Dogs: The Best Kid You Could Ask For

“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.’”

We all marveled at this controlling parent, and it occurred to me that all human children can, occasionally, become chongwu; I thought about the times I’d bragged about my children’s accomplishments, or overprotected them, or put them in funny costumes when they were little. In Taiwan as in America, and probably anywhere else, we strive, not just with pets but with humans, to move from perceiving our beloved as chongwu to engaging with him or her as a companion.

At the cat hotel, called Cat and Life, we met Chelsea, 30, and Kevin, 42, who live together and own (“officially?” Chelsea asked) “about 22 dogs.” Chelsea and Kevin are from Taiwan. They both lived in Canada for many years and worked in banking before getting into the pet-hospitality business. On the second floor of their establishment, we came across a cat-adoption area—one reminiscent of a child’s playroom, with a linoleum floor, wooden tables, and a bookshelf—that functions as a kind of dating/hangout scene where petless people can meet pets (or, in the case of polyamorous pet owners, more pets). On the third floor, cats lolled in 20 small glass rooms that can hold up to four cats each. (Some VIP rooms sport furniture intended to simulate home—one features a wooden desk and black office chair on wheels, another contains a crib with pillows, yet another houses a love seat and a stained-glass lamp.) Video cameras are aimed at each room so owners can watch their cats 24 hours a day while they’re out of town. “Everyone is watching all the time!” Chelsea told me. “People say, ‘Turn the cameras, nothing is happening,’ and I say, ‘The cat is sleeping, what do you want it to do?!’”

Pet’s Dream Park, which Lin opened 10 years ago as Taiwan’s first dog hotel, was cheerful and extensively surveilled, with 64 video cameras patrolling the place. But it smelled strongly of dog, and had a slightly more downmarket feel than its cat counterpart—while Cat and Life resembled a shiny new Hilton, Pet’s Dream Park recalled a Ramada Inn. Inside, one dog was wearing a chewed-up purple funnel and a disposable diaper. A series of surgeries had damaged his bladder, requiring him to wear the diaper and a plastic cone to keep him from tearing it off. He stood motionless, staring at us with an unbearably sad expression.

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

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