Shanghai Pooches Get Pampered While Country Dogs are Buried Alive

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Vacationing in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan last week, I received the question people inevitably ask when they hear I live in China: Do the Chinese really eat dogs? The answer to this question — as I told my worried Bhutanese guide, who like many in the staunchly Buddhist country considers canines to be only slightly below humans in the karmic heirarchy — was yes, but. Yes, Chinese, particularly in the south, do have a taste for fresh dog meat. But in recent years, urban pet ownership has skyrocketed, as yuppies (or Chuppies, as they're locally dubbed) find a poodle or a schnauzer or a schnoodle (a cross between the two breeds) the perfect accompaniment to their modern lives. Just a couple years ago, my own miniature schnauzer, Cassius, used to be mistaken on the streets of Shanghai for a rabbit because of her extravagant ears and gray coat. No longer. Everyone in Shanghai, it seems, now knows someone who owns a xue-nai-rui, as the German breed is known in Mandarin.

Little did I know that as I was extolling China's new pet consciousness to my Bhutanese friend, a puppy massacre was taking place back home. Spooked by a rash of rabies outbreaks—China is second only to India in the number of rabies cases — officials in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong and the southwestern province of Yunnan had turned dramatically against their canine populations. Instead of vaccinating people's pets to prevent further spread of the disease, local officials marched through village streets banging pots and pans. Whatever barking that ensued was quickly silenced by a bash to the dog's head. Bureaucrats in Yunnan's rural Mouding County reported that 54,429 dogs, or 99% of local canines, had been killed since July 25. And in Shandong's agricultural Jining County, many of the estimated 500,000 dogs who lived in a 3 mile radius of existing rabies clusters were also slaughtered, mostly by burying them alive in mass graves. "It's a government decision," a spokesperson for the Jining Sanitation and Anti-Epidemic Station told TIME. "Things are controlled now."

But Chinese citizens' outrage at the mass puppy culling hasn't been so successfully controlled. The topic is now the second-most discussed issue on China's largest online portal, Sina. The Beijing Youth Daily reported on Wednesday that 81% of the 127,780 people who voted on their website opposed the drastic measures. Netizens were particularly irate that even dogs who had been vaccinated against rabies — 4,000 in Mouding alone, according to local statistics — were also killed. For his part, a local Mouding official maintained that the vaccine was not 100% effective, thereby justifying the extreme action.

Many Chinese pet owners are still upset. "Since I have a dog, I felt very sad when I heard what happened to all those other dogs," says Shanghai restaurateur Xue Feng, who gave his golden retriever a French name — Victor, as in Hugo — because he says the French are well-known for their superior treatment of dogs. Like any proper Shanghai pooch, Victor goes for a bath, blow-dry and pedi-pedi every 10 days. That kind of pampering—either for themselves or for any future canine companions — is well out of range for farmers in Yunnan or Shandong provinces, who make an average of $335 per year, $100 less than Xue paid to buy Victor as a puppy. "What happened in the provinces would never happen in Shanghai," says Xue. If anything, China's dog scandal only underlines the disparity between China's urban rich, with their well-groomed pooches, and their largely powerless country cousins. My Bhutanese friend can only hope that neither he, nor any of his friends, will get reincarnated as a rural Chinese dog.