Chinese dog-lovers live in fear as cull claims thousands of pets

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The Independent Online

The start of the Chinese Year of the Dog is just four months away, but in the southern city of Guangzhou thousands of frightened dog owners and their pets are lying doggo after local authorities intensified a crackdown on unregistered animals.

Unlicensed dogs are being rounded up by the police and, in the past week, hundreds have been culled, some in front of their owners, by special dog-killing teams.

E-mails sent by anguished Guangzhou residents to the Hong Kong-based animal welfare group Animals Asia spoke of owners collapsing after their animals were put to death in front of them and of streets running with the blood of dead dogs. "The dog-killing team killed all the dogs they saw," reported one witness. "Their blood made the street turn red and their owners fainted. The dog-killing team showed no mercy and said it was an order from the government."

Regarded as symbols of bourgeois decadence during the Mao era and only fit for the dinner table, dogs have become increasingly fashionable as pets in China in recent years. With the one-child policy in operation in the cities, many parents buy dogs as companions for their only child, and they are a status symbol among the country's burgeoning middle classes.

But dog registration fees are so high in Guangzhou that only 800 of the estimated 60,000 dogs in the city are licensed. It costs the equivalent of £700 to register a dog, almost half the average salary of most Chinese, followed by a further annual fee of about £400.

In an effort to evade the registration fees, some dog owners in Guangzhou have resorted to "bark reduction surgery", in which the vocal cords are cut to stop them barking and attracting the attention of the authorities. But with the Guangzhou police conducting house-to-house searches and confiscating unregistered dogs from parks and veterinary clinics that is no longer a solution.

"Dog owners are living in fear. People are scared to take their pets outside," said Yang Min of Animals Asia. "People are saying they won't open the door if people come about their dogs."

A similar cull in Guangzhou and the surrounding province in 2003 saw thousands of dogs killed. Officials say the cull is needed to counter the spread of rabies - 244 people died of rabies in Guangdong last year, a 41 per cent rise on the previous year. Police say 25,000 people were attacked by dogs in Guangzhou in the first half of the year.

Many believe the high registration fees have contributed to the rise in rabies cases. In 2003, Beijing cut its registration fee to the equivalent of £70 in an effort to persuade unlicensed dog owners to "legalise" their animals and get them vaccinated against rabies. Other cities, such as Shenzhen, have abolished registration fees altogether.

In China as a whole, large breeds are banned and a strict one-dog policy is in place to prevent cities being overrun. That, though, doesn't seem to be enough for the authorities in Guangzhou. "It seems they don't want people to have dogs at all," said Yang Min.