In China and a few other East Asian nations, there is a civil war playing out over the dog and cat meat trade. It is a war of ideas, attitudes, behaviors and worldviews. It is a fight that pits citizens of these nations who love dogs and cats as companion animals and want the best for them, against the sponsors of the dangerous and cruel trafficking in these animals for meat. With our many allies across the region, we’re on the side of the dogs and cats.
To fully understand this meat trade in China, it is crucial to give credit where credit is due: The criticism of the dog meat trade in Yulin and other cities across the country has been led by Chinese people. Their activism has made the so-called Yulin festival the most visible manifestation of a much larger year-round meat trade that claims the lives of some ten million dogs and four million cats annually throughout China. The “festival” was created by the city’s dog meat traders in 2010 to boost dog meat sales. Annually, on June 21, coinciding with the summer solstice, dog meat stalls become increasingly visible and available in the area, which makes Yulin a steady target of vehement criticism by Chinese animal advocates and pointed ridicule from the broader Chinese population.
China’s animal lovers could not stomach making mass dog meat consumption a source of celebration, but what made the Yulin festival so completely unacceptable was the support it received from local officials largely out of step with the developing culture of petkeeping taking root in the nation. By the time of the festival’s founding just over a decade ago, China already had a thriving class of pet-owners and advocates, and petkeeping was no longer condemned as a bourgeois and decadent lifestyle as had traditionally been the case within communist ideology. The human-animal bond was something that people now openly celebrated, and animal protection values began to gain ground even as countless Chinese citizens began to rediscover their rich national tradition of concern for animals as expressed in art, literature and culture over the centuries.
In 2014, facing withering criticism from within and outside China, Yulin authorities took measures to disassociate themselves from the event. Government officials and their families were prohibited from patronizing restaurants serving dog meat. Slaughterhouses in the city were closed and public slaughter of dogs was banned. The slaughterhouses operated in the early hours of the morning away from the glare of the public and the press.
Yulin had little history of dog meat consumption prior to the launch of this commercial enterprise, but since 2010 back-alley slaughterhouses and dog meat stalls have been appearing in greater number in the city throughout the year, with business picking up in June. In the first years, dog meat diners filled the restaurants and spilled out onto the street tables, but it’s been a far more muted affair recently as pressure has increased from within and outside China. In the last six years, the number of dogs slaughtered on the summer solstice itself has gone down. However, mass dog slaughter has continued during the 10-day-long festival on a more limited scale.
Like their counterparts in other countries, Yulin’s dog meat traders gather dogs from unknown and suspicious sources, including through theft. Most of the dogs shipped to Yulin come by truck from provinces several hundred miles away, crammed in small cages stacked one on top of another, suffering from brutal handling, heat, food and water deprivation, beneath cages leaking waste from other animals. Many dogs do not survive trans-provincial transport, and those who do are often slaughtered in front of other dogs who will be next.
To an astonishing degree, the dog meat trade in Yulin and in the rest of China is carried on largely in violation of the country’s laws, regulations and policies. There are no animal protection laws in China but dog theft continues despite violating the rights of dog owners. Trans-provincial transport of live dogs for the meat markets does not comply with national policy requiring one health certificate per dog, because traders have no official paperwork for stolen dogs. Most dogs are not vaccinated against rabies, which is required for such transport. Flouting of China’s animal epidemic prevention and control law, traffickers ship sick and even dying dogs to Yulin and other markets.
Chinese animal protectionists were the first to stand up against the festival and they are still fighting to end it along with the larger dog meat trade. Their efforts have produced great results. In April 2020, Shenzhen and Zhuhai in South China became the first mainland cities to outlaw dog and cat meat sales and consumption. A month later, China’s national government published a livestock and poultry catalogue that excluded dogs, effectively an official recognition of their status as companion animals.
As a family of organizations with colleagues, partners and supporters in many nations, we’re committed to pursuing humane work with appropriate cultural sensitivity and concern. The work that we do internationally to further animal welfare is often reliant on our local and dedicated partner groups, and this is certainly the case for our dog meat campaign work in China. Far from fueling an uncontained anger about the cruelty that goes on in other countries, our attention to cruelties like those associated with the dog meat trade reminds us of our responsibility to address animal cruelty the world over, including here in the West.
Animal cruelty is a problem of humanity; it is not culturally specific, but a transcultural phenomenon. But, thankfully, so is compassion and love for animals. Whatever country we work in, there are individuals and groups dedicated to ending animal suffering and making the lives of animals better. They are our allies and we support them. When we call for an end to the dog meat trade in Asia, we are standing united with Asian animal protectionists who strive to make their country and the world a kinder place for all the animals who share it with us.
Follow Kitty Block on Twitter @HSUSKittyBlock.