Dogs: The Best Kid You Could Ask For

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.

“Does Butter wear a tutu?” I wondered aloud. 

“This one is hers!” Wu Young said, referring to Bean, the paralyzed cat, who was stretched out in the playpen below. In the living room, above the mantel, hung a family portrait: a pen-and-ink drawing of Butter and Wu Young’s five cats. Beside it sat a pile of disposable diapers for Bean.

***

In March, Wu Young whisked me north to Taipei, the beating heart of Taiwanese pet culture. We went to meet Scott Lee and Rita Chang, who design high-end pet furniture, and Chelsea and Kevin Lin, who run pet hotels. Butter accompanied us on the high-speed train, sitting snug and silent in a rolling suitcase with mesh on top. Envious, I thought back to how difficult it was to travel with my children when they were younger.

En route, Wu Young and I discussed the link between pet ownership and family demands in Taiwan. “It’s the Western influence that leads people to adopt pets instead of having kids,” Wu Young told me. “If I had married a Taiwanese man, I’d be divorced. … I’d be expected to have kids, not to work full-time, if I was part of a traditional Taiwanese family.”

Upon reaching Taipei, we drove to a warehouse and showroom belonging to Scott Lee and Rita Chang, a middle-aged Taiwanese couple who own the cat-furniture company Catswall Design. Scott and Rita, both former graphic designers, had grown tired of their jobs and rescued a couple of cats in Taipei, which led to their new line of work. The spacious warehouse was teeming with 22 cats who functioned as salespeople, lounging in wooden boxes and marching up orange wheels. Outside, they enjoyed a trampoline and treehouse with a swinging bridge.

Catswall Design's furniture showroom in Taipei (Karen Bender)

“When we see the cats happy, we’re happy,” Scott explained. “We’ve moved three or four times to make the cats comfortable.” I wondered, guiltily, if I had done enough to make my children comfortable.

Much of Scott and Rita’s income goes to caring for the cats. They spend about 20,000 NT ($670) per month on food, litter, and vet bills. (Later, during lunch at a Thai restaurant, conversation turned to the fact that Taiwan doesn’t have laws regulating how many pets a person can have, and the question of how many is too many. We discussed a woman in the city who kept 200 pets. The consensus was that 200 is too many.)

Over tea, I asked what their families thought of the cats, and their answers were surprisingly upbeat. Scott said his mother is supportive because he grew up with animals. She also backs their effort to build a corporate brand.

Wu Young was shocked. “You’re lucky!” she exclaimed. “In traditional families, a daughter can have many duties … having kids, helping the mother-in-law, taking care of the family. … Sometimes animals get abandoned when there are issues with the in-laws.”

As we drove through the streets of Taipei to the pet hotels, Wu Young recalled her experience teaching kindergarten for 10 years. She quit, she said, because of the difficult parents she encountered. “I had one child who came to school in a Burberry shirt,” she said. “In art class, he got a smudge on it. The mother sent a note that said, ‘My son came to school in a Burberry shirt. … It got dirty. … Please keep him away from art class.’”

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Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender is the author of the forthcoming story collection, Refund.

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