By Peter Li
For years, we have been fighting the dog meat trade alongside local activists who seek to eradicate this cruelty from their countries. In China, the infamous Yulin dog meat “festival, which takes place annually in June, has gained international attention. Ahead of this year’s festival, our Chinese activist partners have already managed to save a group of dogs before slaughter. Here, Peter Li, China policy specialist for Humane Society International, reflects on his experiences in Yulin, how far we’ve come in fighting the dog meat trade and the work that remains to end this scourge for good.
Colby is my beloved dog here in Houston. But nine years ago, he was just another animal at a live dog market in Yulin, a sub-provincial city now infamous for its annual celebration of dog meat.
It was 2014, during my second trip to Yulin with scores of activists from China and overseas, when I met Colby. At about 4 am, I arrived at the city’s biggest live dog market. Although it was pitch-dark, sales had already started with the help of flashlights. Going through rows of cages and crowds of traders, I heard noises coming from the back of a motorcycle. The whimpering sounds came from two puppies. After learning that puppies could be turned into stewed puppy meat, I offered to take them without a second’s hesitation. When I got a better glimpse of them under a streetlight, they looked breathtakingly cuddly. Holding these adorable babies in my arms, I was determined to bring them out of Yulin.
Both dogs have lived in the U.S. for almost nine years. Scout lives with a family in Washington, D.C., while Colby is part of my family. Both are living the lives they deserve, and Colby is a constant reminder of my time in Yulin and all we have yet to accomplish in China.
A fabricated ‘tradition’
Yulin is in the economically less developed Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and in 2010 the city launched the “Lychee and Dog Meat Festival” to celebrate the summer solstice which falls on June 21 in the Northern Hemisphere. In its heyday the event involved the transport of greater number of dogs to the city in the days just prior to the festival, greater numbers of animals slaughtered, and more slaughter carried out in public places, and lots of celebratory consumption of dog meat by locals, tourists and business owners. While marketed as a traditional event, the festival was in fact a new creation by Yulin’s dog meat traders to boost sales and take advantage of the government’s eagerness to catch up economically with the rest of the country. Journalists from across the world also converged on Yulin.
Dog meat has been rejected as an acceptable food for the Chinese since the Han Dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD). A nationwide consumption survey in 2016 confirmed that a majority of Chinese do not eat dog meat, while an April 2023 survey conducted in Yulin disproved claims that dog meat is a household food of local consumers or a main source of animal protein for the rural people. Yulin traders attempt to use the festival to normalize dog meat consumption through celebrating it, but people aren’t so easily fooled. “You just cannot be so imprudent and shameless in order to line your pockets with dirty money,” a Beijing journalist once told me.
The keeping of companion animals has played a key role in the campaign against dog meat. Pet keeping was banned in China’s pre-reform era (1949 to 1978) as a symbol of decadence, based on ideological bias against the bourgeoisie believed to be more likely to be pet owners. Public health concerns and food shortage imperatives were also a consideration. In recent years, however, pet keeping has returned to mainland Chinese households, and Yulin’s dog meat festival is an insult to tens of millions of animal lovers across the country who live with their beloved companion animals.
A lawless trade
China’s dog meat trade is not simply an issue of morality. The trade as a whole is an affront to law and order, a free-for-all of cruelty driven by greed. Dog meat consumption, misleadingly presented as part of the Chinese traditional diet, is not driven by demand but by supply. Growing up in China myself, never once did I see my mother bring back dog meat from her grocery shopping.
China does not have dog farms where dogs are bred for consumption. Most dogs for slaughter, if not all, are stolen pets and strays snatched from the streets. The rescued Yulin dogs that Humane Society International has helped accommodate and find homes for over the years display behaviors typical of household pets.
On my trip to Yulin in 2015, I brought Huru, a cat, out of a slaughterhouse. Huru was a stolen pet. When he dashed in front of me, what caught my attention wasn’t just misery in his eyes but a pink collar around his neck. Unfortunately, Chinese law enforcement officials often ignore dog and cat thefts unless conflicts erupt between thieves and owners.
Dog transport reaches another level of animal cruelty and lawlessness. Crammed into small wire cages, denied food and water, exposed to extreme temperature and weathers, enduring injuries, broken limbs and open wounds sometimes filled with maggots, dogs are dying, catching illnesses and getting soaked with urine and feces from animals in cages above them on the trucks. At that live dog market in Yulin, I saw dogs with pitiful skin problems, noticeable cancerous growths, open wounds and injured limbs. All the dogs looked exhausted, emaciated and depressed from long and excruciating trans-provincial journeys that could take three or more days on the road. No dogs transported across provincial boundaries had proper documents, which was in clear violation of the country’s animal disease control and prevention laws.
What makes dog slaughter so horrific is not just the cruelty, but the fact that dogs are slaughtered in plain view of other dogs waiting for their turn. Visiting Yulin’s slaughterhouses is a traumatizing and forever haunting experience. On my trip to the city in 2016, I saw a slaughter operation in an open market. The killing was happening just two or three feet away from other terrified, trembling and huddling dogs. I still have vivid images of the poor dogs standing in pools of blood, waiting their turn. While it’s a myth that dog traders torture the animals to make dog meat tastier, the dog slaughter I witnessed in Yulin is ugly beyond description. It does not need any exaggeration to make it uglier. And beyond that, slaughtering dying and diseased dogs for food violates China’s own food safety laws.
Signs of progress
While writing this, I have Colby lying next to me. He is such a loyal and loving member of our family, and he never fails to show up at the door when we come home. We could not love him more.
Colby is my motivation. There is no doubt that the days of the Yulin dog meat festival are numbered. Although the world’s media tends to focus on the trade in Yulin, dogs and cats suffer at the hands of butchers all across the country, and that is why we’re fighting to end the nationwide trade.
In 2012, a similar event, the Jinghua Dog Meat Festival, was shut down in Zhejiang province. Across China, dog meat sales are decreasing, and the trade has been condemned time and again in recent years. Many traders have been prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned. Hong Kong has continued a colonial era dog meat sales ban, making it China’s most steadfast anti-dog meat trade territory. In 2017, Taiwan amended its animal protection act and added explicit provisions prohibiting the slaughter of dogs for food. In March 2020, Guangdong’s cities of Zhuhai and Shenzhen adopted bans on the sale of dog and cat meat. Dalian in Northeast China has never hesitated to go after vendors dealing in dog meat.
The national government’s position has shifted too. In April 2020, China’s Agriculture Ministry removed dogs from its livestock catalogue. Explaining the move, an official said that dogs were not food animals but companions.
The Chinese government has in recent years called for efforts to enhance China’s global status and appeal and there is little doubt that this goal is being undermined by the presence of the dog meat trade and the Yulin festival.
Finally, I can say that a surging animal protection movement in China has made a great difference in raising levels of public disapproval and winning the support of legislators in a position to do something about banning the trade. For all the other Colbys out there, that ban could not come soon enough.