, some residents in Shanghai, where dog parks are also scarce, seek an alternative in office building courtyards. The dogs and their owners travel to the courtyards after business hours, when security guards won't drive the pooches away, and convert them into playgrounds for pets.