TAIPEI, Taiwan — She put her finger out for a dab of purple dye, her white terrier thrown over her right shoulder.
Then, hesitatingly, she ran her finger over her dog's fuzzy tail, streaking it with color. Two nearby 20-something women looked on with glee, now and then cooing the obligatory Taiwanese response to any such situation: "Hao ke-ai-oh! (so cute!)" The Guns N' Roses tune "Sweet Child of Mine" blared from nearby speakers.
This was the booth for Pet Head, a dog-hair-dye company, and one of the most popular at this year's Pets Show Taipei. Along with dyeing products — one of this year's hot trends, as evidenced by the fierce competition at a dog-dyeing contest — a convention hall was filled with all the latest innovations in pet pampering.
A dog with dyed hair at Pets Show Taipei.
There were dog-massaging stations. Designer pet-toting bags and buggies, some upwards of $1,000. Cute dog clothes. Healthy treats for dogs marked "LOHAS" (for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, an acronym that's all the rage in wealthy Taipei). A treadmill for dogs. (Read to the end for a series of Dog vs. Treadmill video clips.) And on of the previous days, there was even yoga for dogs and a poodle wedding, according to news reports.
Nothing too extraordinary for dog-doting New Yorkers, perhaps, or for Europeans. But the pet show demonstrates how quickly and dramatically attitudes toward pets — particularly dogs — have changed in this newly-wealthy corner of Asia.
Just 10 years ago, dogs were still eaten in public restaurants and raised on farms for that purpose in Taiwan. Traditional Chinese medicine held that so-called "fragrant meat" from dogs could fortify
Now, selling dog meat is illegal, and violators can be slapped with a nearly $8,000 fine, according to Huang Ching-jung, secretary-general of Taiwan's Animal Protection Association. Eating dog is viewed by many Taiwanese as an embarrassing reminder of a poorer time, though it's still eaten on the down-low in rural, southern Taiwan, Huang said.
A dog with its hair dyed at Pets Show Taipei.
Instead, Taiwanese have embraced dog-owning culture with a vengeance. Dogs are brought into restaurants, fussed over in public, dressed up in ridiculous outfits and wheeled to the park in frilly custom-made buggies.
Huang chalks up the rapid change in attitude to several factors. Taiwan's education level has risen rapidly, and animal welfare groups like his have successfully campaigned for better treatment of animals, with the media's help. The island has gotten richer, meaning Taiwanese can now afford many types of meat, and can buy other medicines.
"You don't need dog meat to make you healthier, and we don't need dogs as a source of meat," said Huang. "So dogs have become our friends and companions."
Also, Taiwanese are increasingly shunning marriage and deciding not to have kids (the island has one of Asia's lowest birth rates). Raising a dog has become a substitute. "It's like having a child — it becomes family," said Huang.
Finally, there's one all-important factor: "Dogs are very cute animals," Huang said.
The pet show-goers couldn't have agreed more. They crammed into the convention center's narrow aisles, their canines (and the odd, freaked-out-looking cat) in tow — leashed, wheeled in buggies or
strapped stomach-side — craning necks to see the latest trendy pet products. Scantily clad showgirls representing pet food companies whipped up the crowd's enthusiasm, though their numbers were fewer here than at Taiwan's computer trade shows.
One promotion girl hurled fist-sized bags of Purina Pro Plan into the crowd without warning. Two hit me in the face and neck in rapid succession — bam! thok! — as I was looking the other direction
A dog has green "eyebrows" applied at Pets Show Taipei.
At the Pet Head booth, George Ambrose said he started his trading company three years ago to distribute dog-hair-dyeing and other products in Taiwan. In the U.S., he said, dog-dyeing "is catching on," in Taiwan it's relatively new (it's also hot in China.) He had me sniff a bottle of the temporary dye to show it was ammonia-free.
I lurked around the demonstration table ("Is this CSI?" one young, self-conscious Taiwanese woman joked as I snapped pictures of her dog having its ears streaked green, referring to the TV show "Crime Scene Investigation" that's popular here). Other owners held up their pooches proudly in a "we're ready for our close-up" kind of way.
Down the aisle, Albert Chan was touting healthy pet food products from his company, Perfect Companion (Taiwan). They had set up a treadmill for dogs in the booth. Some dogs caught on quickly, especially if a treat was extended by hand from the front of the treadmill.
Others got distracted, or just couldn't grasp the running-in-place concept and went flying off the back of the treadmill in a blur of fur and frantically-pawing limbs.
By late afternoon, nerves at the pet show had gotten raw as people had to elbow past each other in confined walkways and fight for promotional give-aways. One lane reeked of dog poo that had been
pressed and ground into the red carpeted-floor ("How stinky!" one woman moaned loudly, to no-one in particular). Pet company staff started taking their booths down.
Taiwanese women gathered with their dogs on the long sidewalk outside the convention center, as their shaggy-haired boyfriends took drags of Mild Seven cigarettes. Two guys walked their tiny mutt down the sidewalk; it kept stopping, snapping the leash taut.
"What, you still haven't finished peeing?" its owner said affectionately.