What's a Tibetan Mastiff? Explaining Dog Posed as Lion

A Chinese zoo passed off a large dog as an African lion, news reports say.

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


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.")

 

People display Tibetan mastiff dogs for sale at a show in China's Hebei Province in March 2013.


 

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.