In this photo taken on April 16, 2011 and released by Capital Animals Welfare Association, dogs rescued by animal lovers are released from their truck at a shelter in Beijing, China.
BEIJING – Traffic was running smoothly on a highway just outside Beijing last Friday – until a man noticed an enormous truck carrying stacks of caged dogs.
Mr. An, an animal rights activist and volunteer at Beijing-based China Small Animal Protection Association, saw the cramped, whimpering dogs and decided to do something. His decision ended up saving the lives of 580 canines, who were on their way to the northeastern city of Changchun, where they were to be slaughtered and eventually served for dinner.
An, who refuses to reveal his full name or profession, swerved his car several times to intercept the truck, forcing it to slow down and stop. He then called a friend for help. The friend published a plea on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform popular in China, and soon more than 100 animal rights activists had gathered with water, medicine and food for the dogs, who the truck driver later admitted were headed for restaurants in Changchun.
They sprayed water on the truck to cool the dogs down and fed them, while others argued with the truck driver and requested to see his quarantine license, which is required for transporting live animals. One dog gave birth to five puppies through the metal bars of her cage. Many of the dogs were wearing collars or chains, making the volunteers suspicious that they had been stolen from their owners, which the driver denied.
The scuffle attracted the police, who said the animal lovers had no right to stop the truck or traffic. But the dispute over the dogs’ fate continued for another 15 hours. Finally, around 1 a.m., a solution was reached: Two groups there, pet company LeepPet Holding Corp. and animal rights group Shangshan Animal Fund, agreed to buy the dogs from the driver for $17,690.
Most of the dogs are now at the China Small Animal Protection Association, in the western suburbs of Beijing. Many are not in good condition though – a few have already died, and 68 were in Dongxing Animal Hospital Tuesday and being treated for dehydration, various physical injuries and canine distemper, a highly contagious virus.
‘It’s cruel to eat dogs?’
The animal rescue has sparked a debate in China.
Lianyue, a renowned newspaper columnist and an active blogger, said on his Twitter page: “I love dogs, and I don’t eat dogs. But laws do not prohibit other people’s freedom or rights to eat dogs. As a matter of fact, pigs, cows, sheep and all the plants we eat, are all our good friends. It’s repulsive to eat dogs, but it’s more repulsive to force others not to eat them.”
Another Twitterer agreed with his comment: “I actually don’t understand, why can people eat pigs and chickens so openly but it’s cruel to eat dogs?”
Eating dog meat has been a long tradition in China. Ancient Chinese medical books say dog meat keeps the body warm in winter and many Chinese people still believe that. Although dog meat is not seen at dinner tables as much as pork, beef or other kinds of white meat, some parts of China still favor the canine dish – especially in the northeast along the border with Korea and in the southern provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, which are known for eating practically anything that moves.
Many people view less superior breeds of dogs as edible “meat dogs,” even while having pet dogs themselves. In vast areas of the Chinese countryside, free-roaming dogs are often snatched and slaughtered for food.
Dogs in China also face the chance of being beaten to death in small remote cities where limited public budgets makes local governments unable to provide rabies vaccination. As a result, when there is a rabies outbreak, locals often use what seems to be the simplest method to address the problem: kill all the dogs.
“When talking about animal rights laws, China is behind over 100 countries in the world. This is hard to believe,” said Grace Gabriel, Asia regional director of International Fund for Animal Welfare.
In this photo taken on April 15, 2011 and released by Capital Animals Welfare Association, animal lovers use their cars to block a truck transporting dogs from Henan province to Jilin province as its passes a toll booth near Beijing, China.
Still, attitudes towards animals are changing and the Chinese public is becoming increasingly aware of animal welfare.
China doesn’t have laws against animal cruelty, but animals like pandas or tigers that are threatened by extinction are legally protected.
Animal protection organizations, despite some not having government permits, are being founded and people are more willing than they used to be to join them and discuss them in public.
Celebrities are getting involved in public service messages – for instance, NBA basketball player Yao Ming is featured in advertisements all over the country telling people to stop eating shark fins. And bear farms, which have been used to harvest bile from live bears and sell it as a valuable ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, have come under increasing scrutiny and do not get licenses from the government anymore.
“Just a few years ago we didn’t even have this concept of animal protection. Now we have such a wide range of attention and support. Overall, I’m not pessimistic about the future,” Gabriel told NBC News.
And Friday’s truck wasn’t the first one chased by animal lovers. Wang Qi from the China Small Animal Protection Association told NBC another van crammed with dogs was found and followed by volunteers just days before Friday’s rescue, but they lost track of it.
When asked about future plans to save dogs, Wang admitted there’s not too much more they can do.
“What we can only do is appeal for the attention from the government and the society, and hope everyone cares about it,” said Wang. “We have to help raise the alert for animal welfare. This is the best we can do.”