Step into one of Taipei’s mosaic of neighborhood parks after sundown and you can expect to see somebody — perhaps a hoard of people — feeding stray cats and dogs. Joining like-minded residents across the city, the person may well be one of the army of animal lovers who volunteer to support their canine and feline friends night to night, rain or shine, cradle to the grave.
During your sojourn, you will also come across a steady stream of dog walkers, the odd domestic tabby on a leash, parrots on shoulders and handlebars and, if you are really lucky, a gentleman who takes his duck for a stroll in one of the city’s busiest green spaces. Some day soon, you will be more likely to meet one of Taiwan’s 2 to 3 million pets than a child under 14, buoyed by a surge in cat ownership, according to the Council of Agriculture.
Then, there are the cat cafes and the cat village, veterinary clinics on every corner, groomers, hotels for animals whose owners are away, shops bursting with treats for non-human taste buds and the odd restaurant that will dish up a pet-pampering meal, too. All of this adds up to a nationwide pet economy valued at $1.96 billion, and a lot of voters who could potentially consider the future for their furry and feathered companions when choosing who should be Taiwan’s next president.
This is where independent presidential candidate Terry Gou (郭台銘) gets things so right and so wrong. Pets can be a shortcut into people’s hearts, but, for many, their popularity comes with a realization that animals are important living beings, not consumer goods that can be thrown about as freebies, a policy which would risk mistreatment, neglect and abandonment, the last thing any truly animal-loving society desires.
What is more, couples who are already put off having children by unaffordable housing, slumbering salaries and exorbitant overtime demands are unlikely to be enthralled by the idea of simultaneously taking up responsibility for a child and a pet. Indeed, at least some of the aforementioned feeders of strays indulge animals in the park, precisely because they feel they do not have the conditions to look after them at home.
From the point of view of Gou’s candidacy, however, there is an even more serious problem: He’s late to the game against other presidential hopefuls and their parties across the political spectrum, who have already walked the walk and implemented practical policies for pets that demonstrate a significantly better grasp of animal issues.
Take Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), candidate for the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). During his mayorship of the capital city, Ko oversaw policies that looked to resolve long-term issues in sourcing for the pet trade; create more animal-friendly spaces in the urban environment through dog parks and “pets welcome” signage; and improve conditions for strays with designated feeding sites and a trap, neuter and release campaign. He also declared September as an annual animal protection month.
And Ko isn’t the only one who sees how animal popularity can translate into political capital. Lai Ching-te (賴清德), frontrunner and candidate for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has already cuddled a cat and been kissed by a dog during an election trail stopover at a pet fair, stating in a subsequent Facebook post, “Making an animal-friendly society and implementing polices for animal care and welfare should be a government’s responsibility.”
In 2017, his party revoked the one-time policy of putting strays to sleep after 12 nights in public animal shelters, outlawed consumption of dog and cat meat and strengthened penalties for cruelty, among other amendments to law. Since then, it even fronted its world-class pandemic response, not with a famous doctor, but with a Shiba Inu, one of Taiwan’s most popular dog breeds.
Not to be outdone, the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has had legislator Sandy Yeh (葉毓蘭) join pet owners and activists last year in street protests for changes to the constitution to bring in animal rights, a position that appears to have cross-party consensus, including from current president Tsai Ing-wen and the TPP. Under the leadership of mayor Hou You-ih (侯友宜), the KMT’s current presidential hopeful, New Taipei City has launched a mobile vet unit, buses that opened up public transport more practically for larger animals and a LINE social media group for reporting animal cruelty and facilitating adoptions.
Not all of these measures, movements and policies have been smooth running, and many serious issues with the treatment of other species, whether domesticated or not, remain. However, pets and animals in general are now ensconced in Taiwan’s homes, families and its political landscape, and any candidate that can put forward practical policies to address quality-of-life issues stands to endear themselves to quite a sizable niche of the electorate, especially if they can eliminate some of the conflict that can arise with those who are not so animal positive.
How much that truly translates into support and votes is another question, but, getting back to Ko Wen-je, three years after implementing several pet-oriented measures in 2015, he endured a brutal re-election battle to hold his position as Taipei mayor. After a recount, the result fell 580,663 votes to 577,096 in his favor over the KMT’s Ting Shou-chung (丁守中).
Whatever happened next, in that slender margin of just 3,567, it is not impossible that there were one or two cat feeders and dog walkers.