As I was mining the archives in Taiwan, I always kept my eyes open for canine sightings. The difficult and wondrous thing about dogs is how ubiquitous they are, yet unindexed. I found them chronicled in books that are not specifically about dogs, but on closely related topics — such as Taiwanese indigenous resistance to Japanese colonialism. What we now know of the Formosan Mountain Dog is closely aligned with the history of Taiwanese aborigines, or yuanzhumin 原住民.
Dogs were seldom depicted as isolated subjects of early photodocumentation. But the photographs where they are integrated into domestic, social, and military scenes are incredibly rich with anthrozoological detail to me. Here are a few of my favorites from GEN Zhiyou 根誌優, ed., Collection of Historical Photographs of Taiwan’s People’s Resistance Against Japanese Occupation 1874-1933 [Taiwan kangri shi tuji 台灣抗日史圖輯] (Taipei: Taiwan yuanzhumin chuban youxian gongsi 台灣原住民出版有限公司, 2010).
Vol. I, p. 305 (Year 1905): “日軍11月9日以步砲聯合作戰攻入北葉社，懲罰其頭目庇護抗日義軍，圖為1905年在頭目宅前合影的北葉社排灣族。” On November 9th, the Japanese military launched a coordinated infantry-artillery attack on the Beiye Society as punitive measures against a chieftain who was harboring Japanese resistance fighters. Pictured are members of the Beiye Society, assembled in front of the chieftain’s home.
A moment of relative peace, given the violence that would ensue, as described in the caption. Even the dog, a drop-eared specimen, looks docile in contrast to the prick-eared hunters that are usually depicted in aboriginal company — and which would clearly be favored in the Formosan Mountain Dog breed standard, a century later.
Vol. II, p. 195 (Year 1916-7): “在警察掌握部落行政，法律與教育的日據時代，部落駐警宛如太上皇，可是一旦原住民忍無可忍起義，平日宛如貴族的日警與眷屬往往要魂斷異邦。” During the Japanese colonial period, the [Japanese] police who assumed administrative, legal, and educational control were basically overlords of their stations, but they’d quickly push the aborigines to the limits of tolerance and cause them to revolt. Typically, the aristocratic Japanese police and their families would have to make efforts to dissolve cultural differences.
I absolutely love the forced togetherness and awkward poses of this shot, especially the contrast between the Japanese ladies seated carefully atop furniture, the aboriginal women squatted even lower than the standing Japanese boy, and of course, the dog splayed on the ground, front and center.
Vol II, p. 39 (Year 1913): “南投，臺中軍警討伐隊完成大甲，北港兩溪流域之屠殺掃蕩任務後，下山路過草屯，當地日警與眷屬列隊歡迎之鏡頭。” Japanese Expeditionary Force from Taichung marching through Nantou after mopping up a massacre at the Dajia and Beigang Rivers. As they descended from the mountains and passed through Caotun, the police administrators and their families lined up to welcome the troops.
And who stands in the middle of the pathway, in defiance of all this pomp and circumstance? A pair of naughty piebald tugou. I just hope they had the sense to move ahead, instead of getting kicked out of the way.
Vol I, p. 402 (Year 1906): “「外太魯閣蕃」當中的博落灣（今部落灣）社人”
This shot, depicting “Savages of Outer Taroko,” is one of my favorites, because it is so layered, perfectly composed, and evocatively personified. The background scenery situates this in majestic nature — the steep, lushly forested cliffs make Taroko Gorge one of Taiwan’s signature tourist sites even now. Meanwhile, the building presents stark geometry, its sharp lines indicative of its rigid construction. The men are probably the most immediately eye-catching characters, scattered across the foreground in various poses of defiance. One guy even seems to be waving his sword? This was the year of a major incident in Hualian, and the aborigines were in no mood to be “pacified.” From the intensity of their direct stares, I definitely get the sense that the cameraman is intruding.
Yet, what is most fascinating to me is the canine detail, carefully set between two of the human characters in the foreground and quietly lurking somewhere in mid-ground, on the front porch of the building.
The flexed muscles and antagonistic stance of the man on the right is subtly offset by the casual posture of the dog lying in front of the door (I can’t quite make out what the other dog is doing). Now, hanging back and not approaching the camera may very well be the dog’s manner of expressing his disapproval. What I think is interesting is how perfectly those dogs fit into the gap between the foregrounded figures, as if this was a deliberate compositional choice. Or the whole thing could have been a happy accident, shot quickly just moments before the cameraman was charged and chased off the site. I have no idea. But this picture stirs my imagination in so many ways, I wish I had a large, sharp print to frame and hang and stare at every day.
Vol II, p. 83 (Year 1914): “力里社頭目在宅前處理剛獵獲的山豬，排灣族和所有台灣原住民一樣都愛狩獵，收押其槍枝，必然引發極大的風暴。” The chief of the Lili Society carves up a freshly caught mountain hog in front of his house. The Paiwan tribe, like the rest of the Taiwanese aborigines, love to hunt. Forced disarmament [by Japanese decree] inevitably caused a commotion.
You get a good sense of the size of the boar compared to the dog. The dogs were hunting partners and part of the tribe, and so naturally expected a share of the meat (the look on the face of the dog watching the butchering is so familiar). But it was the gun that brought down the animal, not the dog.
There’s more where these came from, but I’ll present them some other time. This is the fun part of research, after all — flipping through hundreds of pages of words and images, scanning for the traces of that which was deemed not important enough to index, but means the world to me. Sorry about the crooked frames and page glares. I had my choice of low resolution scans or higher resolution cell phone pictures, so this is what worked best for me at the time. Click on any of the pictures for a closeup.
Film:Twelve Nights [Shier ye 十二夜] Director: Raye Producer: Giddens Ko 九把刀, Sophia Sui 隋棠 Cinematographer: ZHOU Yi-hsien 周宜賢 Performers: Dogs at an unnamed shelter in Taiwan Breeds featured: Taiwan dogs, Shiba Inu, German Shepherd, Basset Hound Production information: Atom Cinema, 2013 (Taiwan) Availability: A region-free DVD and CD soundtrack can be purchased through Yesasia.com [Ed. 7.14.2014]
Twelve Nights, a documentary about dogs in a Taiwan animal shelter, hit the theatrical circuits this Friday, November 29th. I had a chance to see it premier at a sold-out screening in the midst of the Golden Horse Film Festival.
Here’s an early preview that I shared via Facebook:
A rough translation of the overhead narration (which is not present in the film): What if you only had twelve days remaining? How would you like to pass your time?
[Intertitle: What is the happiest time of your life?]
Just quietly enjoy some time with your family? Eat a meal of your favorite food? Join your friends at the beach and chase the breaking waves? Shelter your children one last time? Sit together, and watch one last sunset? Or… would you want more time?
[Intertitle: A lifetime’s journey, counting down in 12 days]
[Intertitle: Production credits (listed above)]
Everyone was handed a pack of tissues as they entered the theater (though some of us had come prepared anyway). “You’ve all got your tissues? You know what to do,” said director Raye somberly as she briefly introduced the film.
Who are the emotional masochists who choose to purchase a movie ticket, enter the theater, and purposely watch a film that they know is going to bring them to anguish and tears? I didn’t get a chance to survey the audience, but I noted that it was comprised of a mix of male and female (possibly leaning more towards women), mostly audience members aged forty or younger.
The film came together through the efforts of a young group of animal lovers. Raye, a commercial film editor who initiated the project, began taking her own footage, but had a hard time finding financial support. It wasn’t until she came upon a willing cinematographer, Zhou Yi-hsien (周宜賢), that producer Giddens Ko (九把刀 a.k.a. “Nine Knives,” a prolific writer and sometimes film director) entered with the necessary backing. After the screening, Ko noted, “I used to say that the most valuable thing I’ve ever purchased was dreams. But now I think the most valuable thing I can purchase is hope.” The driving motive of the film, according to Ko, is not to depress everyone about the monstrosity of the situation, but to inspire change.
Left to right: ZHOU Yi-hsien, cinematographer; Giddens Ko, producer; EMT friend, a volunteer; Raye, director
Indeed, the film is radically different from any previous documentaries I’ve watched which address the topic of homeless Taiwan dogs. Twelve Nights looks and sounds like it should screen alongside mainstream, commercial features with high production values, though I suspect the actual budget was relatively low. There were no “actors” to pay, after all. Most of the crew is comprised of volunteers, and all of the proceeds are going to animal welfare charities anyway.
It’s a film that holds together with a desperation and sincerity befitting the gravity of the topic. They desperately want people to come and watch this film, not for their sake, but for the animals. And as art is motivated not by profit motives, but by a resolve to understand and transcend time and space, Twelve Nights is so much more than that fatal deadline indicated in the title, or the duration of entrapment in this “shelter” that is more accurately described as a death-row prison. Rather, the aesthetic choices delicately balance hope and devastation, inevitably tipping one way or the other at times, but doing so with grace and sensitivity. How do you convince people to actually purchase a movie ticket and sit through such a painful film, after all? And once there, how can you justify making them stay? Why do you want to expose them to animal suffering and cruelty, and the visage of real death? Must we see these things to know that they exist?
I think there are many valid ethical questions when subjecting audiences to screen violence of any kind. Let me try to explain how the film navigates these issues through its three outstanding features – cinematography, narration, and music.
As should be evident from the preview, the quality of the visuals is gorgeous. Alarmingly so. Natural winter lighting contrasts the torture of captivity by casting so many brutal details in a warm, golden glow. Yet, this is not to say that the documentary devalues the gravity of the situation by beautifying it. There is so much shit, piss, blood, vomit, and other discharges from the very first day that it should be clear that the filmmakers are not trying to sanitize the issues at all.
Day one begins with intake. We watch a group of newly collected dogs get dragged out of their cages and marched into their kennels at the end of catchpoles, fighting and defecating themselves every step of the way. All of them resist in some way, no matter what their condition — old, young, barely weaned, mangy, fit, injured, pregnant, limping. There is even a Shiba Inu, nicknamed “Little Japan,” who arrives relatively groomed and sporting a new-looking collar. She, like every single dog scanned that day, is not microchipped. And one by one, you see terror and confusion cloud over their eyes when they’re finally moved into their kennel.
This is the important thing though… You see their eyes. You see their faces and their whole, expressive bodies. When photographing dogs, this is such an essential rule, but so often the cinematography must make compromises to withdraw back to human-centric narration. Not here. Even when the dogs burrow underneath the raised kennel platforms to hide and cower, the camera tracks and follows, maintaining canine eye levels. When you see the concrete floor slick with excreta by the end of the intake session, the thought of sharing that stooped view with the dogs becomes nauseating. Yet this is the only way to emulate canine perspective, and begin to understand the conditions in which they live and die (though the limitations of the medium can’t transmit the primary way dogs perceive — through olfaction). In the entire documentary, you barely see any human faces, you barely even hear the shelter workers’ voices. Locked in on animal visages, the cinematographer was able to elicit more personality and more charisma from every single one of these documentary subjects than some purportedly dog-centric films starring trained animal actors.
Despite what is suggested in the preview, there is no overhead narration. No extra-diegetic, God-voices at all, dictating how we should feel and think. This was a very conscientious decision on the part of the filmmakers, who wanted to decrease the level of anthropomorphism, while acknowledging that we can’t fully escape the anthropomorphic impulse to narrate in our effort to make sense of the very reason for this documentary’s existence.
Humans want to tell, and to hear stories. It’s clear that the dogs possess emotions that hint at many of their own stories, but how do they want to be narrated? This is what the skillful cinematography allows us to contemplate, and it is also what the textual intertitles nudge us to see with clarity. A few dozen dogs are given code names, which confer personality — not to excess. Anyone who spends time observing dogs, whether twelve days or twelve years, knows that personality will naturally manifest. And with the evidence of personality, or what is being debated as “personhood” in some circles, comes the moral responsibility to acknowledge that terminating a life means silencing the stories that came to shape that creature’s personality.
This, I think, is the most heartbreaking aspect of the narration for me — knowing that all these dogs had a past, one that probably was intertwined with humans. So even Twelve Nights cannot avoid sloganeering, but I find their mantra of Adopt, don’t abandon 領養, 不棄養 to be less antagonistic as the American counterpart, “Don’t breed or buy while shelter pets die.” Animal welfare agendas in Taiwan similarly aim to shape pet owner behavior, but not necessarily on the level of reproductive control. I admit, I twitched reflexively when I saw that dogs from this shelter were adopted out without spaying or neutering. Upon reflection, such details remind me that this documentary is about trying to rearrange value systems, and even empathetic “insiders” are not immune to having their beliefs questioned. On the whole, I feel that the narration eschewed dogma, judgment, and sensationalism. Yet, “facts” are ever neutral, and always gesture towards context.
For example, we are told right at the outset that of the 400 ~ 450 dogs witnessed over the course of the filming, at least 53 of them did indeed make it out of the shelter. For the rest, the film serves as the last remaining record of their existence. What these numbers signify to the viewer is instantly so much more than mere numbers. They are reminders of hope, as well as a way to prepare the viewer for the heartache that follows.
This heartache is meant to produce its own agenda. The filmmakers want their audience to react strongly enough to desire change. But they’re also trying to let you know at the outset that the something positive is in view. In the post-screening Q&A, Giddens Ko shared a particularly touching anecdote. He spoke of how they’d already resolved to rescue as many dogs as they could, abandoning the impossible notion of maintaining “objectivity.” Yet, he was trying to steel himself against the emotional outpouring that he knew would hit. At least, he didn’t want it to happen in front of the camera.
On the day the film crew was to witness a round of mass euthanasia, Ko was completely prepared to turn off his emotions. He happened to look over at one of their volunteers, an EMT who regularly visited the shelter and became a part of their documentary efforts. His friend, built like a “homicidal maniac” (in Ko’s words), literally the appearance of a man of steel on the outside, displayed absolutely no resistance to the circumstances. He let himself cry freely, openly, and with great sympathy. Here was a bulk of a man who has to confront the brink of life and death, both in his career and by choice through his volunteer efforts at the shelter, and yet he had no inhibitions about expressing his feelings for these animals.
The “homicidal maniac” speaks.
In short, the stake of these dogs is more important than your hangups about whether or not you should cry in front of others. This is something that the director wanted to remind potential audience members who say they want to watch the movie, but don’t want to be seen crying in front of their friends, or strangers. We legitimize these issues by allowing them to seep into public, and emboldening ourselves to appear vulnerable to others.
Briefly, I want to acknowledge the score provided by Owen Wang 王希文, a talented young composer whose name has quickly risen among the ranks of Taiwan film. The soundtrack is intimate and minimalistic, consisting mostly of sparse piano, acoustic guitar, and chamber orchestration, complementing the cinematography with a similar elegance. Most importantly to me, there are no “theme songs” to speak of, where some maudlin lyrics penned for a pop star destroy the mood by closing out with some gross overtures of marketable sentiment. Many a Japanese dog movie is guilty of setting such booby traps in the end credits, and also too many other animal welfare documentaries than I care to list…
While the soundtrack to Twelve Nights is memorable, it does not overtake the voices of the dogs themselves, which is constant in a noisy kennel environment. Director Raye knows to employ music, silence, and noise judiciously. You do have to hear the voices of the dogs at times, but the audience is spared the sensation of hearing them all the time. Music is offered as an important psychological retreat. When a film is as heavy as Twelve Nights, it is not at all a bad idea to create as many ventilation points as possible, so as not to suffocate the viewer before they make it to the end.
So I heartily approve of this film’s inclusion in the Golden Horse festival lineup, and completely respect anyone who has the heart to purchase a movie ticket and see it during its theatrical exhibition. At this point, I do not know of screening prospects outside of Taiwan. If a DVD becomes available later, I’ll update with information.
The House of Two Bows keeps a running index of movies blurbed on the site, annotated by breed. If you’re interested in writing a guest blog for a dog film, contact for details.
I currently live in Taipei by the Linjiang/Tonghua Night Market 臨江街通化夜市. On nearby Keelung Rd. 基隆路 is a concentrated strip of pet stores where the animal wares line up against the windows for a couple blocks.
I pass through the area frequently. And out of some semi-anthropological impulse and my longing for the Bows, I’ll often linger. I scan the windows and take note of presentation, cleanliness, apparent health and vigor of the puppies and kittens, etc.
Toy poodles, Corgis, Pomeranians, Chihuahuas, Mini Schnauzers, Pugs, Maltese, Shih Tzu, and Dachshunds are in — as they were, when I last lived here. I see fewer large breeds in the pet stores, thank goodness, but many can produce Lab, Golden Retriever, and Siberian Huskies on call, if not in the display windows. What seems relatively new to me is the popularity of French Bulldogs, a minor surprise because I can only imagine how brachycephalic breeds suffer in this heat.
And of course, every pet store has Shiba Inu.
Sometimes, I stand in front of Shiba windows and try to re-imagine that swell of desire that made us pick Bowdu out from the pile. This is not to tempt myself anew with another Bad Idea. Rather, I’m trying to identify that first spark of emotion that results in these puppies getting sold — as they do, day in, day out.
My feelings are far too mixed now to just succumb to innocent surrender, given what I’ve learned over the years. Yet, I do remember the lift of total transport, the moment you hold one of those puppies. And before the customer has the time to disperse those happypuppyclouds and think things through rationally, they’ve bought that wriggly ball of responsibility…
And so it happened to the brother of that Shiba pair born July 11th, pictured above, playing with one of the pet store clerks. Two days later, I passed by the same pet store and noticed that only the sister was left, and a pug had been plopped into the missing Shiba’s place. Even curiouser, the date of birth had been changed in a pretty half-assed manner, with a single line added to make it look like the birthdate was July 4th, a whole week earlier. That means on August 18th, when the second picture was taken, the Shibas were just a few days over six weeks old, if the latter date is to believed. If the first date was right, the first Shiba was just a few days over five weeks old when he was sold.
Either way, those Shiba pups were way too young to be taken home, and the fact that the pet store proprietor changed the birthdate on the window indicates that they knew and were trying to fudge perceptions. Not that there are any firm laws in Taiwan against the sale of young pups, as in some parts of the US. In Taiwan, pet retailer laws only stipulate that the animals should already be weaned, and have not been determined to carry any communicable diseases or illness that makes them unsuitable for sale at the time.
I’d be surprised if anyone’s actually been fined for selling underaged puppies. Chances are that the Shiba puppy didn’t die the next day (and if he did, he would have been speedily replaced by yet another underaged Shiba). The people got what they wanted, and all is, hopefully, well. Dogs are pretty hardy creatures, even the ones born and raised under less than ideal circumstances. But it’s precisely because these lives are so easy to produce that I feel like we have the responsibility to protect their fecundity.
And yes, sometimes that “protection” is rendered through reproductive control. More words about that some other time.
One last bit that I thought was interesting…
After the Shiba sister was also sold, this is the pair that replaced them in the window. They are advertised as “mixed blood” 混血 pups — combining Chinese 中 (Taiwanese) and Japanese 日 lines. What they’re emphasizing is the presumed authenticity of import lineage. Mostly I’m just amused by the idea that the dogs themselves possess nationality, such that the breeding combination results in a “mix” that nobody can see anyway.
Didn’t get a chance to post this gorgeous tugou encountered on a walk when I went down to Puli, Nantou County — the only land-locked county in the center of the island where my dad’s side of the family mostly resides.
I don’t often see black and tans that retain such a sharp mask and distinctive form.
You see why they often end up getting dubbed “Basenji” mixes when they arrive Stateside?
Despite her towering presence atop the column, she wasn’t that big, about 40 pounds. I’d be able to brush the top of her head and certainly her ears without stooping if she was beside me. Not that she offered a chance to get close.
Given the current rabies situation in Taiwan, I made sure to note the number of free-roaming dogs that I still saw during my trip down south. While I didn’t encounter groups of strays, as I have before, it was mildly surprising that many pet dogs were still given free rein. Rabies “hysteria,” as it were, is not so easy to observe from a casual perspective. One probably has to go to shelters and vets to get a better sense of heightened anxieties.
About a week after my country excursion, the first case of rabies affecting a pet dog was confirmed in Taitung, on the Eastern coast.
Public notice posted at the library when I first arrived in August, warning that “This KISS could be deadly!”
I know not what this portends. Taipei often seems a world away from the rest of the island, let alone further points abroad.
In the summer of 1990, my mother, my little sister, and I took a two month trip to Taiwan, leaving my father with only the company of the family cat, a gray tabby named Bubba. That was the first time I ever had to leave a pet in the care of someone else. It was also our first return to Taiwan since we’d emigrated about six years ago, so there was much to distract me from thoughts of my dearly missed pet. Nevertheless, I still rushed through the apartment doors upon our return home, eager to touch that familiar fur.
What a shock it was to be greeted by the enormous girth that Bubba had acquired in our absence. He had managed to fill out to the sides and spill out from the bottom, fully inhabiting every roly-poly B to his name. The jarring transformation was softened by witnessing the obvious bond he had formed with my father, who had apparently forged his own relationship with the cat and bought his love with a steady supply of roast beef sandwich scraps. Bubba had always been a mooch for people food, but no doubt those months alone with dad, who was learning to feed himself on a daily basis let alone the cat, had contributed to the urinary tract condition that eventually killed him less than a year after our return.
These are the memories that lurk, as I leave my pets yet again… this time, as an adult, with two dogs, and for an unavoidable research trip back to Taiwan. This time, I’m leaving for four whole months.
I’ve been away before. The longest trip prior to this was three months, when I flew off for summer language training and it was a house of just a single Bow left with RJ. There have also been occasional vacation-time dips into overseas archives and international conferences to deprive me of a few days to a few weeks of their company. This is the nature of my field of study and chosen line of work.
Over the years, Bowdu has become sensitive to the meaning of suitcases.
And just as I left on Wednesday night, Bowpi started keening as well, amped up by tension in the room that she didn’t know how to interpret.
I hate that I can’t be in two places at once.
I hate that I live in a world where traveling with pets is still so expensive and impractical. RJ is the only person that I trust to know their quirks and to cherish them the way I would, despite it all. He stays behind because he’s the only person who feels as responsible to them as I do.
He’s no doggy “daddy” and I’m no “mommy” and the Bows are not our “furbabies,” but damn if these creatures have taught me a thing or two about the pleasures of nurturing another…
The House of Two Bows will continue blogging sporadically, though I am in absentia. I’ve got a backlog of drafts to clean up, and there are dog-related pursuits as part of this trip that I will eventually reveal. Of course, my cameras are in tow, so the sightings shared on this blog may look very different in the upcoming months. Meanwhile, RJ promises to send me regular updates, which will be shared with discretion. Suffice to say, the blogging schedule I’ve held steady for the last three years will not apply through the remainder of this year.
Thanks for reading and sticking with us, anyway. We’ll continue to check in from time to time.
Soundtrack to this entry:
I would watch as you was sleeping
To make sure you were still breathing
You live so fast without seeing
This eternal youth is fleeting
Oh, take care of my baby
Take care of my baby
Take care of my baby
I don’t think he can do it himself…
Film:Cujo Director: Lewis Teague Performers: Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Ed Lauter, unnamed Saint Bernards and Rottweilers (as Cujo) Breed featured: Saint Bernard Animal trainer: Karl Lewis Miller (credited for animal action); Glen Garner, Jackie Martin (credited as animal handlers) Production information: Warner Brothers, 1983 (USA)
Stephen King’s Cujo is synonymous with the killer dog raging out of control. If you don’t know the story, the name may or may not bring to mind a Saint Bernard (gee, I wonder if the movie spurred an uptick in demand for this breed?). It may or may not even call to mind rabies, the disease that is transmitted to the titular dog, causing him to stalk and kill both his familiars and hapless passers-through. In popular parlance, to “go Cujo” just means to turn violent with little to no basis for aggression; provocation or other, explanatory factors are not necessarily part of the definition.
kids, this is NOT how you greet a strange dog — rabid or not
Cujo embodies the basic fear that no matter how “tame” you may consider your cohabitants — your pets, your spouse, your child(ren) — there is always a possibility that they will turn on you. Yet, it’s not nearly so frightening when betrayal comes in the form of a cheating or abusive partner, a side plot to the central conflict. When the creature that turns is a 200-pound dog who is physically unstoppable, can’t listen to either emotion or reason, and could easily tear out your throat and suck the juices from your face without bothering to wipe off any of the mess… well, that’s the stuff of nightmares.
Really gross, drippy, and OMGdontevenTOUCHmejuststayAWAY nightmares.
As I jot down this review, I am thinking of Taiwan, currently in the grips of rabies hysteria. In June 2013, a number of ferret-badgers from the landlocked county of Nantou in central Taiwan tested positive for the rabies virus. These discoveries effectively struck the island from the list of international rabies-free zones, a status it has enjoyed for over 50 years. The news was made official in mid-July. To date, there have been 36 confirmed cases, though none involve pets or any of the large population of free-roaming cats and dogs.
Ideally, the disease will be contained as vaccines are properly administered — when they’re available. There’s been a shortage of supplies, and quite a bit of dramatics involved. Historically, cross-culturally, and even aesthetically, this seems to be the nature of the disease. Visual and literary depictions of rabies frequently run to extremes, as if born of anxieties that the madness is transmissible by more than bites, but by thought itself.
What seems most frightening about rabies is how it possesses and transforms the very nature of the individual, the closest thing to mammalian metamorphoses documented by humans. Even the cleanest household beast will turn into a drooling, staggering mess if infected — and by then, it’s a goner. In the case of pets, it’s frightening to think that a constant companion, whose presence is frequently invited and a welcome part of daily life, has even the slightest potential to become the vector of violence and trauma. Indeed, pets only became as widespread and as precious as they are now when the threat of an untimely loss due to rabies (and other common diseases like distemper) was effectively nullified by modern vaccines.
Of course, there would be no story if Cujo’s owner had just properly vaccinated him like a responsible, modern pet owner. Indeed, the world has moved on from the days of Old Yeller, where a farm dog chasing wild rabbits on his turf was only so much charming, innocent fun. Now, you gotta add rabid bats and other, unforeseen dangers to the environment. Cujo (and his owner) are essentially punished for being relics of backwoods ignorance that no longer have their place. But in a story like Old Yeller, where no humans are actually hurt by rabid animals, the pain is more psychological. In this story, where the dog’s original owner is quickly dispatched, and the main victims are a mother and son who just happen to get stuck on Cujo’s farm, the threat is mostly about physical rather than emotional harm.
That is, if they could just kill the damn dog and get to a phone, there’d be no lingering regrets about losing a formerly-loved friend. And honestly, by the end of the movie, I was kind of wishing they could just be done with it though I knew there was only one way out. The rabid dog never wins. He just can’t.
But cripes, at least they can give him a proper bath when the shooting’s over!
The House of Two Bows keeps a running index of movies blurbed on the site, annotated by breed. If you’re interested in writing a guest blog for a dog film, contact for details.
At the risk of flouting the “NEVER EVER EVER LET A SHIBA OFF LEASH!” rule by which many Shiba owners and rescues wisely adhere, let me propose that there is actually an alternate universe where pet owners are crazy enough to raise their Shibas off leash from the get-go.
This Taipei night market Shiba was spotted darting between stalls and burrowing underneath roadside tables for scraps of food. She had on a collar, a good coat and good weight, and despite the airplane ears in the photo (because of the scooter that had just whizzed by), she wasn’t skittish around strangers at all and let me pet her. My guess is that this was a routine part of her days — giving “free feeding” a whole new meaning!
Frankly, this was such a typical sight that I often wondered what I was doing wrong with Bowdu during his puppy days in Taiwan, as he never gave us any indication that we could trust him off leash in such dense, urban settings. Perhaps his temperament dictated that he would have been one of many puppies fated not to survive into adulthood, had he been raised Taiwanese style. Those that defy the odds end up being extraordinarily traffic-savvy.
Because I was looking for dogs, I saw them everywhere. They were often pressed against walls, skulking with head bowed to the ground, weaving and moving so as not to attract undue notice. Often, they were unaccompanied.
Indeed, free-roaming city dogs are part of the landscape, for better or for worse. Even unchained, they knew to stick close to home turf. There were dogs in my former neighborhood that were as reliable as signposts: “Go straight past the corner with the two tugou, turn right, and you’re there.” Six years ago when I lived in the area off Minquan East and Dunhua North Road, these same two dogs used to hang out just like this, in the intersection. When I returned during this trip, I was grateful to see that they haven’t been run over… yet.
In the States, we keep our dogs close for their safety and our own (though we call it “public safety”). Off-leash privileges are regarded more as a result of training, not adaptation. It’s not that the Taiwanese don’t care about their dog’s safety, it’s that safety has a different situational context altogether. The end goal is still not to hurt or kill, and you’ll see some amazing reflexes in action as drivers avoid colliding with unexpected canine roadblocks. Nevertheless, there are frequent casualties too. Rescues are never short on half-paralyzed or wheelchair bound dogs due to urban traffic, as well as other things like gin traps (to be discussed later).
So there is a time and place for leashing, too. Bigger dogs (defined as anything one cannot fit into a purse) may not be welcome in convenience stores, so this guy waits outside…
And this Shiba accompanies her owner inside a pet store, on leash.
Wherever I go, I make it a point to observe how dogs live with or alongside humans. Sometimes the shared spaces are less visible or obvious as having a person and a pet attached to opposite ends of a leash. The way that pets are kept, or even defined in the first place, gives insight to aspects of everyday sociality that this blog attempts to document and take seriously. If you’re a regular reader, you already know this. But I still appreciate that you endure my fixations as I consider these bonds not only by breed or cultural standards, but more importantly, on an intimate, one-on-one basis as well.
All right, the jig is up: I’ve been out of the country and away from the Bows for the past couple weeks on a research trip (unrelated to dogs, at least at this time). Now I’m ready to head back home. One of these guys below is riding along with me …
… along with eight others, for a total of nine canine passengers.
Hold your thoughts right there. As much as I’d love to build my own army of Taiwan tugou someday, we remain The House of Two Bows. And boy, I can hardly wait to get back to them!
By the time this is posted, I’ll be at the airport having already picked up my boarding pass and passed security. Here’s hoping all goes smoothly!
There will be plenty of ‘splainin’ to do on the other side.
The Associated Press picked up an evocative story about a photographer of Taiwan shelter animals, Tou Yun-fei 杜韻飛 (real name Tou Chih-kang 杜志剛). Tou’s basic mission is to photograph austere, noble portraits of shelter dogs that force a confrontation between their animality and the viewer’s humanity, moments before he or she is taken away to be killed. Since last week, the story has been getting a lot of traction on major news sites, from ABC to the Daily Mail to Yahoo News to Huffpo to Dogster. If you haven’t read the story yet, go ahead and click on any of those links… they’re mostly the same content from AP writer Tassanee Vejpongsa.
Tou is working on a better online collection of his photos, but for now, he has a small gallery here.
original photo by Tou Yun-Fei
Starkly composed and tightly framed, each portrait leaves you with no other option but to look back into the eyes of the already dead. The photos shared are not gory or grisly. They are haunting, pathetic, dignified, somber… necessary. I am glad to see Tou’s work getting such wide exposure from international media outlets, though the accompanying article itself is pithy with history and context, leaving many questions and open-ended generalizations.
Oddly enough, many well-meaning internet wanderers have found their way to the House of Two Bows, apparently attracted to a few stray articles I have written about Taiwan animal rescues. Instead of answering every e-mail individually, I thought I’d try to contribute a more streamlined response via blog.
One message reads:
I am an American who is just learning about the animal crisis in Taiwan from Tou Yun-fei’s photojournalism. Although animal abuse and maltreatment is a problem globally, it seems as if the issue in Taiwan is more than a problem. From my reading, I am learning that part of the issue is that many practicing Buddhists believe that dogs are humans with negative karma reborn… is that true? Does Taiwan have spay/neuter clinics for animals or is that part of the problem? Overpopulation?
Additionally, my most important question is how can I (someone so far away) help build awareness and education of the issues facing animals (predominantly dogs) in Taiwan? How I can help you?
Any information would be greatly appreciated.
I leave my hasty, poorly-researched response here. Keep in mind that I write NOT as an expert, not truly an “insider,” and currently geographically distanced by an entire ocean from the island.
But I know the problem is multifaceted, systematic, leviathan as it is here in the US. It’s impossible to reduce the problem to religion. I’m not even convinced this explains the magnitude of the issue (though I’ve heard similar analyses from Taiwanese people), though it might contribute significantly to solutions. Buddhist non-interference is one of an array of responses which could include Buddhist activism, as well. There’s certainly an argument to be made that you can’t stare suffering in the face and not act if it is in your power to do so, since we are, after all, blind to how our own karmic scales will tip at journey’s end. Anyway, not everyone in Taiwan is a practicing Buddhist. This is to say very little of how Taiwanese Buddhism is a syncretic amalgamation of Taoist and Neo-Confucian influences as well, and there are many Christians, other religions, and non-religious citizens on the island too… but that’s getting a bit off topic.
Local temples get a lot of traffic. Not everyone who passes through is there to pray or to worship. In more rural areas, stray dogs are more likely to congregate, as monks and temple keepers provide leftovers for them.
Though there are many spay-neuter options, I still found quite a bit of reluctance from pet owners to desex their pets. When Bowdu was neutered at six months, even our vet commented that it was a “pity” to neuter a purebred because we would miss the opportunity to breed “valuable” puppies. This sentiment would be repeated by numerous strangers and familiars. Perhaps pet owners found it illogical to spend money to deny oneself an opportunity to make money, and the greater social benefits of spaying and neutering had not yet caught up to the rise of pet owner conceit.
Cost and convenience was really not much of an excuse. The regular price we paid for neutering was about $60 US dollars, and we were literally in and out of the clinic in an hour. Furthermore, the Taipei county government reimbursed vets about 1600NT for every spay/neuter they perform, in the hopes that this would encourage vets to perform more spays and neuters, as well as extend discounts to rescue, animal welfare organizations, and other well-meaning citizens (not sure if they still do this — will need to follow up). My family in central, more rural Taiwan was either more progressive in that they willingly spayed all their tugou, or perhaps just more practical about the matter since Grandpa, at least, still permitted his bitch to roam, like in the old days.
Yet, I think the vast majority of pets in Taiwan remain unspayed and unneutered, though I don’t doubt that this is changing — I don’t have the statistics right now though. There are also more mobile rescue groups who will catch, neuter, and release packs of stray dogs (more common in non-urban areas) and sponsor spay/neuter campaigns. The abundant pet stores and individual breeders, however, do nothing to educate on appropriate spaying and neutering (and they really could take the initiative on advocacy, by raising the standards amongst breeders — whom we’re not opposed to), let alone the government shelters. A lot of city shelter “services” are outsourced with the goal of eliminating immediate problems (mass round-ups and extermination) instead of long-term welfare.
Overly familiar with the sordid practices of government bureaucracy, a lot of people refuse to bring stray or unwanted dogs directly to the slaughterhouse, as it were. Leaving dogs to fend for themselves on the street seems like a more humane option to those who can’t feed or take them in. Strangely enough, I can understand that perspective. What I (and more and more Taiwanese people) can’t condone is the choice made by those who buy puppies when they are little and cute, grow tired of the commitment, then release and abandon their pet thinking it a “kinder” fate than a shelter death. And of course, their dog is most likely not spayed or neutered… and so they mate with other street dogs, more dogs are born… and the problem regenerates.
Somewhere in the Eighteen Levels of Hell, there must be a special place of punishment for those who abandon their dogs without trying AT ALL to properly rehome the animal through a trusted friend or responsible rescue. Maybe instead of being sawed in half, like this adulterer, night after night they are torn apart by Poochie and her progeny?
There’s a lot more going on, of course, but this is what I thought to fill in “behind the pictures,” for the time being. Meanwhile, you ask how you can help?
If you live in or near San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Vancouver, or Toronto, it’s very likely that you have a rescue organization near you that works directly with animal welfare groups in Taiwan, as these are the major North American destinations accessible by China Airlines and EVA Airlines, Taiwan’s two main commercial air carriers. Volunteer passengers typically get the dogs out of Taiwan by “sponsoring” flights for the animals, since it is prohibitively expensive for them to be shipped alone as cargo. The volunteers get no compensation other than the satisfaction of escorting great dogs to a better life and better chances of adoption on this side of the Pacific.
If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, I know these rescue groups work with Taiwan animal welfare organizations:
And of course, there can only be progress with the efforts of those working in Taiwan itself. Here is a list of some groups that I know of — you can research each organization, reach out, and donate if you are so motivated. Be forewarned that the Taiwanese are not reticent about exhibiting more graphic pictures of sick, deformed, mutilated, and abused animals:
Finally, I acknowledge there is controversy over how much foreigners should invest in other countries’ humanitarian efforts when we already have plenty to deal with on home turf. I’ve briefly addressed this in previous posts, and don’t have much to add at this point. My life is lived in multiple Heres and Theres, so my considerations perpetually flit between. But this mobility and transnational traffic of physical bodies isn’t uncommon now. Perhaps the same will eventually be said for concepts like compassion, respect and responsibility towards animals. If not your dollars, your attention, or your adoptions, create a world that fosters and rewards empathy, from wherever you might make yourself at home. I think that’s the best I can really suggest for anyone who wants to know how they can help there from here.
My aunt in Taiwan is one of the few true dog lovers in my (very, very large) family. She keeps her pets very differently from what I’ve grown accustomed to. In her view, dogs are strictly outdoors pets, though her purebred Maltese and Pomeranians are occasionally permitted to flounce about indoors. Her favorite Maltese often gets to ride in her purse on errands about town, but the rest stay home to keep guard and earn their keep. Most of her dogs don’t get daily walks, though they get lots of time to freely roam the garden, a fairly spacious plot.
Occasionally she’ll chance upon a high-energy dog that obviously needs extra exercise. But mostly, auntie’s dogs bend to her way of life, which involves a lot of busywork and activity about the house.
She values her Taiwan dogs, her tugou, as household guardians. Thus, she often favors the darker-colored ones that others will ditch, since black dogs with white feet, in particular, are considered extremely inauspicious. To her, it makes no difference in terms of functionality, companionship, and loyalty.
Lucky, picture below, is currently her oldest dog. He was about nine years old in the summer of 2009 when these pictures were taken. His head makes me think he’s part Akita, but his ancestry remains as mysterious as the morning fog draped over the local mountains.
And the beagle below was her latest addition at the time. He was found seeking refuge in the yard with an injury to the face and signs of neglect all over his body. Auntie got him patched up, and since he didn’t show any inclination of leaving, she decided to let him stay.
I do look forward to the trip back to that village — those mountains, those people, those dogs… though things may change faster than I can document them.