Twenty years ago in Taiwan, the luckiest dogs guarded farms in exchange for food scraps and a driveway to call home.
The house specialty at the Piglet Friendly Cafe is chopped chicken with carrots, broccoli and egg — with no MSG. The most common drink order is water in a bowl.
No need for manners here or even utensils. Barely acknowledging the busy waitress, a customer named Tang-tang dived face first into her order of vegetables.
The waitress was used to it. Tang-tang is a poodle, and the 2-year-old cafe caters to canines.
Two decades ago, the best-treated dogs in Taiwan guarded farms in exchange for food scraps while others were drowned, poisoned, eaten or released into the streets or the mountains when they got too big or expensive to care for.
Today, Taiwan loves dogs so much that last month it became one of the few places in the world to ban the common practice of euthanizing strays — a move that some experts believe could backfire, leaving the island with more dogs than it can care for.
Lin Mei-chun, a 49-year-old university instructor in Taipei, remembers what that was like.
“When I was young, I saw stray dogs on the street corners and no one taking care of them,” she said.
The guard dog she grew up with wasn’t allowed in the house. Today, her poodle Heidi sleeps in her daughter’s room.
“I think all the dogs should belong to someone,” Lin said. “They’re like human beings. They feel it if you love them. A lot of families have no children. So they have a dog. A lot of unmarried ladies, they have a dog.”
Shifting attitudes toward dogs have tracked Taiwan’s fast industrial modernization that began in the 1960s and accelerated dramatically in the 1990s.
“Things change very fast in Taiwan, so in one generation you have people moving from villages to the cities and you get a deeper understanding of what modernity is,” said Jens Damm, a history professor at Chang Jung Christian University.
Improvements in the welfare of dogs came largely through the efforts of activists and the passage of the 1998 Animal Protection Act, under which Taiwan created animal shelters and an adoption system and began registering pets and tracking stray populations.
The numbers of household dogs fell dramatically after the law passed, dropping from 2.3 million to 1.6 million over the course of a decade, according to a 2010 study. A government survey found that number was 1.1 million in 2012 and 1.2 million three years later.
The number of families with dogs is thought to be less than 10% — well below the U.S. figure of nearly 37%.
The reasons for the long-term decline are not well understood. It may be that as society has valued dog life more, people have become more cautious about having one or even give up their dogs because they can’t meet the increased responsibilities that come with ownership, the authors of the 2010 study wrote.
Tung Kwong-chung, the main author and a professor of veterinary medicine at National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan, said canine ownership tends to rise during the Year of the Dog, which occurs every 12 years in the Chinese zodiac and arrives next in 2018.
As for the slight rise in ownership in the last few years, he suggested it was a result of a sharp drop in the number of children being born in Taiwan, which has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates.
“We call dogs ‘furry children’ now and the reason for that word is that people see dogs as kids,” he said.
It’s not unusual to see dogs wearing shoes and sweaters and eating from tables alongside their owners. Small breeds hang out in purses.
“Dogs are integrated into our lives,” said Chou Bing-yi, a 32-year-old Taipei retail worker whose four dogs wear shoes, socks and rain jackets.
She cooks them preservative-free meals or goes to dog-friendly cafes and spends about $330 a month on dog care.
Taipei has more than a dozen dog hotels, including the Ponpon Pet Hotel, where the best sparsely furnished private rooms cost $15 a night, including walks and play time.
“We’re always full,” said Hsiao Chiao, whose family opened the hotel five years ago. “Without a reservation, there’s no way your dog will get in.”
Still, for all its love of dogs, Taiwan has much to learn about them.
An outbreak of rabies in wild ferret badgers in 2013 led to panic, prompting some dog owners to abandon their pets and fearful citizens to bait them with rat poison, said Chen Yu-min, office manager with the Taipei-based advocacy group Environmental and Animal Society of Taiwan.
About 10 years ago, tissue paper labels showing a Labrador puppy created a demand for the species, leading to over-breeding that left 70% of the dogs with health problems, Chen said.
Taiwan lags behind other modern countries in sterilizing pets. Just 10% of dogs are spayed or neutered, according to the advocacy group.
Euthanasia has been the primary means of population control. That effort began in full force after the shelter system was created. From 1999 to 2009, nearly 923,000 dogs entered shelters, according to the 2010 study. About 18% were adopted, and 72% were put down.
The number of strays over that period fell from 614,000 to 86,000. The government’s most recent figure, from 2015, is 120,000.
A campaign by animal welfare activists to ban euthanasia received enormous publicity last year when a veterinarian in the northern city of Taoyuan committed suicide with the same drugs she used to euthanize dogs. She left a note saying she loved dogs and hated killing them.
Parliament succumbed to the public pressure. Now some experts worry that the good intentions could create a massive problem.
“You’re going to see some horrific situations where we’re just overburdened with dogs,” said Sean McCormack, founder and director general of the Taiwan animal relief group Pack Sanctuary. “I support the idea, but the people who thought of that haven’t thought through the consequences.”
Jennings is a special correspondent.
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