Friday, July 5, 2013

A Spirited Volley of Barking

I always get such a kick out of news stories that talk about people who are Asian eating dogs and cats. Not the news story in particular but the readers’ comments that purport to know what goes on in China and how dogs and cats are standard fare on any menu. Truth to tell, when assaying exotic fare you are more likely to eat crickets, scorpions and seahorses than dogs or cats.

We’ll leave insects out of the picture for now, and just talk about dogs and cats.

It may be likely that our favorite fluffy pets are standard fare in other Asian countries but I’ve not seen any evidence of such in China, whether in fine dining establishments, hole in the wall eateries or while partaking of a meal at friends’ or associates’ homes. What I do see, wherever I go, is pampered pet ownership.

I’ve relayed before that, throughout Wuhan dogs travel in packs with impunity, holding up traffic and seeming to have a destination. These dogs are not aimlessly wandering around, sniffing at this or the other pile of waste, looking for food. In spite of their unkempt appearance – dirty, matted pelt, sometimes open sores, and none with collars, they appear to be ‘working dogs’. They guard property, protect against vermin… that sort of thing. Cats, though less migratory and fewer in evidence, fill the same role.

These are the types of animal one can see when walking through the OTW community, for example. Or around farmers’ markets.

What we’re seeing more of these days is well groomed, purebred canines on leashes, responsive to their owners. Sedately conscious of their elevated status as pet owners, they parade their furry darling(s) around, leisurely strolling at this or the other public venue. Dogs of smaller breed, shi tzus and the like, are toted around in purses or satchels, or even designer leather pet carriers. They travel on buses, poke their heads out in restaurants and yip through supermarkets.

Accordingly, more and more stores are incorporating pet sections. As recently as one year ago, one would be hard pressed to find pet food at Metro or Walmart. Now you can find entire sections dedicated to pet care, much like the Walmarts in America. Last year, French Street had only one pitiful pet clinic, tending mostly to grooming needs. Now there are no fewer than three, each trying to outdo each other in services, supplies and sales.

Pet ownership has become a marker of status. “Look! We not only have enough money to dress well (or outrageously, as those with newfound wealth are prone to doing) and own a car, but we can afford to feed this animal!” Quite the ‘OOH-la-la’, pet ownership is.

While conscious of appearance, pet owners here are not necessarily kind to their animals. Several times I’ve seen someone parading around, regally holding the leash of a well groomed animal, yank hard on that leash and threaten to beat the poor beast for some canine wrongdoing. In one particular case, the dog – a golden retriever, hunkered down in fear. That poor pup must suffer abuse routinely to have that demeanor. Were I not on a bus at that time I would have liberated the dog and beat the master with the leash. 

If my trip to the zoo 2 years ago (See A Day at the Zoo, parts 1 and 2, posted 12/2010) and current observations of animal treatment are any indication, the Chinese have a long way to go to learn humane treatment of animals. Pet ownership is a great step in that direction but, like everything else in this rapidly evolving society, the lessons in humanity/humaneness tend to come after the fad is established. The concept of responsible pet ownership is still years away.

That I know of, there are no laws on compulsory spaying/neutering in China. Nor are there laws about curbing your pet, registering it or restraining it. Apparently it is common to turn one’s pet out for hours at a time, or when it becomes too pesky to keep indoors. To wit that orange tomcat that I wrote about in ‘A Day in the Life Of’ last month. He meowed and postured and enraptured himself on my balcony. Come dusk his meowing turned into lustful howling. Shortly afterward, the howls, meowls and growls of feline mating reverberated through the deserted nighttime streets. About two months later, plaintive kitten mewls echoed.

I thought about snagging one of those kittens – not even I am immune to the temptation of owning a pet. Just as quickly I changed my mind. As much as I am away or engaged, it would not be fair for me to cultivate a relationship with an animal as high maintenance as a dog or a cat. Also, I’d just as soon not have pet hair or litter boxes to clean up. I’m a lazy enough housekeeper as it is. Besides, considering the number of dogs and cats that now roam freely through this neighborhood, if I wanted to pet an animal I would only have to go outside and stand on that bit of lawn in front of my building. Animals would be by momentarily.

I do have a Dog and a Cat, though not of the feline or canine variety. Mine are turtles. Just as I was agonizing whether I should change my lifestyle enough to incorporate a furry friend, one of my students gifted me the pair. No fur, no special food or late night walks required. Perfect solution! I named the dark shelled one Dog and the lighter one Cat.

In captivity Dog is the more frisky. He likes to climb on Cat’s back, swim around, and he can even balance atop the multicolored ball I put in their tank. When I let them out to clean their semi aquatic home, Cat takes the lead on activity. She crawls around the kitchen counter faster than one would think a turtle can move, often leaving Dog in the dust.

The other day, after cleaning their home I decided to let them roam on the newly cleaned counter while I ate breakfast. I reasoned: they’re turtles. How far can they go? After breakfast and a dose of daily news I returned to the kitchen. I found Dog, but no Cat. She likes to hide, so I moved everything on the countertop: no Cat. Reasoning she most likely crawled too close to the counter’s edge and plummeted to the ground I got down on my hands and knees with a flashlight, searching under cabinets and the fridge. “Cat! Cat!” I shouted frantically, as though it could respond or would crawl to me. At a loss – how does one locate a quarter-sized turtle? – I returned to my office, where I had some translation work with an imminent deadline waiting for me.

A while later, still disturbed by Cat’s disappearance but fully sunken into the task at hand, I felt the urge to look to my right. There, in my office doorway and looking right at me, hunkered Cat. Somehow she had managed to survive the fall off the kitchen counter onto the tile floor, clear the kitchen’s sliding glass door tracks and navigate through the dining room and living room, straight to my office. Considering my apartment is about 80 square meters and Cat is but a tiny little turtle, that was no mean feat.

After that stunt I grew more attached than ever to my crazy turtles. Talking with them every day, feeding them choice bits of meat, allowing them more time to roam. Dog grew quiet and responsive when I talked, inclining his head or looking at me. Cat’s reaction was just the opposite: she would beat my fingers with her little paws if I was holding her, or she would retreat into her shell.

Sadly, Cat has since died. She was accorded a funeral with full rites before being flushed down the toilet. Now alone, Dog appears listless. He sleeps much of the day and eats far less than before. Also, he is not climbing on anything. I think he misses his buddy.

I’ll tell you who is not missing any buddies. The pack of dogs that roam around the housing area. The other day I was drawn to the window by canine yelps of pain. It appeared a gang rape was in progress. One female, hemmed in by three males was being mounted by a forth. When she tried to get away one of the other three would nip at her, forcing her back into the center of the ring. She had no choice but to submit, occasionally landing a bite when she could. While this ‘rape’ was going on, the other dogs barked enthusiastically, seeming to encourage the one currently mounted.

That pack roamed together for about four days. The other morning I was awakened by a spirited volley of barks. It seems one of the dogs had found something good to eat and didn’t want to share. Apparently, by canine code it is OK to share a female but not food.

Wonder where these dogs’ owners are?                       

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