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Animals

On the frontline of China's animal welfare war

There are few hardcore career activists fighting against China’s dog meat trade. Instead, loosely organized groups of IT workers, rogue police officers and elderly dog shelter owners are slowly working for change.

The man in his mid-twenties looks more engineering student than activist, but he has jumped three dog trucks in the past year.

In April, Mike, who is using a pseudonym to protect his safety, noticed a few postings on the Chinese social media site Sina Weibo about dog trucks on a certain route out of Beijing. One weekend, he and a few other friends drove out to the spot. After a long wait, they saw a truck and started following it in their cars.

"We parked one car in front of the truck and one behind, so they couldn't leave. Very quickly though, the smugglers became very angry. They called people they knew in gangs," Mike told DW.

Mike said he and his friends tried to negotiate with the traders to get them to let the dogs go without handing over any cash. He called lawyer friends for advice and documented the poor health of the animals and the dangers the transport posed to public health to give to police.

"The police also don't want crime to happen within their administrative region, so they ignored our reports," Mike said.

In the end the police helped them buy the dogs off the smugglers. The dog trucks were technically legal, and none of the dogs appeared to be stolen.

A man protests at a street market where dog meat is sold, in China

Dogs are eaten regularly in China. Here an animal protection activist protests in front of a stall selling dog meat

Bred for meat

There is no law against eating dog meat in China, nor any law aimed at enforcing animal welfare. Dogs bred for their meat can be kept, transported and killed in whichever way the trader sees fit.

With no legal ground to stand on, ever more suburban animal lovers are taking matters into their own hands. Outraged by the trade's practices, many like Mike have started to target trucks full of dogs and demand their release.

While much of the meat comes through legitimate farms, many dog slaughterhouses are run privately and secretively to avoid scrutiny by food-safety inspectors. Dog traders transport the animals while still alive in crowded cages. One truck can carry hundreds.

The situation also poses a threat to public health in a country wary of food safety scandals.

As recently as late August, Chinese media reports surfaced of a police seizure of 11 tons of dog meat in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province. According to reports, meat samples sent to the lab by police came back showing sodium cyanide levels of 25.2 mg per kilogram.

Illegal pet crackdown

Strays are on the rise, partly because of a decision in June by police to enforce a long ignored law.

Back in 2006, after a rabies scare, a "one-dog policy" was announced and 41 breeds, including collies, were ruled as too dangerous. No one in Beijing's urban area was allowed to have dogs over 35 centimeters (14 inches) tall, to prevent large breeds from being cooped up in small apartments.

A dog at a shelter near Beijing (Photo: Primrose Riordan)

Dogs are bred for their meat in China, but this one has found sanctuary

In the meantime, dog ownership has boomed, with over one million officially registered dogs in Beijing, according to the latest statistics, released in 2010. Many more are off the record.

The Beijing police's recent crackdown has been painful, filling private shelters with new refugees.

Community watchpeople are being asked to inform on their neighbors and dogs are being wrenched out of the arms of elderly people as they walk down the street.

There have been reports of dogs even being killed on the spot. In June, a woman reported on social media that her golden retriever was beaten to death by police. This was quickly followed by a police statement saying the women admitted she was "spreading rumors" and the incident never happened.

In this case, however, skepticism of the police statement is warranted in view of the government's recent campaign to "clean up" the internet and detain vocal online critics. An activist who is friends with the one-time golden retriever owner said the woman had to admit to fabricating the incident in order to avoid jail time.

Shelters struggle

With few public shelters in China, police rely on violent culls of strays or private organizations in the outer suburbs to take in dogs before they are removed from households.

Some police, like dog shelter owner Li Jun's daughter, have switched sides. "Every time the police remove dogs, she calls me. I can't bear to see them die, so I take a taxi to the police station and bring all of them back to my shelter," 70-year-old Li Jun told DW.

A dog shelter volunteer with a puppy in Beijing (Photo: Primrose Riordan)

Young volunteers like this one help Li Jun care for the 300 dogs at her shelter near Beijing

As Li Jun found out, there is good reason charities are suffering from a crisis of public trust in China.

Last year her shelter, which houses 300 dogs in Beijing's rural Fengtai district, took in more donations than ever after local media published articles praising her work.

Upon falling sick and needing help, Li Jun handed over control of the donation website to a young woman posing as a volunteer. But while Li Jun was being treated in hospital, the woman took all the donated dog food, sold it off and disappeared with the money.

Eight dogs died and Li Jun was forced to spend thousands on medication for the rest.

She credits her young volunteers and two daughters with helping her get things back on track.

"I can't even send text messages, let alone play on a computer. Volunteers help me through everything," Li Jun said.

Li Jun's volunteers, who help her both online and on site, hail from provinces as far away as Heilongjiang on China's Russian border.

Despite the demand for dog meat remaining strong, activists are having some success in bringing about a gradual change in the official attitude toward the animals.

In the wake of criticism on social media, Zhejiang provincial government cancelled their dog meat festival earlier this year, and Guanxi government is currently considering a ban on their famous Yulin dog meat festival next year.

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