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Cage Syndrome

The Tibetan Mastiff is no stranger to zoos

It was a classic case of bait and switch – Molosser style.  

In mid-August, the story of a cash-strapped Chinese zoo that was cutting corners by replacing its exotic exhibits with more pedestrian species made the media rounds.  


What a Chinese zoo was billing as an African Lion this summer was reported to be a Tibetan Mastiff, though from this photo it looks to have been a Chow-Chow.


Officials at the People’s Park zoo in Luohe in central Henan province placed a white fox in the leopard exhibit, and tried to pass off a domestic dog as a wolf. But the most egregious of the swaps was reportedly replacing the zoo’s resident lion with a Tibetan Mastiff. Zoo visitors caught on when the red-coated “lion” started barking.  

“The zoo is absolutely trying to cheat us,” one complained to the Beijing Youth Daily. “They are trying to disguise dogs as lions.”  

Admittedly, it’s ludicrous to expect a Tibetan Mastiff to pass convincingly for a lion. (Reportedly, the zoo’s own king of the beasts had been sent to a breeding facility, presumably to generate some income. And the dog appears from photos to have been a Chow-Chow.) But having Tibetan Mastiffs in a zoological setting was once actually the norm: In the 19th Century, and well into the 20th, some zoos in Europe – and especially in the United Kingdom – held their fair share of Tibetan Mastiffs.


The real deal: A Tibetan Mastiff at the Berlin Zoo in 1939. Photo courtesy G. Boffano


The British royals were among the first to own these exotic and ferocious Tibetan souvenirs, and when it came time to house them, the zoo seemed as logical a place as any. Among the first recorded instances of Tibetan Mastiffs on exhibit in a British zoo was June 1876, when The Graphic reported that a collection called “The Prince of Wales’ Indian Animals” drew close to 43,000 visitors in one day. Among the four elephants, five tigers, seven leopards and a Himalayan bear were three Tibetan Mastiffs.  

Sometimes, the dogs resided at zoos long enough to actually breed. In 1898, the Berlin Zoo produced what is believed to be the first zoo-bred litter of Tibetan Mastiff puppies.  

And if some Tibetan Mastiffs came into the world at zoological parks, some exited it there, too. In July 1906, newspapers across England carried a blurb about the death of the Prince of Wales’ Tibetan Mastiff in the London Zoo. “The animal had languished from the time it was taken from its native home,” the squib read. Reportedly, the dog, suffering from the low altitude and heat, had had to be shaved down for its long sea voyage to England.  


Two 10-week-old Tibetan Mastiffs born at the Whipsnade Zoo.


Later dogs had a better time acclimating. In 1912, British papers carried a lengthy report entitled “The King’s New Dogs,” chronicling the arrival of two Tibetan Mastiffs and their four puppies, which were also housed at the London Zoo.  

“… the mastiff of Tibet is a dog which has always attracted notice, but which up to now has proven distinctly tantalizing,” the news account read. “From time to time specimens have been introduced into England, but have always failed to make themselves at home in the pleasant way most foreign dogs have.”  

This was an elegant way of saying that Tibetan Mastiffs were very difficult to control, with a reputation for ferocity that appeared well deserved.  

“The Thibetan mastiff is not a dog to treat disrespectfully,” the article continued. “He is as a rule extremely savage, not because he has a bad nature, but owing no doubt to the fact that in his own country he has always been kept solely as an active guard of person and property. In England all we expect of a watch-dog is that he gives an early warning of the approach of a stranger. Any little yapping dog will do.”  


Postcard from 1934 depicting the Whipsnade Tibetan Mastiffs.


Shekar Tomtru went to live at Whipsnade in 1932, but died not long after.


The Tibetan Mastiff’s lack of sociability was a recurring theme in a “Letter from London” that ran in the September 3, 1932, Malayan Saturday Post, which announced that “four of the fiercest dogs in the world” had arrived at the Whipsnade Zoo, then a newly opened wildlife park near Dunstable in Bedfordshire. The four dogs were Tibetan Mastiffs brought over in 1928 by Colonel F.M. Bailey, the British minister to Tibet, whose wife had a passion for Tibetan breeds. When she returned abroad in 1932, her Tibetan Mastiffs went to the zoo.  

“They look as peaceable as if they were just longing for some one to tickle their ears. Yet not even their keeper dare risk such familiarity,” the article intoned. “They are not unlike Samoyeds in appearance – with thick bushy coats and broad heads. Two of them are a delightful golden colour like a red setter, and the other pair are very dark brown – almost black.”   The dogs were fed raw meat, delivered by keepers who visited their zoo quarters in pairs to ensure their safety. “I have never met dogs with such bad tempers before,” reported Whipsnade’s superintendent, Captain W.P.M. Beal, adding that the dogs’ appearance was “deceptive,” as “they look the quietest dogs in the world.”  


Lady Vivien Younger with her zoo-bred Tibetan Mastiff, Pa’sang, circa 1935.


“Usually it does not take a keeper very long to get on good terms with the animals but these dogs snarl and show their teeth whenever anyone goes into the enclosure,” Beal continued. “At present we can do nothing with them except feed them well. Perhaps that will improve their tempers in time.”   When it came to their own company, the dogs were apparently more obliging. Within a year, in 1933, the first litter was born, out of a bitch named Gyandru. A handful of years later, in October 1937, the Nottingham Evening Post reported that there were only 14 Tibetan Mastiffs in the United Kingdom – and all but two of them had been bred by the head keeper at Whipsnade.  

One of those Whipsnade Tibetan Mastiffs, Pa’sang, who was sired by Rakpa, went on to live in Scotland. (His father soon followed, landing at the Edinborough Zoo.) Pa’sang’s owner, Lady Vivien Younger, exhibited the yearling at a dog show in March 1935, where he evinced a temperament that went against the family grain.  


Gyandru in 1930. She was later sent to Whipsnade, where she produced the zoological park’s first litter, in 1933.
“All big dogs are gentle, and Pa’sang is no exception,” wrote the Evening Telegraph. “At one o’clock he still held the honour of never having barked, and he shared an exclusive corner of the show with an elkhound and a King Charles spaniel. …”   It was, then, perhaps, that the Tibetan Mastiff had, proof positive, entered polite British doggie society.  
It has been almost a century since the Tibetan Mastiff’s heyday of living in Great Britain’s most high-profile zoos. Today, given the China hullaballoo, its tenancy wasn’t anywhere near as appreciated. But that lion swap is fitting given the Tibetan Mastiff’s leonine aspirations – in particular the prized “Tsang Khyi” variety, nicknamed the lion type. And, of course, there’s the persistent sense that this breed, no matter how far removed from its homeland or how prettified its pedigrees, maintains that air of a “wild thing” that makes one double-take, and wonder, “Is it …?”  
In China this summer, unfortunately, it wasn’t ...   


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