SHANGHAI — The dogs running around Qin Kong’s downtown office couldn’t appear more at home. Clean, curious, and obedient, the two pooches behave as if they’ve lived with the 33-year-old for years. Yet just three weeks ago, the animals were in a rescue center.
“They were trembling on the way here,” says Qin. “When we were holding them, they wet themselves in fear.”
Qin and his friend, Zhao Baiyang, picked up the dogs from a shelter in southern Fengxian District on Nov. 19, and since then they’ve spent hours each day training them. But Qin and Zhao don’t plan to keep the former strays; they’re simply preparing the animals to start new lives as family pets.
“Many adopters, especially first-time dog owners, end up returning the animal to the rescue center after the dog attacks someone or damages their home,” says Qin. “What we need to do is to make the dogs behave better so that people find it easier to be pet owners.”
The two dogs are the first pupils of a program Qin and Zhao’s pet services company, Petform, set up in July to train and rehome abandoned animals. It’s a solution to a rising problem in China: Millions of newly middle-class city-dwellers are becoming pet owners for the first time, but they’re often completely unprepared for the challenges of caring for domestic animals.
The result has been a huge rise in the number of abandoned pets roaming the streets of China’s cities. The country now has nearly 100 million pet dogs and cats, up 8.4% compared with 2018, according to an industry report published in August. But it also has 40 million stray dogs — around one-fifth of the world’s total.
The spike in abandonments not only causes untold suffering for the animals, it’s also fueling public health concerns. Each year, Chinese doctors administer 60 million to 80 million doses of rabies vaccines, mainly to treat dog-bite victims.
There have been signs in 2019, however, that public awareness of the problem is rising, as a growing number of social organizations, companies, and government-led projects have emerged to promote adoption and provide support for first-time pet owners.
For Petform’s co-founders, education is the key to reducing the number of abandoned pets. The firm can only train up a couple dogs per month, Zhao says, but he believes they can make a greater impact by changing the owners’ mindsets. Zhao continually tries to teach people that getting a dog — like getting married — is not simply a matter of money and impulse.
“It’s like sex and marriage,” says Zhao. “Sex can happen quickly, but marriage can’t. There’s a series of follow-up issues that need to be solved.”
Another challenge is convincing more people to adopt an animal, rather than buy directly from a pet store. Only 11.8% of China’s pet dogs and 19.9% of the country’s pet cats were adopted, according to a 2018 report — far below the average adoption rates in developed countries. But here, too, campaigners are starting to make progress.
“The adoption rate is increasing year by year, especially for cats,” says Yang Yang, founder of Beijing Pet Adoption Day, a group that has helped nearly 10,000 rescued dogs and cats find new homes in 24 Chinese cities over the past eight years. “It’s very gratifying.”
In October, the animal welfare movement received a boost with the opening of the Animal Welfare Training and Education Center — an enormous new complex built on a former air base 30 kilometers northeast of central Beijing.
Founded by the nongovernmental Capital Animal Welfare Association, the center can house up to 130 strays and will also serve as a platform for promoting adoption, providing medical treatment for strays, and educating the public on animal welfare issues. It has already rehomed more than 60 animals, received around 1,000 visitors, and partnered with dozens of livestreamers to encourage young people to take part in adoption events.
“Before, Chinese people thought that they had to buy a pet to own one,” says Yang, of Beijing Pet Adoption Day. “We now tell young people that adoption is an attitude in life. When they choose to adopt a stray, they not only get companionship and fun, but they also demonstrate their personal values at the same time.”
Until recently, animal welfare groups received little support in their attempts to find new homes for stray animals. Now, however, local governments across China are setting up animal shelters and organizing adoption events.
In August, Shanghai’s public security bureau partnered with French pet food company Royal Canin to capture street cats and dogs, provide them with shelter and vaccinations, and then rehome them through local adoption organizations. Importantly, the program will also ensure the strays are neutered, preventing the animals from multiplying to the point that local security officials are forced to cull them — a common issue in Chinese cities.
China’s central government, meanwhile, gave the clearest indication in years that it is moving forward with plans to pass a national law to protect all animals from abuse. A draft version of an animal protection law was first submitted for public comment in 2010, but was never implemented. In September, however, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs announced it would work with the National Forestry and Grassland Administration on new legislation, which it called “difficult and long-term work.”
More than 100 countries have a comprehensive animal protection law, according to Yang, and the introduction of such legislation could be a game-changer for China’s animal welfare campaigners.
“(At the moment,) activists can only use other laws and regulations, such as food safety and illegal transportation rules, to rescue animals, which puts us in an awkward situation,” says Yang.
“We hope that through our efforts we can achieve an 80% adoption rate in China in 80 or 100 years,” says Yang. “It’s not impossible; it’s just a matter of time, because we’re dealing with the natural laws of human development.”
Back in Shanghai, Qin and Zhao hope it won’t take so long to find homes for their two rescues. They have decided to call the dogs Melon Seed and Peanut, after popular Chinese Lunar New Year snacks. The names express their hope that the dogs can be adopted before the festival in late January and also that they can become an integral part of their new family.
“I’m not worried about whether they’ll find a new home,” says Qin. “We’ve already had so many people asking about adoption after seeing how well-behaved they are on social media.”
This article was published on Sixth Tone.