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.
Her parents ask her about having children. “Especially with a cross-culture marriage”—Waller is Taiwanese and her husband is Australian—“they think kids would be so cute. But I’m pretty independent, I’m not pressured into changing my mind.” Plus, she said, her cram-school students range in age from three to 16, and “they are like my kids.”
Pets are easier emotionally as well. “The world is getting worse, there’s bullying at school, I don’t want my kid to bully or be bullied,” she reflected. “We have more control over our pets.” Waller paused, then added that she also got a cat because she sometimes gets depressed. “My doctor said a pet would be good therapy. I thought I wouldn’t be a good mom if I was depressed.” Her husband doesn’t like getting clothes for the cats and they don’t give their pets baths.
She held up her hands, palms flat: “If you wet your hands and pet [the cats], it’s like a bath, like a mother cat grooming her kittens.”
“Over the last 12 years, I’ve spent about 2.5 million NT [New Taiwan dollars, or $83,000] on fostering,” Joanne Wu Young told me during a visit to her house in Taichung City in February. “My mother’s mad because I could have gotten a really good house.” She and her husband, who is Canadian, estimate that they’ve fostered about 900 animals during that period. Both work for foreign bicycle-manufacturing companies.
Her home resembled those where the needs of young children are clearly paramount; here, the furniture and layout were devoted to the demands of her pets. The permanent household included four cats—Shandie, Oscar, Minou, and Elle—and a long-haired Chihuahua named Butter. In a playpen in the living room, beside a 10-foot-tall, carpeted climbing tower, was a golden-eyed foster cat named Bean, who was paralyzed from the waist down from being hit by a car. Bean wore a navy bandana around her waist and her back legs stuck out straight, like furry twigs. Wu Young explained that since the cat’s digestive tract was impaired, she had to squeeze urine and feces out of her twice a day. "Can she crawl?" I asked. “Of course!” said Wu Young. “She can move forward with her two front legs."
Wu Young, 36, has been married for 10 years, “and I’m pretty happy without kids. I have a pretty good quality of life in Taiwan. We don’t have luxury cars, but we have no debts. The issues are freedom and financial; we have extra money to travel the world.” Her parents are “really upset” that she doesn’t have kids, and “his parents are upset.” But, she added, “I feel life is cheap in Taiwan. … I see people hitting kids and abusing them with language. I don’t want to live the way they live.”
She has maintained this position even though the government is working hard to encourage Taiwanese to have children. She told me about a friend who is pregnant, noting that the Taichung City government will give the expectant mother 65,000 NT ($2,200) in a red envelope when the baby is born and, for six years after the child’s birth, coupons for babysitting or preschool totaling 5,000 NT ($170) a month; a preschool can cost around 8,000 NT ($270) a month.
We looked at Butter, who had been trotting around the living room, sometimes peering at Bean through the playpen. I asked Wu Young if Butter wore clothes. “Butter has a closet of clothes! He gets cold in the winter,” she responded, opening a nearby closet to reveal roughly 50 tiny, neatly folded outfits. “For Halloween he was a wizard,” she recalled while taking out some of the getups. One was a pink tutu.