New York Times: "Once Prized Tibetan Mastiffs are Discarded as Fad Ends in China" PDF Print E-mail

The New York Times




Once-Prized Tibetan Mastiffs Are Discarded as

Fad Ends in China


APRIL 17, 2015


BEIJING — There once was a time, during the frenzied heights of China’s Tibetan mastiff

craze, when a droopy-eyed slobbering giant like Nibble might have fetched $200,000 and

ended up roaming the landscaped grounds of some coal tycoon’s suburban villa.



But Tibetan mastiffs are so 2013.



Instead, earlier this year Nibble and 20 more unlucky mastiffs found themselves stuffed

into metal chicken crates and packed onto a truck with 150 other dogs. If not for a band

of Beijinganimal rights activists who literally threw themselves in front of the truck, Nibble

and the rest would have ended up at a slaughterhouse in northeast China where, at

roughly $5 a head, they would have been rendered into hot pot ingredients, imitation

leather and the lining for winter gloves.



China’s boom-to-bust luxury landscape is strewn with devalued commodities like black

Audis, Omega watches, top-shelf sorghum liquor and high-rise apartments in third-tier

cities. Some are the victims of a slowing economy, while others are casualties of an

official austerity campaign that has made ostentatious consumption a red flag for

anticorruption investigators.




tibetan mastiff nibble ny times gilles sabre 2015-4-17


Nibble, a Tibetan mastiff, was checked by veterinarians after being saved from the slaughterhouse

by a groupof animal rights activists. Other rescued mastiffs had suffered broken limbs.

Credit Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times


Then there is the Tibetan mastiff, a lumbering shepherding dog native to the Himalayan

highlands that was once the must-have accouterment for status-conscious Chinese.

Four years ago, a reddish-brown purebred named Big Splash sold for $1.6 million,

according to news reports, though cynics said the price was probably exaggerated for

marketing purposes. No reasonable buyer, self-anointed experts said at the time, would

pay more than $250,000 for a premium specimen.



These days, those mastiff breeders left in the business are suffering from overcapacity,

as it were. Buyers have largely disappeared, and prices have fallen to a small fraction

of their peak. The average asking price for desirable dogs — those with lionlike manes

and thick limbs — is hovering around $2,000, though many desperate breeders are willing

to go far lower.



“If I had other opportunities, I’d quit this business,” said Gombo, a veteran breeder in

China’s northwestern province of Qinghai, who like many Tibetans uses just one name.

He said keeping one of his 160-pound carnivores properly fed cost $50 to $60 a day.



“The pressure we’re under is huge,” he said.



Since 2013, about half the 95 breeders in Tibet have gone under, according to the

Tibetan Mastiff Association, and the once-flourishing Pure Breed Mastiff Fair in Chengdu,

in the southwestern province of Sichuan, has been turned into a pet and aquarium expo.



In some ways, the cooling passion for Tibetan mastiffs reflects the fickleness of a

consuming class that adopts and discards new products with abandon. Famed for their

ferocity and traditionally associated with free-spirited Tibetan nomads, mastiffs offered

their ethnic Han Chinese owners a dose of Himalayan street cred, according to Liz Flora,

editor in chief of Jing Daily, a marketing research company in Beijing. “Fads are a huge

driving force in China’s luxury market,” she said, adding that “Han Chinese consumers

have been willing to pay a premium for anything associated with the romanticism of Tibet.”



Nomadic families have long used mastiffs as nocturnal sentries against livestock thieves

and marauding wolves. A primitive breed with a deep guttural bark, they are inured to

harsh winters and the thin oxygen of the high-altitude grasslands; like wolves, females

give birth only once a year. “They have the power to fearlessly protect possessions,

human beings and livestock from any kind of threat, and people are proud of them,”

said Gombo, as a trio of dogs in his yard, tethered to stakes, lunged madly at a group

of strangers.



At the peak of the mastiff mania, some breeders pumped their studs with silicone to

make them look more powerful; in early 2013, the owner of one promising moneymaker

sued a Beijing animal clinic for $140,000 after his dog died on the operating table during

face-lift surgery. “If my dog looks better, female dog owners will pay a higher price when

they want to mate their dog with mine,” the owner told the state-run Global Times

newspaper, explaining why he had asked surgeons to alter the dog’s saggy mien.



Li Qun, a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University and an expert on Tibetan mastiffs,

said speculators were partly to blame for sabotaging what had been a healthy market.

But also, as prices spiraled upward, unscrupulous breeders began mating pure Tibetan

mastiffs with other dogs, diluting the perceived value of the breed and turning off

would-be customers. “By 2013, the market was saturated with crossbreeds,” Professor Li said.



News stories about mastiffs attacking people, some fatally, also dampened ardor for the

breed. Although not inherently vicious, Tibetan mastiffs are loyal to a fault, increasing

the likelihood of attacks on strangers, experts say.



In recent years, a number of Chinese cities have banned the breed, further denting

demand and perhaps contributing to the surge in abandonments.



The rescuers who saved Nibble and the others from an ignominious fate said the

conditions of the transport were appalling. Several of the mastiffs had broken limbs,

and they had not been given food or water for three days. By the time the dogs were

released from their cages — the volunteers eventually paid the driver for their

freedom — more than a third of them were dead.



“It makes you feel so hopeless because not even the police will help, even though

what these people are doing is illegal,” said Anna Li, who runs a hedge fund when

she is not organizing guerrilla operations to stop dog-packed trucks on Chinese highways.



Animal rights activists say many of the dogs are stolen by gangs who grab pets off

the street, while some have been sold off by breeders eager to unload imperfect specimens.

Judging from their swollen teats, several of the rescued female mastiffs had been nursing

when they were cast off, said Mary Peng, the founder and chief executive of the

International Center for Veterinary Services, the Beijing animal hospital that has

been treating them.



During her 25 years in China, Ms. Peng has seen successive waves of dog fads, which

invariably begin with speculative breeding and end in mass abandonment. “Ten years ago,

it was German shepherds, then golden retrievers, then Dalmatians and then huskies,”

she said. “But given the crazy prices we were seeing a few years ago, I never thought

I’d see a Tibetan mastiff on the back of a meat truck.”



 Patrick Zuo and Adam Wu contributed research.


Link to the original New York Times article:


©The New York Times. April 17, 2015.





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