Imagine the scene one morning: your dog is in the garden, you go out to call her in and she doesn't come. Probably sniffing round the flower beds you decide. You wander out to look and there is no sign of her. Panic starts to set in. Has she escaped? Has she been stolen? Where could she have gone? Thankfully most missing pets are reunited with their owners fairly quickly, but stories of dogs stolen for bait dogs or to be sold on for a quick profit abound on social media and are every pet owner’s worst nightmare.
For dog owners in China however, there is also another very real threat to their beloved companion. Pet dogs across the country are at risk of being stolen, crammed into tiny cages with many other dogs and sent on a terrifying journey to Yulin, in the Guangxi province, for their annual summer-solstice dog meat festival.
For many of us in the West, the idea of eating companion animals is abhorrent, but many Asian countries have long had a tradition of eating dog meat, although the Yulin dog-eating festival is only thought to have begun in the 1990s. Consumers believe that eating dog meat can ward off winter colds, but eating it around the time of the summer solstice is supposed to bring good luck and health. Eating dog meat is further believed by some to dispel ghosts, ward off disease and enhance the sexual performance of men.
So is this a case of a simple clash of cultures?
Should we simply shake our heads, shrug and put it down to cultural differences? The festival in Yulin however, is no marginal celebration by a few dog meat connoisseurs. Estimates suggest that at least 10,000 dogs are killed every year to be served up with lychees and liquor at street market stalls and in restaurants. Some are butchered in makeshift slaughterhouses in the centre of Yulin, others are killed, skinned and cooked in front of the purchasers in the market. There are many reports of dogs that are beaten and tortured before being killed, or even boiled alive, due to the belief that the pain felt by the animal makes the meat more tender and potent. With no humane slaughter laws in China, for over two decades the centre of Yulin has hosted a grotesque display of animal cruelty on an unprecedented scale. Witnesses to the event speak of the wailing of terrified dogs as you near the city and streets covered in blood from the public beating and stabbing of dogs whilst the next victims, stacked in their crates, look on.
Interestingly, the biggest objection to the practice of eating dog-meat is coming from within China itself.
Owning dogs was banned during the Cultural Revolution, but in contemporary China it has become a growing phenomenon. A generation of single children have looked to dogs as companions in a childhood without siblings, and large numbers of them are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that their beloved pets should be viewed as food. Following pressure from activists at home and abroad, the Yulin authorities stated in 2014 that they did not endorse the festival and that it would not take place. However, though some visible indications of the festival disappeared (such as signs advertising dog meat), the festival continued and thousands of dogs were still killed.
A thriving trade in pet theft
With the festival gearing up again this year, and apparently with an increasing amount of cat meat on the menu as well, the focus of the opposition is on animals being brought into Yulin from surrounding areas. With so many thousands of dogs and cats being killed, it is clear that they cannot all be sourced from farms locally. Many of them can be seen still wearing their collars while crammed in the cages, so it is clear that a thriving trade in pet theft is supplying much of the stock. Dogs are packed into crates designed for chickens and other small livestock and then transported hundreds of miles with little or no food or water. The cages are packed onto trucks or turned on their sides to be transported by motorbike. Many of the animals are in an emaciated state by the time they arrive at Yulin, and some do not survive the journey.
There is another good reason for focusing on the transport of these animals. According to the Humane Society International, China has the world’s second largest number of human rabies cases a year, and the mass transport and consumption of thousands of dogs of unknown origin risks the spread of many diseases, including rabies. The dog meat trade across Asia is undermining international efforts to control the extent of rabies, especially as the already meagre laws are rarely enforced. According to Chinese law, transported animals must have certification of vaccination for rabies and other diseases. Transporters may also be asked for proof of ownership. Unsurprisingly, the trucks that are intercepted by campaigners often have fraudulent, or no, paperwork. Activists then pressure the local authorities to seize the dogs and allow them to rehome them either in China or in the US. In August last year, 2,400 dogs were rescued in one such action when a convoy of trucks was stopped on Beijing-Harbin highway on their way to slaughter. Many of the dogs were clearly stolen as they were still wearing collars and one even had a tag showing he was a service dog for the police.
What can you do to help?
When faced with such barbaric cruelty and brutality, in a country so far removed from our own, and on such a massive scale, there can be an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. In a country where there are no humane slaughter laws and little protection for animals, it seems unlikely that the authorities will step up to prevent the Yulin festival taking place. However, the growing numbers of Chinese people who condemn the eating of companion animals are actively seeking our help. In 2013 a group of Chinese animal lovers, frustrated at the lack of response from the Yulin mayor, petitioned the White House to help put a stop the bloody festival. Although the petition failed to garner enough signatures, the increased publicity has shone a spotlight on the practice of eating dogs and cats in Asia. It led to a much more muted affair in Yulin in 2014 and the fact that the authorities have felt the need to distance itself from the festival is proof that it is feeling the pressure. Organisations such as DuoDuo Animal Welfare Project and the Humane Society International are working with Chinese animal activists to try and prevent the festival taking place. They are staging protests, stopping transport and rescuing and rehoming hundreds of dogs.
Follow the links below to find out more about what is being done. Please sign the petition, donate if you feel able, and share, share, share to show the people of China that you support them in their fight to end this inexcusable animal cruelty.
(This article has been written by one of the Wild at Heart Foundation volunteers, Jo Chick)