Three years ago, Song Kang purchased a puppy – a fluffy white Samoyed that he named “Lele,” or “Happy.”
Six months ago, a thief nabbed it.
Lele was lounging outside Song family home in Beijing’s suburbs. A van drove up, and a man threw some food on the ground. Lele approached and the man grabbed him. A closed-circuit TV recorded the theft.
When Song, a college student, viewed the video a few days later, he knew his beloved friend was likely doomed – destined for one of China’s dog meat restaurants. “But I didn’t dare cry at home,” he said in a recent interview. “I knew my parents were even sadder than me.”
Shadowy gangs steal millions of dogs each year in China. While some of them are resold as pets, the vast majority are sent to slaughterhouses, which sell their meat to restaurants, skirting the nation’s food safety laws.
The government has known about this black market for years, but has yet to police either the thieves or the dog meat restaurants. Some of these eateries are in Yulin, a city in the southeast China that, for the past six years, has held a notorious dog meat festival. The next festival is scheduled for June 21.
“The lawlessness and violation of the government’s own policies is right out in the open,” says Peter J. Li, a specialist in Chinese animal welfare issues at the University of Houston.
China is increasingly a nation of dog owners as its swelling upper and middle classes spend time and money on pets. Chinese families care for 27 million pet dogs in the cities and nearly 100 million in the countryside, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
Yet the modern attachment to “man’s best friend” is clashing with a tradition that appears to date back two millennia, at least in some parts of China. An archaeological report this week found that the creators of the famed terracotta army ate dog meat.
Seize that dog!
Lax policing and poverty also drive the trade. According to Prof. Li, who is also a policy adviser to the Humane Society International, many of China’s dog thieves come from the rural poor, who steal dogs as an easy source of money.
With the government unwilling to act, Chinese victims of pet theft are taking matters into their own hands. Linked by social media apps such as WeChat, activists have started tracking – and sometimes intercepting – the trucks that carry dogs to slaughterhouses. They then try to return the dogs to their owners, or find people who want to adopt them.
On the evening of May 27, a woman spotted a truck full of dogs parked near the center of Guangzhou, a major city in southern China. She contacted friends, who spread the news on WeChat and called the police. Soon, more than 200 people had arrived and surrounded the truck, according to a Guangzhou activist who, fearing reprisal, asked that his name not be used.
The police asked the truck driver for his documents authorizing the dog shipment. When the driver couldn’t produce any paperwork, the activists took possession of the dogs. They have since been posting photos of the animals online, hoping their owners will recognize and retrieve them.
“I’m going to save as many of these dogs as possible,” said the Guangzhou activist, when asked if he would keep doing this work. “I don’t want them being served in a restaurant.”
No one knows how many dogs are stolen in China each year, but it is thought to be in the millions, according to Li of the Humane Society. China consumes about 790,000 tons of dog meat yearly, which converts to roughly 10 million dogs, he said.
According to a 2015 study by the Animals Asia Foundation, no large-scale dog farms exist in China, as they do in South Korea. “Our investigations strongly point to what everybody familiar with the industry has long suspected – that the vast majority of China’s dog meat comes from stolen companion animals,” said Jill Robinson, the Hong Kong-based founder of Animals Asia.
To judge by Chinese media reports the nation’s pet thieves operate brazenly, sometimes sedating their prey with poisoned arrows. When they have gathered dozens of animals they cut a deal with a dog meat trader. The traders then truck the dogs to slaughterhouses, which are concentrated in southern China and near China’s northeastern border with North Korea, in Jilin province.
According to Li, both the slaughterhouses and restaurants are in violation of China’s food safety laws, which state that only livestock subject to state inspection can be processed and sold for food. Dogs do not fall into this category. Truckers also are in violation, he said, since they are supposed to carry one quarantine certificate for each dog transported, but very rarely do so.
Andrea Gung, a Taiwan-born animal rights activist, says she and others have met both local and central government officials, trying to persuade them to take action against the dog trade. But officials seem loath to crack down on either traders or the restaurants, which generate tourism business for some cities.
“No one wants to stick their necks out,” says Ms. Gung, who leads a California-based group called the Duo Duo Animal Welfare Project.
When Song and his parents learned late last year that thieves had taken his Samoyed, they set off in search of their pet. The journey led Song all the way to Changchun, a city in Jilin province that is home to several slaughterhouses.
While there, Song visited a dog shelter operated by Wang Yan, a former millionaire who has become somewhat of a Chinese celebrity. A Buddhist, Mr. Wang has spent much of his savings and time the last four years rescuing dogs from the slaughterhouses.
Song, unfortunately, did not find Lele amid the canine cacophony that is Wang’s warehouse, filled with hundreds of rescued animals. “A lot of people come to me trying to find their pets,” Wang said in a telephone interview. “Rarely are they successful.”
That meat could be from someone’s family
In southern China, Yulin’s annual dog meat festival is scheduled to go ahead on June 21, and once again the event is sparking a robust debate on Weibo, China’s main social media platform. Some Chinese netizens are calling for the festival to be canceled while others defend it. “I support eating dog meat as well as not eating dog meat,” wrote one commenter. “You cannot force others to do or not do something!”
With each passing year, more people worldwide are signing petitions urging that the festival be shut down. Worldwide more than 11 million people have signed such petitions including more than 2.3 million in the United States. On Friday, Chinese activists presented these petitions to Yulin's office in Beijjing, which agreed to accept them, much to the surprise of some animal rights advocates.
For their part, Yulin officials are cagey about the attention. Contacted last week, a man who answered the telephone at Yulin’s municipal offices declined to identify himself and then denied there had ever been a dog meat festival there, despite international media coverage in recent years.
There are signs that the authorities have growing doubts about the event. Chinese state media did not cover it last year, unlike previous years, and on the streets of Yulin the killing and butchering of dogs was less visible than in 2014.
Li says the Yulin festival is just a symptom of a larger problem - China’s exploitation of animals for commercial gain. The national government, for instance, still allows companies to operate commercial bear farms, where bear bile is extracted for traditional Chinese medicine. Taiwan, the Philippines, and other governments in Asia have outlawed the serving of dog meat, he said, but China has yet to do so.
Wang, the shelter owner, agrees that China needs stronger animal welfare legislation. But he would also like to see Chinese films and TV programs highlighting the bonds between humans and animals, to create a societal shift. “With fewer people eating dogs, there will be fewer people stealing and selling dogs,” Wang says.
The societal shift may already be happening. More and more Chinese are buying pets, and businesses that cater to them are booming. China’s pet care industry is expected grow by 50 percent by 2019, creating $2.6 billion in annual revenues, according to the market research firm Euromonitor.
For his part, former pet owner Song plans to keep networking and doing what he can to raise awareness. “People who eat dog meat don’t even know where it has come from,” he said. “That meat could be from someone’s family.”
Qiang Xiaoji contributed to this report.