NOT sure what to do with little Fido or Flurry after your beloved dog or cat moves on to the big Dog House or Cat Palace in the sky? Well, now there's an answer, at least in Shanghai, where the government has been hard at work on the problem of what to do with the thousands of pets that die in the city each year. And the answer is: cremation. That's the city's official verdict after consulting with animal experts over the last few months to draft a new set of guidelines on the issue.
Some animal lovers may think I'm being a bit too insensitive about this subject, and I'll openly admit I don't have any pet even though I've briefly experimented with cat ownership a few times over the years. But the reality remains that the problem of what to do with a deceased pet is a very real one in Shanghai, as dog and cat ownership skyrockets in the city.
China already requires that most human remains be cremated, largely due to the lack of space for so many cemeteries. If cremation is good enough for people, then certainly it should be acceptable for beloved departed pets. City officials point out that some people have tried to bury their dogs and cats inside their residential compounds, but that space is limited and that practice can also lead to sanitation issues.
In the spirit of true commercialism, Shanghai has already appointed a company, appropriately called Wizards of Heaven Pet Services, as the city's first officially certified animal crematorium. City officials are pointing out that a pet's ashes can be put into an urn and returned to owners who would like to keep a reminder of their former companions. Such a send-off is far more than what the two dogs in our home received when I was a boy growing up in the US. My mother let our veterinarian handle the body disposal in both cases.
I personally think this pet cremation approach sounds perfectly reasonable, and commend the city for its openness in tackling a problem that is a direct result of China's rapid modernization and economic growth. The city made a similar move about two years ago when it formally limited ownership of dogs to one per family in many places, in a bid to limit pet congestion in those densely populated areas. The earlier move drew some protests from pet lovers, and I'm sure these latest guidelines will bring more complaints from people who would rather give their pet a proper burial.
From a broader perspective, the fact that this kind of discussion is even occurring seems truly remarkable for a nation where pet ownership was non-existent just two decades ago. When I first came to China in 1987, owning pets was illegal in most big cities, partly for practical reasons of limited space but also due to the lingering image that such ownership was a sign of decadence and elitism.
My sole memory of seeing any pet dog or cat during that time was a mangy mongrel I spotted at a farmer's home in northeastern Heilongjiang Province. I was informed the dog was kept for a practical purpose, like protecting the home. I was further told the animal would most likely end up one day as someone's dinner, in a region where dog meat was considered standard fare.
Pets as child surrogates
Fast forward 25 years to the present, where pet ownership has exploded in big cities like Shanghai. When the original dog-limiting law was passed two years ago, reports said the city was already home to around 750,000 dogs, and that 50,000 strays were captured and killed each year. I'm sure the numbers have risen sharply since then, and wouldn't be surprised if the city is now home to 1 million dogs or more, and as many cats.
This explosion in pet ownership is unlike anything I've seen in the West, where pets are most often raised in suburban homes with young children. They are far less common among single people and childless couples living in densely populated downtown areas. Equally strange for me is the way that people pamper their pets in China, fostering a huge new industry offering everything from designer pet clothes to pet spas.
I don't know if anyone has formally studied the phenomenon, but my guess is that this strange and somewhat extravagant pastime is a direct result of China's strict one-child rule, which has probably led many young parents to substitute pets for additional children. At the end of the day this passion for pets is quite benign, though it does lead to issues like the ones now being addressed by the city. I do suspect this trend will continue for at least the next decade, with the result that Shanghai residents will increasingly need to learn how to share their living space with this fast-growing pet population.