National Geographic News
A Tibetan mastiff looks out from a cage near a sign which reads "Afrian lion" in Luohe zoo in Luohe in central China's Henan province.

A Tibetan mastiff peers from a cage labeled as an African lion in China's Henan Province on August 12.

AP Photo

Kate Andries

National Geographic

Published August 16, 2013

Lions and tigers and ... dogs? Oh my!

Visitors to a zoo in China's Henan Province were outraged this week after they discovered that the animal described as an African lion was, in fact, a domestic dog.

The illusion was shattered when the "lion"—really a Tibetan mastiff—began barking, according to news reports.

The park has temporarily shut its doors after it was discovered that other animals throughout the park were also reportedly mislabeled—another dog took up residence in the wolf enclosure, while a white fox posed as a leopard.

Since being discovered, the switch has garnered worldwide attention and has most people scratching their heads. How could a person be fooled by an extra-fuzzy canine?

National Geographic asked Martha Feltenstein, president of the American Tibetan Mastiff Association and an expert on the breed, a few questions about the fraudulent mastiff.

Can you tell me a bit about Tibetan mastiffs?

They are a large guardian breed traditionally bred in Tibet. They are considered to be the origin of most of the mastiff breeds: English mastiffs, bulldogs, Great Pyrenees, all of those.

How popular are they? Are they pretty commonplace in China?

In America they are one of the rare breeds. I would suspect the [American Kennel Club] has around 5,000 dogs registered. You might have between 1,000 and 2,000 alive today. (Also see "American Dog Breeds Hail From Pre-Columbian Times.")

 

 Vendors gather on a stage with their Tibetan mastiff dogs displayed for sale at a mastiff show in Baoding, Hebei province, south of Beijing, China.
People display Tibetan mastiff dogs for sale at a show in China's Hebei Province in March 2013.

Photograph by Ed Jones, AFP/Getty Images

 

There's no question that they go for ridiculous prices in China—[$60,000 to $100,000] for a top puppy. What the Chinese are breeding today is what they think the mastiff should be, not what the Tibetans would think. The Chinese have admitted to mixing in breeds—they're creating their own breed, basically.

How big do they typically get? Lion-size?

Everybody exaggerates their sizes. Females typically range between 70 and 110 pounds [32 and 50 kilograms], males range from 90 to 130 pounds [41 and 59 kilograms], and 130 is big. Even the biggest male is rarely more than 150 pounds [68 kilograms]. They're not a giant breed, [but] people think they're much bigger because they have a heavy coat and huge heads.

Are they a friendly breed?

I don't think friendly is the right word. The breed standard is that they're "aloof with strangers." They're not aggressive, but they are completely disinterested in people. You know a golden retriever will go up to anyone and wag their tail; not a Tibetan mastiff. They're very protective. (Take National Geographic's dog quiz.)

The Chinese have now adopted them as status symbols and like to make a big deal about how big and ferocious they are. Mastiffs are bullies—not dangerous or aggressive—but they really get their jollies out of scaring people.

They are highly destructive, and people should be prepared to be very firm with them, because they will try to take advantage of you.

They are a very independent, free-thinking breed. It's sort of like living with a 140-pound [64-kilogram] cat. You know a cat won't do something if it doesn't feel like it. But if you like an independent, extremely intelligent animal and you're willing to live with their quirks, they're wonderful.

Why are they so hairy?

As I said, [the Chinese] are mixing in other breeds. [Also], they have a very thick undercoat. Even in Tibet their coats aren't very long, but they're thick. Tibetan mastiffs [shed their coats] once a year, but you have to brush it out regularly. (Read about how to build a dog in National Geographic magazine.)

Surely the mastiff's impressive coat resembles a lion's mane, but they don't really look alike. Why do you think it was so easy for this dog to pose as a lion?

Of course not, they look like dogs. They look nothing like lions! The breed has a beautiful coat, a beautiful mane, but it's not like a lion. I think no one even paid attention!

There are reports that dogs have been swapped for other animals at the same zoo. Have you heard of any other mastiffs pulling a switcheroo?

No! Have you? Masquerading a dog as a cat? No.

This interview has been edited.

30 comments
Wing  Kong
Wing Kong

Hey, come on! Look at that dirty blurred signboard!, it must be taken from others zoo and placed it there. I don't see any water and food supplies for the dog in the cage. GOOD LUCK DOG.

Larry Hawley
Larry Hawley

great article Very Funny ! Mastiffs are wonderful dogs,I have a great Pyrenees she already weighs in at over 100 lbs at 11 months old,lol and smart ,also a lover, Thanks again National Geo. 

Isabela Franco
Isabela Franco

The only thing that they have similar to a lion is their big paws. I wish I could squish them!!!

kim m.
kim m.

Not long it might find itself on the  Chinese Medicine menu as a new wonder cure for baldness. 

Georgia Renee
Georgia Renee

I saw a full blooded Tibetan breed once. Beautiful... LOUD dogs!

Tiffany Z
Tiffany Z

....u can't buy a mastiff for $100, lets say $1000 for puppy

Marsha Papanicolas
Marsha Papanicolas

I don't get how anyone could mistake a dog for a lion, even if the dog is large and has what seems to look like a mane, you can tell just by looking at the face that it's a dog. LOL.
Beautiful dog. 


kayla spurlock
kayla spurlock

i think we all need to get off what they name them and start focusing on the type of environment they are keeping the animals in. the dog/whatever they want to call it doesnt look like its being taken care of and the cell they have it in looks small and dirty. the sign is another..well sign that the zoo isnt taking care of it. i dont know about you guys but im an american and that looks like a freaking dog. if they were in our country theyd look at a cat and call it food. id say "noooo...cat" and theyd be like "noooo..food". regardless...forget what their calling it, look at the environment. it doesnt look taken care of to me and thats the most important thing to me. they can call it a cow for all i care as long as its healthy and in a good environment. im not convinced and i dont like the cell they have it in.

Lisa Tucci
Lisa Tucci

I think the panting might have been a dead give-away...

Derek Chung
Derek Chung

This article doesn't surprise me at all.  When I went to the Beijing Zoo, I found foxes labelled inappropriately.

Alex Sung
Alex Sung

May beJUST may be, they can not tell the difference between these two animals..

M. Gianni
M. Gianni

No mas  zoologicos, solo buscan obtener dinero ,  ignoran el daño que hacen a  los animales  y al medio ambiente , no solo mal etiquetados, son mal tratados  , tal vez sin alimentarlos  como corresponde.  El hombre es el mayor depredador del planeta...

Mavimojo Mojomavi
Mavimojo Mojomavi

This mislabeling fiasco is a wake-up call for us to see how professionally illiterate and careless these people are and how animals are exploited and brutalized in most of the zoos around the world. I have a dog and i can feel how terrible such a solitary confinement (on concrete) can make them feel. STOP ANIMAL CRUELTY and EXPLOITATION.

Russ Nash
Russ Nash

That is a pretty miserable facility for the dog, let alone a big cat. Shame on the zoo.

Veronika M.
Veronika M.

I´m so sorry, but....who gave photo on this article? On the first photo (AP photo)  is chow chow, no tibetan mastiff!! Be careful, please, if you doing some article about dogs, about animals, about everythink...!

John C.
John C.

Also on display, the world's tallest midget who also happens to be the world's shortest giant.

Dannis Han
Dannis Han

The wicked room should be greatly punished by the local .

kayla spurlock
kayla spurlock

@Lisa Tucci lions and tigers are also known to pant.. its not just dogs. the reason dogs pant is because they dont have sweat glands to make them sweat..so they pant to cool themselves off. lions and tigers are the same way.

Amanda Muniz
Amanda Muniz

@Alex Sung i think even a blind person could tell that's not a lion. they don't even look similar.

Kenneth Baker
Kenneth Baker

@Veronika M. 
I've had Chows, while they have some similarities, the Mastiff doesn't have the purple tongue like the Chow Chow.

Lauren Schairer
Lauren Schairer

@Veronika M. no, it is not a chow. the muzzle is wrong not to mention the distinct lack of any purple of the tongue. Tibetan mastiffs do like very similar to chows....look it up before criticizing.

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