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Pet owners call for sympathy, better services
Updated: 2004-05-07 16:27

Xiao Fang, a squeamish housewife in the eastern China province of Jiangsu, never thought her husband would divorce her for killing a pet dog he had kept for seven years.

"Who's more important to him after all -- his wife or a dog?" asked the bewildered mother of a 17-year-old boy.

Earlier this year, Xiao Fang and her husband bought a new apartment in the provincial capital Nanjing. "The new flat is nicely furnished and I didn't want the demi-wolf to mess it up," she said.

Xiao Fang said she had tried to send the dog away in the first place, but failed. "Heihu was so clever that it managed to come back no matter how far I had taken him. So I hired four men to kill it when my husband was traveling on business."

Heihu, which literally means "black tiger", is the name of the wolfhound her husband and son loved dearly.

She was soon sorry for what she had done because the hostility from her husband and son was unbearable.

Her husband, a Mr. Xu in his 40s, was beside himself when he learned of Heihu's death. "He was like as a member of our family to me. How could she be so cruel?"

Xu said he could no longer live under the same roof with a murderer and divorce was the only way out.

The tragedy also saddened their son Xiao Gang, a senior high school student, who for the first time in his life defied his mother.

"I could have discussed with them to find a better solution," said the grief-stricken housewife in an interview with Xinhua, after their family matter was unveiled by a local newspaper and spread widespread concern among the readers. "I hope they will pardon me and we can sit down together to talk it out."

But her husband was not keen to listen to her, not for the moment at least.

"For many people, a pet is a comfort and companion," said Sun Liang'an, a psychological counselor based in Nanjing, who advised the couple to calm down and receive counseling before they split up.

He said the seemingly domestic affair mirrored the conflict of ideas between China's growing number of pet owners and those who are against pets for fear of rabies and other infectious diseases spread by animals.

About 20 people are attacked by pets, largely domestic dogs andcats, daily in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, according to latest figures provided by the local health administration.

In one case, a three-year-old boy became blind in one eye when he was attacked by a domestic cat.

In another tragedy, a seven-year-old girl almost had a chunk ofher nose bitten off when she somewhat annoyed her family's pet dog,which pounced on her all of a sudden and bit her on the face.

But the growing number of pet owners in Chinese cities are by no means discouraged by these "occasional" attacks.

"Pet-owning is purely a private matter and it should not be restricted," said Wang Li, a retired government official living indowntown Beijing.

However Xie Minghua, who lives in a building no more than 20 meters from Wang's, worried that dogs could spread diseases.

"In addition, look, dogs' dirt is all over the streets now," hecomplained.

Beijing began to strictly limit the number of pet dogs in 1995,when complaints from citizens over their messes and barks rocketed.But as more local citizens are eager to have pets, the regulation has been seriously challenged.

Statistics of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Public Security showed by the end of 2002, there had had some 1.4 million dogs in Beijing, only one-tenth of which were registered.

Last year, the city cut the first-year registration fee for each pet dog from 5,000 yuan (604 US dollars) to 1,000 yuan (121 US dollars), thus making it more affordable for the growing numberof dog lovers.

A survey shows most pet dog owners in Chinese cities are middleand low income earners, including laid-off workers and single elderly people.

Meanwhile, researchers have found pet keeping is conducive to people's physical and mental health, particularly the country's growing number of "empty nesters" -- senior citizens with no children around.

Zheng Richang, a professor of psychology with the Beijing Normal University, has found that empty nesters who keep a pet dogtend to be healthier and happier than those who have no pets.

The 161 elderly under study who keep a dog or cat see doctors less frequently than the 558 who have none, said Zheng.

"Worldwide scientists have also found that pet owners have a longer life expectancy and are more likely to survive emergencies such as heart attacks," he said.

According to the psychologist, pet animals are helping senior citizens' health care service providers in many countries to treatelderly people with various chronic diseases.

"The therapy could be a blessing to the graying Chinese society," said Prof. Zheng.

China is moving rapidly toward an aging society, registering over 130 million elderly, about 10 percent of the total population,and the figure will keep growing at an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the next half century.

Empty nesters' families have taken up at least 30 percent of Chinese urban families, a figure experts predict could mount to 80percent by 2010 due to longer life expectancy and dropping birth rate.

However, disputes between pet owners and incompetent vets are frequently reported in China. These disputes are often hard to solve because there is not a specific law or regulation that applies as to how a vet should compensate a pet owner for worsening an animal's situation or even killing it with a wrong prescription, says Teng Luqian, an attorney with a law firm based in Guiyang, capital of the southwestern Guizhou Province.

So far, not a single Chinese city has opened a public burial ground for pet animals, according to Liu Yu, a social psychology professor with Guizhou University.

"Most burial service providers are still wait-and-see though they know extended service to animals promises huge profits," saidProf. Liu. "Some worry that families of the deceased human will beoffended if dead animals are buried in the same ground with men. After all, men do not easily treat animals as equals according to Chinese customs."

As a result, many pet owners have to desert dead animals into dustbins or onto streets, causing a lot of inconvenience to sanitary workers.

"There's nothing wrong in keeping a pet, but pet owners should abide by laws and regulations and immunize their pets in time against certain contagious diseases," said Zheng Ruifeng, vice-director of the General Veterinary Station for Livestock Husbandryin Beijing.

Zheng said China needs to step up with auxiliary services for the booming pet keeping industry, such as more professional veterinary services and burial grounds for dead animals.

His organization has sponsored Beijing's first hotline for pets,which was opened toward the end of last year to provide free advice on pet-raising to pet owners.

The hotline, 1601010, teaches consultants how to raise pets andenlighten them on the official rules and regulations on pet-raising in the city.

To ensure the consultants can get accurate information, the hotline also invites veterinarians from three local pet hospitals with sound reputations as advisors.

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