The New York Times
Once-Prized Tibetan Mastiffs Are Discarded as
Fad Ends in China
By ANDREW JACOBS
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
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
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.
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©The New York Times. April 17, 2015.