BEIJING (Reuters) - As darkness falls over Beijing, dog owners such as Deng Xiaozhi nervously leave their homes with pets in tow for a walk or run in parks safe with the knowledge that city dog catchers have already clocked off.
A Beijing law making it illegal to keep dogs taller than 35 centimeters (1.1 foot) means that dogs such as Deng's placid Golden Retriever are outlaws and can be locked up and put down if they are intercepted by the authorities in the Olympic city.
Pet ownership in China is booming and dog lovers in particular complain about Beijing's inflexible laws against large dogs which they say harks back to China's communist past when few people kept dogs as pets, and those that did were scorned as bourgeois timewasters by communist leader Mao Zedong.
"The 35-cm rule is not scientific, as most big pet dogs are quieter than smaller ones in reality," Deng said as he lay on the couch alongside his dog Maomao. "People who make the rules have no knowledge whatsoever of dogs."
As pets become popular in China, Beijing dog owners are bristling over the city ban on large dogs and hefty annual license fees for small dogs of as much as 1,000 yuan (73 pounds).
The ban is strictly enforced. Even a partially blind Paralympic medalist is unable to get her guide dog registered ahead of the Olympics and Paralympics in September when she is due to run with the torch at the opening ceremony.
"I know it's pet owners' responsibility to register their dogs, but current regulation doesn't allow me to do so," said Deng. "For big dogs, being captured by the police almost always leads to a dead end."
Beijing's 17 million residents registered 703,897 pet dogs in 2007, up 17.3 percent from 600,096 in 2006. The number is probably much higher after factoring in unregistered dogs such as Lucky.
Foreign diplomats are exempt from the size rule, and are often spotted parading huge Golden Retrievers, Siberian Huskies and Labradors along leafy streets.
But Beijingers, bound by the rules, more often opt for tiny Chihuahuas or the city's white fluffy namesake, the Pekinese.
Some dog owners and animal activists worry about a clamp down after the Olympics when Beijing is no longer in the spotlight and subject to an international outlash for its policy on dogs.
Meanwhile, they believe China's desire to present its best face to the world ahead of the Games in August is keeping dogs out of dog catchers nets for the time being and keeping animal lovers quiet about the ban.
In embarrassing scenes the government does not want repeated, hundreds of animal lovers took to Beijing streets in November 2006 to condemn raids that saw tens of thousands of unregistered dogs killed.
Beijing officials, however, deny they have gone soft on big dogs ahead of the Olympics.
"We are carrying out measures as we did in the past," said a spokesman for Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau. "Any dogs without proper licenses will be treated accordingly."
Yet local authorities seem to have been especially sensitive to animal rights issues of late, even ordering restaurants to stop serving dog meat.
"Driven by the need to maintain social stability, the government has softened its stance on the problem of dog keeping," said Zhao Jian, a veteran Beijing animal rights activist.
Zhao, a doctor for 40 years, is among the critics of the big dog ban. He says the law results in owners dumping dogs that outgrow the height limit, often in the country, where they are exposed to rabies. This, he says, exacerbates an already serious health problem of rabid dogs roaming around rural China.
He has sent over 30 letters to the government calling for the regulation to be scrapped in the past three years.
"I am outraged by the bureaucracy, snub and inefficiency in relevant governmental departments," the 61-year old said.
Despite the lack of action, he is confident that Beijing will drop its 35-cm rule in time. Zhengzhou in central Henan province raised its limit to 55-cm (1.8 foot) last year and the financial centre Shanghai has no limit at all.
Beijing's rules are out-of-date and out-of-touch, Wang Jin, a professor at Peking University Law School, told the People's Daily newspaper.
"Existing regulations on dogs were made by relevant departments for their own convenience. (They) inevitably deviate from common practice," he was quoted as saying.
Introducing broader animal welfare laws that China lacks to protect dogs and cats from culls and abuse would help, not hinder, government objectives, said Lu Di, 77, who founded China's first organization to protect small animals in 1992.
"To care for and protect small animals actually (helps) to build up a 'harmonious society'," the former university professor said, referring to government's much-quoted social slogan.
As for dog lover Deng, his wish is simple, to get his trusty Golden Retriever registered.
"Although I spend much money and time on Maomao, the joy brought by him cannot be measured financially," Deng said. "It would be just perfect to get a license."
Editing by Megan Goldin