Walking into the 2013 Taichung Pet Show in Taichung City, Taiwan, the first thing I notice is the strollers. These are the high-end SUVs of strollerdom—large, canvas contraptions, some of the double-decker variety, with enormous rubber wheels and mesh shades. People whisk dogs, cats, and bunnies to and fro in the vehicles, sometimes opting for Babybjörn-like carriers and tote bags instead. “People have more pets due to the low birth rate,” a stroller salesman tells me. “It’s not easy to raise kids—you just have to feed dogs and don’t have to get them an education.” You do, apparently, have to get them a stroller.
The strollers are only the start. At the Ronger Design Studio, pet outfits include not just the sweaters on display in the U.S., but also two-part ensembles involving a hat and underwear (the “Physiological Pants” section of the Ronger catalog features everything from bumblebee-themed undergarments to French maid-esque pink-and-black-lace panties). “We originally started making outfits to make the animals look prettier, and then we needed to create a diaper, and then we needed to make the diaper look prettier,” the woman at the booth explains. The Dog and Royal Food stand serves up artfully arranged salads with julienned carrots, flaked salmon, and yellow sushi rolls—for dogs with discriminating tastes. During a wedding ceremony of sorts, pet owners ascend a platform and pledge, before a crowd of spectators, to always care for their animals, whom they refer to as “family members.” At one point, a human couple takes the stage holding a white terrier, only for the man to surprise his girlfriend with a marriage proposal after swearing fealty to the dog (stunned, and suddenly surrounded by other white-terrier owners, she says ‘yes’).
Beside a collection of stylish cat-climbing furniture—pieces that resemble Ss folded over several times—Joanne Wu Young and her friend Chelsea, who are both involved in animal rescue in Taiwan, discuss mayors and their pet policies; the Taichung mayor is deemed insufficiently animal-friendly relative to his counterpart in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.
“In Chinese-speaking countries such as China or Taiwan, pets are called chongwu—or ‘pet object,’ showing that the owner has money,” Wu Young laments. For her, and for many others at the event, these animals are far more than material things. Is what I'm witnessing at the pet show love? What is?
The Taichung Pet Show was taking place in a country with one of the lowest birth rates in the world. In 2010, Taiwan’s fertility rate (the average number of children women have during their childbearing years) dropped to 0.9—the lowest rate in the world, and a steep decline from a rate of five as recently as the 1960s. The country now has the planet’s third-lowest rate, which has hovered around one child per family for the last decade. Many couples are choosing not to have children at all.
Several factors have contributed to Taiwan’s shrinking fertility rate—and expanding demand for pets. Euromonitor International, for instance, cites “Low birth rates, low marriage rates, aging population, later marriage, increased women’s independence, and smaller household size.” In 2013, the Taiwanese government reported that the average age for men to get married for the first time was 31.9, and the average age for women 29.5—an increase of 0.9 years for men and 2.7 years for women from 10 years earlier. “Combined with Taiwan’s higher standard of living, the costly health care system, high educational standards and soaring divorce rate, experts predict that children will account for only 9 percent of the population by 2060, while people over 65 years old will account for 42 percent,” The China Post recently observed. These developments, the paper noted, are gravely threatening the island’s economy and the very concept of the traditional Taiwanese family.
Arranged marriages, so common in Taiwan 50 years ago, have now “almost disappeared,” says Ruey-Ming Tsay, a professor of sociology at Tunghai University in Taichung City. Since married couples often face societal pressure to have children, many couples these days are choosing to not get married altogether. “The reason there is a low birth rate,” he argues, “is because people don’t get married.”
Wei-Tse Lee, the 23-year-old editor of a Taipei-based magazine for pet owners called About Animals, estimates that “50 percent of younger people don’t want to get married, ever. If they are under 30, they want to have a career, to build their own life, and have fun. … But a single woman or man may want a pet because people do need company.” Women who get married often have to live with their in-laws, and some women don’t want to do that, he adds. “Women want women’s rights … and they can do more things than before; they can have a job and become a supervisor.”
With the economy sluggish and wages stagnating, the economics of raising a child in Taiwan are also daunting, Tsay says. “In Taiwanese culture, parents have full responsibility to raise kids to maturity, maybe 30 years old. … Parents think they need to invest a lot in the kids—the best kindergartens, cram schools”—a reference to the private schools students attend after regular school to improve their English and prepare for high-school and college-entrance exams. In 10 years, as a result of Taiwan’s low fertility rate, “one-third of [Taiwanese] universities will be at risk of closing because of lack of students.”
These trends have made pets ever more popular. According to Lee, pet ownership has increased by 20 percent in Taiwan over the past decade. The Taiwanese pet-products market has been growing by 5 percent or more in recent years, while the country's cat population has swelled—rising by 22 percent between 2003 and 2011 to more than 300,000. The number of dogs on the island has held steady at just over 1 million over the same period.
With this surge in pet ownership has come a new position for pets in the family. Wu Young, the animal-rescue activist, wants to stop referring to pets as chongwu and instead call them doungwu banlu, or “pet companions.”
In February, I paid a visit to Rachel Waller, 37, and her cats Mei Mei (in Chinese, “Little Sister”) and Wa Wa (“Baby”). Waller was born in Taipei and attended college in New Zealand before returning to Taiwan, where she lives in a fifth-floor walkup in Taichung with her husband, Jonathan. When I entered her bright, tranquil apartment, the cats were curled up on a table and breakfast nook. Waller, who studied architecture, said that she lay out her home with her cats in mind. “When I designed this breakfast bar, I thought they would like to sit in this window, in the sun,” she explained.
Waller and her husband both teach at cram schools. They discussed having kids when they were dating, but ultimately decided against it. “My husband said, ‘At one point, you may want to have babies. … Then we’ll get another cat.’”
Waller found Mei Mei shivering in the cold outside a restaurant during a trip to the mountains near Taichung. She came upon Wa Wa by the side of a road a couple years later, when she was concerned about Mei Mei growing lonely. Both cats were strays.