BEIJING » There once was a time, during the frenzied heights of China’s Tibetan mastiff craze, when a droopy-eyed slobbering giant like Nibble might have fetched $200,000 and ended up roaming the landscaped grounds of some coal tycoon’s suburban villa.
But Tibetan mastiffs are so 2013.
Instead, earlier this year Nibble and 20 more unlucky mastiffs found themselves stuffed into metal chicken crates and packed onto a truck with 150 other dogs. If not for a band of Beijing animal rights activists who literally threw themselves in front of the truck, Nibble and the rest would have ended up at a slaughterhouse in northeast China where, at roughly $5 a head, they would have been rendered into hot pot ingredients, imitation leather and the lining for winter gloves.
China’s boom-to-bust luxury landscape is strewn with devalued commodities like black Audis, Omega watches, top-shelf sorghum liquor and high-rise apartments in third-tier cities. Some are the victims of a slowing economy, while others are casualties of an official austerity campaign that has made ostentatious consumption a red flag for anti-corruption investigators.
Then there is the Tibetan mastiff, a lumbering shepherding dog native to the Himalayan highlands that was once the must-have accouterment for status-conscious Chinese. Four years ago, a reddish-brown purebred named Big Splash sold for $1.6 million, according to news reports, though cynics said the price was probably exaggerated for marketing purposes. No reasonable buyer, self-anointed experts said at the time, would pay more than $250,000 for a premium specimen.
These days, those mastiff breeders left in the business are suffering from overcapacity, as it were. Buyers have largely disappeared, and prices have fallen to a fraction of their peak. The average asking price for desirable dogs — those with lionlike manes and thick limbs — is hovering around $2,000, though many desperate breeders are willing to go far lower.
"If I had other opportunities, I’d quit this business," said Gombo, a veteran breeder in China’s northwestern province of Qinghai, who like many Tibetans uses just one name. He said keeping one of his 160-pound carnivores properly fed cost $50 to $60 a day.
"The pressure we’re under is huge," he said.
Since 2013, about half the 95 breeders in Tibet have gone under, according to the Tibetan Mastiff Association, and the once-flourishing Pure Breed Mastiff Fair in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, has been turned into a pet and aquarium expo.
In some ways, the cooling passion for Tibetan mastiffs reflects the fickleness of a consuming class that adopts and discards new products with abandon. Famed for their ferocity and traditionally associated with free-spirited Tibetan nomads, mastiffs offered their ethnic Han Chinese owners a dose of Himalayan street cred, according to Liz Flora, editor-in-chief of Jing Daily, a marketing research company in Beijing.
"Fads are a huge driving force in China’s luxury market," she said, adding that "Han Chinese consumers have been willing to pay a premium for anything associated with the romanticism of Tibet."
Nomadic families have long used mastiffs as nocturnal sentries against livestock thieves and marauding wolves. A primitive breed with a deep guttural bark, they are inured to harsh winters and the thin oxygen of the high-altitude grasslands; like wolves, females give birth only once a year.
"They have the power to fearlessly protect possessions, human beings and livestock from any kind of threat, and people are proud of them," said Gombo, as a trio of dogs in his yard, tethered to stakes, lunged madly at a group of strangers.
At the peak of the mastiff mania, some breeders pumped their studs with silicone to make them look more powerful; in early 2013, the owner of one promising moneymaker sued a Beijing animal clinic for $140,000 after his dog died on the operating table during face-lift surgery.
"If my dog looks better, female dog owners will pay a higher price when they want to mate their dog with mine," the owner told the state-run Global Times newspaper, explaining why he had asked surgeons to alter the dog’s saggy mien.
Li Qun, a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University and an expert on Tibetan mastiffs, said speculators were partly to blame for sabotaging what had been a healthy market. But also, as prices spiraled upward, unscrupulous breeders began mating pure Tibetan mastiffs with other dogs, diluting the perceived value of the breed and turning off would-be customers.
"By 2013, the market was saturated with crossbreeds," Li said.
News stories about mastiffs attacking people, some fatally, also dampened ardor for the breed. Although not inherently vicious, Tibetan mastiffs are loyal to a fault, increasing the likelihood of attacks on strangers, experts say.
In recent years, a number of Chinese cities have banned the breed, further denting demand and perhaps contributing to the surge in abandonments.
The rescuers who saved Nibble and the others from an ignominious fate said the conditions of the transport were appalling. Several of the mastiffs had broken limbs, and they had not been given food or water for three days. By the time the dogs were released from their cages — the volunteers eventually paid the driver for their freedom — more than a third of them were dead.
"It makes you feel so hopeless because not even the police will help, even though what these people are doing is illegal," said Anna Li, who runs a hedge fund when she is not organizing guerrilla operations to stop dog-packed trucks on Chinese highways.
Animal rights activists say many of the dogs are stolen by gangs who grab pets off the street, while some have been sold off by breeders eager to unload imperfect specimens. Judging from their swollen teats, several of the rescued female mastiffs had been nursing when they were cast off, said Mary Peng, the founder and chief executive of International Center for Veterinary Services, the Beijing animal hospital that has been treating them.
During her 25 years in China, Peng has seen successive waves of dog fads, which invariably begin with speculative breeding and end in mass abandonment.
"Ten years ago, it was German shepherds, then golden retrievers, then Dalmatians and then huskies," she said. "But given the crazy prices we were seeing a few years ago, I never thought I’d see a Tibetan mastiff on the back of a meat truck."
Andrew Jacobs, New York Times