In Chinese astrology, this is the Year of the Dog, but it's not an auspicious time for man's best friend.
The outlook for canines in China's capital city became considerably bleaker last week when city authorities announced strict limits on dog ownership -- each household is now allowed only one dog, which cannot be taller than 14 inches.
To make sure the public was aware of the restrictions, the state-controlled media in Beijing made the announcement, and the police posted similar notices prominently in most neighborhoods around the capital.
Under the regulations, those caught with more than one dog or with an oversize dog face a fine of $600 to $1,250, and police can take away the extra dogs and the dogs that are too big.
Beijing has a population of about 15 million people and more than 1 million dogs. About half of the dog population in the capital is unregistered, according to state media.
Dogs Out of Favor
During the 1960s and 1970s, at the time of the radical Cultural Revolution, having dogs as pets was banned as a "bourgeois habit." Dogs as pets became popular again in the mid-1990s among the urban middle and upper classes as they prospered from China's economic boom.
The renewed emphasis on limiting the dog population comes from official concern over the sharp increase in rabies cases nationwide. The Chinese health ministry recorded 2,254 rabies infections in the first nine months of 2006, a rise of 27 percent over the same period last year.
State media reported that rabies has become the biggest killer among infectious diseases in China, even outranking AIDS and hepatitis B, for five straight months.
Most of the prohibitions on dogs have been on the books since 2003 but were not strictly enforced. This time Beijing police have made it clear that they are serious by swooping down on selected residential areas, inspecting pet dogs and removing dogs that were covered by the restrictions, actions that sent a considerable number of the city's dog owners into a panic.
Some hit the Internet chat rooms and posted horror stories about how their beloved puppies were taken away by the police, while others wrote about their fears of a mass slaughter of their canine pets. A mood of anger and resistance started to spread among the dog-owning community.
Last weekend, hundreds of dog owners mustered enough courage to gather near the city zoo and express their anger over the new restrictions. They held up stuffed dogs and carried signs reading "Stop the Indiscriminate Killing!" even as cordons of policemen surrounded them.
Those who owned more than one dog, as well as those who owned larger dogs -- like golden retrievers, German shepherds, Dobermans or collies, dreamed up ways to move their pets to outside the city limits or hide them from the authorities.
Skirting the Law
A number of dog lovers sought to send their dogs to their friends and relatives in other cities. One person even posted a weblog that offered a kennel in the suburbs where dog owners could keep their pets safe from the police.
Overseas reaction was also strong. The Humane Society of the United States criticized the Chinese approach for failing to address the underlying reason for the country's rabies crisis. "We believe it's a policy that is misplaced in that the focus should be on rabies vaccination rather than a limitation on the number of dogs in a household," said Wayne Pacelle, the organization's president and chief executive officer.
Jeff He, the Chinese spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, also expressed his group's opposition to the current crackdown on dogs. He said it reflected "incorrect, backward and unscientific thinking" on the part of city officials about the best way to control rabies, which is through mass vaccination.
Moreover, the IFAW spokesman pointed out that there were no recorded deaths in Beijing attributed to rabies for a whole decade up to 2004. This year, there were nine rabies deaths in the city, but the victims were all bitten by dogs in other provinces and rushed to the capital for medical treatment.
The public and international outcry appeared to catch even the Beijing police by surprise. Bao Suixian, an official with the Ministry of Public Security, had to publicly deny any plans to carry out a mass slaughter of dogs.
"Dogs are man's best friend and we treat them as friends, even when we have to lock them up for the sake of public security," Bao told the official Xinhua news agency. But he defended the "one dog" policy as a "strict but civilized" campaign to regulate dog ownership in the capital. Another police spokesman told a Beijing newspaper that it was a mistake for some people to "consider the campaign a 'dog-killing' campaign."
Dog Detention Centers
Beijing police have so far disclosed that they have seized more than 500 dogs during the past week. A spokesman said these dogs are in detention centers and will not be killed, except for those with rabies. He added that city residents who are willing and are qualified to have a pet dog can apply to adopt any of these seized dogs.
However, Jeff He, the IFAW spokesman, said that Beijing has limited capacity in its canine detention centers, resulting in the dogs living in overcrowded conditions inside these centers.
The growing concern about a mass slaughter of dogs recalls a controversy last July and August when Chinese authorities launched several mass killings of dogs. In one county in the southwestern province of Yunnan, where three people died of rabies, the local authorities killed 50,000 dogs, many of them reported to have been beaten in front of their owners.
Beijing officials said the current crackdown on dogs will continue till the end of the year. Meanwhile, the city is considering a scheme to tighten its control over the capital's dog population by implanting a computer chip in each dog's ear, neck or thigh.The chip will store data on the dog's identity, breed and registration, together with the owner's name, address and phone number.
This digital management system is already being implemented in Shanghai, and Beijing authorities hope the new scheme will help in preventing the spread of rabies cases in the capital.