A dog fight in China

In a culture in which views of canines can be contradictory, animal-protection activists’ recent rescue of over 500 dogs bound for slaughter has ignited controversy. Meng Si examines the dispute.

The “April 15th Incident” — when a group of animal-lovers halted and rescued a truck-load of dogs bound for slaughter — has brought the debate to the boil in China and exposed a lack of legislation regarding dog meat and animal abuse.

Animal-protection volunteers used their micro-blogs to gather a crowd of 300 supporters and — at the Zhangjiawan toll booth on the Beijing-to-Harbin expressway — stop a truck carrying 520 dogs being transported for slaughter. Both the truck driver and the volunteers phoned the police at the same time. With no chance of an arrest after a 15-hour stand-off, the volunteers raised 115,000 yuan (roughly US$17,770) to buy the animals.

“We hope that saving those 500 dogs will arouse the consciences of five million people,” said one volunteer, known by her online name Dabaoma, on Dragon TV’s chat show “Dragon Studio”. Clutching a microphone, she choked up as she described the dogs’ plight.

Video recorded at the rescue scene showed the truck packed with dogs, all dehydrated and suffering breathing difficulties. Pups born during the journey had been crushed underfoot. Later checks determined that many of the dogs were seriously ill. Some died during the stand-off. On the television programme, Dabaoma criticised the driver, Hao Xiaomao, who also was in the TV studio, as having no conscience.

“They think dogs are more important than people,” Hao declared. Aged 31 and from a poor family, he started working in the dog trade in 2006. He complains that the incident lost him 20,000 yuan (about US$3,000) – equivalent to a year’s school fees for two children. And since the incident, no one has been willing to let him transport dogs. He thinks his legal rights have been infringed upon. His personal details were made public, and he was hounded by insulting and threatening text messages.

“Hao Xiaomao wanted RMB 128,000 [nearly US$20,000], but we didn’t give that much,” said Wang Yunjie of the Shangshan Animal Charity. “We wanted him to suffer a little. If we gave it all to him, it’d encourage him to do such evil things again.” She says the dogs had been mistreated.

But when Hao Xiaomao’s friends asked what she meant by mistreated, Wang did not explain. Currently China has no law on the mistreatment of animals. At the start of the year a draft law was made available for public comment and debate, but so far no regulations have come into effect.

In China some people think keeping dogs is a lifestyle choice for the rich. Internet user Poppy0 wrote: “Those speaking up for the dogs are all rich city wives who don’t understand rural hardship.” Little Tiger Xu said: “RMB 100,000 to buy the dogs, who knows how much to look after them. Wouldn’t it be better to use that money to help the poor – and the more you helped, the fewer people would be smuggling dogs.”

Views of dogs in Chinese culture are contradictory. Dog-lovers see the animals as loyal and understanding companions, but dogs are often viewed with contempt.

In Chinese villages, dogs often are eaten at festivals, weddings and funerals, particularly in the north-east. When his truck was intercepted in April, Hao was taking his truck north-east, bound for Jilin province.

Fan Xiantao runs a dog-meat factory. His family have been in the trade since the Han dynasty – for 77 generations. Fan sees dog meat as having a history and a culture. Speaking on the Dragon TV show, he explained that “we kill over 100,000 dogs a year, producing 500 tonnes of meat. We sell to Russia, Japan, Korea and Singapore.”

His plant is in Pei county in Jiangsu province – China’s “home of dog meat”. According to Fan, the province has applied to have dog-meat products recognised as an intangible heritage and is awaiting state approval. About 100,000 people there are involved in the dog trade, and sales approach one billion yuan (some US$155 million) annually.

Fan classifies the animals as either police dogs, meat dogs or pets, and he doesn’t see any need for conflict with the animal-lovers: “You keep your pets, I kill my meat.” But shoes were thrown when one member of the audience accepted a gift of dog meat from Fan.

Some ask why animal lovers treat various animals differently. Why do many object to the eating of dogs, but not of chickens, pigs and cows?

There also was criticism that barricading trucks on a highway is dangerous. Yan Yan, a lawyer, said that protecting animals should not mean putting yourself, others or general public safety at risk. Many opponents of the method say it is too radical and gives no thought to possible consequences.

But writer Chen Lan believes that the volunteers didn’t break the law, also “rescued” Hao Xiaomao and prevented the dogs from ending up on dinner tables.

On June 15, a legal working-group set up by Shangshan published the results of an investigation: the quarantine certificates for the dogs, listing them as being “for slaughter”, had been illegally issued. Beijing Animal Hospital tested 40 of the animals for rabies antibodies and found that none of them had been immunised. Further investigation found that Hu Genjun, who was named as both administering the immunisations and issuing the certificates, was not legally qualified to do so.

At a press conference two months after the truck was stopped, the focus was no longer on the animals themselves, but on food safety.

The working group pointed out that the “Jilin Five-Star” brand of immunisation said to have been used is not suitable for dogs that will become meat. While regulations state that dogs not immunised against rabies cannot be sold on the market, there is no immunisation suitable for meat dogs. Also, most of the dogs were suffering serious illnesses already.

Their investigation reveals the grey area in which the dog-meat supply chain exists, the group said. Eating dog meat is not illegal in China, but there are no health standards for meat dogs, nor for non-farmed animals – so there are no safety guarantees for any dog meat on sale.

The animal lovers noted that there was no record of the dogs being sourced legally, and it was unclear where they had come from. Some were pet breeds, and some may have been stolen; dog-theft is common. In November 2010, the Yangtze Evening Times exposed trade in stolen dogs. One trader told an undercover reporter that “I’ve lost count of how many dogs I’ve sold, but 99% of them were poisoned and stolen.” The report also said that health- and quality-supervision authorities all stated that dog meat was not under their jurisdiction.

“These kinds of safety risks are, from a scientific angle, very worrying,” said Cai Chunhong, a lawyer with the legal group.

The group is currently reporting the illegal immunisations and certifications to the authorities – including the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Health, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine and the State Administration of Industry and Commerce. Hao Xiaomao is also to sue Shangshan to prove that he is not at fault.
Meng Si is associate editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office.

What do you think about the dog rescue? Should dogs and other animals in China be legally protected from mistreatment? Should dog meat be eaten and, if so, what health standards should be applied to meat from non-farm animals? Is killing a dog for food much different from killing a pig or chicken? Let us know your views.

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