In Partnership With Humane Society International
Warning: Distressing Content
The great American author Mark Twain once referred to dogs as ‘gentlemen’ whose heaven he’d rather go to than Man’s.
He may have been on to something there. Often referred to as man’s best friend, we laud dogs for their loyalty and ability (when trained well by an owner or a handler) to follow instructions.
But how is our relationship with man’s best friend? Is it a two-way street? Do we treat dogs as our equals rather than our subordinates?
It depends on who you ask – in the west, where we’re supposedly ‘cultured’ and ‘civilised’, we tend to put dogs and cats – and other domesticated pets – on an equal playing field.
But over in East Asia, there are certain areas of the continent where there appears to be no discernible difference between a domesticated pet or a good meal.
Their much-maligned so-called tradition dictates they are a delicacy to be enjoyed, and in certain areas, it’s open season.
While East Asia – namely China and South Korea – are unfairly lumped with the label of ‘dog eaters’, very little is done to stamp out the stereotype.
This particularly applies to the Yulin area of China, where the dog meat trade thrives due to an outright rejection of what is seen – from their point of view – as western sentimentality.
Just take a look at what happens every year at the Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival:
In 2010, a legislative proposal for banning cruelty to animals was drafted by Chinese legal scholars and experts. The proposal was sent to the National People’s Congress for its opinion. It has never been entered in the legislative agenda.
In the wake of this lax observation of the law, gangs have cropped up around the country, who kidnap pet dogs to sell to dog meat traders.
It’s allowed China’s criminal underworld to prosper. Each year thousands of dogs are stolen and as many as 20 million dogs are killed to satisfy the dog meat industry.
Scenes like this are common:
In 2017 the police in Hangzhou uncovered an underground ring of gangs selling dead dogs to restaurants at 50-60 yuan a piece (£5.60 – £6.80).
Later the same year, police shut down an operation selling almost 200,000 poisonous syringes to dog thieves.
Speaking to UNILAD, Adam Parascandola, the director of Animal Protection and Crisis Response for Humane Society International (HSI), says gangs going around in vans kidnapping dogs – be they stray or owned – are not career criminals.
He describes them as ‘opportunistic’ criminals who are on the lower end of the Dog Meat Trade.
He told UNILAD:
I don’t think this is a high paying business and I suspect these individuals are like many others who participate in low-level opportunistic crimes. Most would not be criminal masterminds.
Given the level of cruelty involved in the procuring of dogs both to the dogs themselves and to the families who love the dogs who are stolen, I think, like many other forms of animal cruelty, those involved are more likely to be involved in other forms of criminal activity or violence.
According to Adam’s testimony, former dog thieves who’ve been interviewed claim they were only ‘procuring for a boss’.
These ‘bosses’ are the ones who negotiate the terms and agreements with restaurant and slaughterhouse owners. Those who work solo often ‘shop around’ for establishments interested in dog meat. Over time, the communication gets easier.
He also determines there’s a ‘well established’ link between the dog meat trade and organised animal cruelty, such as dog and cockfighting; it’s something he’s come across regularly in his work.
However, Adam doesn’t think there’s great disparity between the acts:
These individuals are not likely to be all that different than those who participate in illegal animal fights.
In fact, there are countless cases documented in China of confrontations between dog thieves and dog owners where the owners have been killed or severely injured by the dog thieves.
One such scene was captured in the following footage:
The gangs employ various techniques to procure the dogs while concealing their illegal activity at the same time. Adam reveals to us the most common form is to snatch them off of the streets or backyards.
They’re usually equipped with a pole and noose which allows them to catch and restrain the dogs without having to get too close to them. From there they can just throw the dogs in the back of a truck with minimal effort.
He also states that other thieves employ more barbaric and heavy-handed tactics, like these:
Some dog thieves simply beat the dogs to death with a stick before taking them, though this is considered to be a novice approach by dog thieves.
Other thieves resort to using poisonous darts or a form of anaesthesia via crossbow or a blow-dart gun.
The substances found in these deadly trinkets include cyanide and succinylcholine chloride, which creates huge concerns ‘about the risk of consuming dogs caught with such substances’.
Aside from these methods of capturing the dogs, many dog thieves use techniques such as fake or stolen license plates, so if they are caught on CCTV they, cannot be traced.
We learn from Adam, as well as various other sources, dog thieves operate in plain sight, because of the authorities’ relaxed approach to the legislation.
This can be backed up by the World Animal Protection’s 2014 assessment of China, who were graded with an E in their Animal Protection Index.
Actions taken vary from community, but traditionally, it’s not a priority for police.
In fact, Adam explains, there’s more of a focus on acts of ‘vigilantism in communities’ frustrated by the law’s inaction to their dogs being stolen.
In December 2015, enraged residents from the Shijiang and Luodai villages took matters in their own hands after two dog thieves were caught.
However, instead of turning them over to authorities, they were severely beaten. One of the men had salt rubbed into his wounds to accentuate his suffering.
Police later found both men lying on a road which connects the two villages. They were taken to hospital but one of the men died as a result of his injuries.
Nine villagers were interrogated by police and three people surrendered themselves due to their involvement.
Murder and violence is never the answer, but when the law takes a lax approach to ‘dognapping‘ some feel they can only take so much before they’re forced to take matters into their own hands.
A police officer in Xi’an, a province in Shangxi, who wished to remain anonymous, told UNILAD:
The police department does not deal with the dog or cat meat trade. Regulation of the trade is the responsibility of the state industrial and commercial bureau.
If the industry has food safety issues, it is the state agency for food safety that is tasked to look into it.
The police respond to reports of dog thefts only if the owner has proof that the dog is stolen and that the dog belongs to them.
‘Microchipping or registration records’ is the best way of combating this criminal endemic.
However, according to the unnamed officer, most dogs in China which are snatched from owners ‘are not microchipped’, thus making enforcement of the law much more difficult.
However, Adam said little attention is paid to governing the transport of dogs sold in the industry, adding, it’s rare when the authorities set up checkpoints to check for proper documentation of the dogs and cats being transported for the industry.
Our police source claims:
In some cities, the police departments set up food and drug supervision teams for responding to food safety-related violation cases involving restaurants and other dealers. But, these teams are yet to deal with trucks sending dogs to the slaughterhouses.
Consequently, not only does this create a rise in dog and cat thefts which go undetected, but it poses a huge ‘risk of exposure to rabies from unvaccinated and un-quarantined dogs and cats’.
Were these existing laws enforced, the profits to dog thieves and traders would be greatly reduced and we have seen this happen in places where the laws are properly enforced.
So what can be done aside from well-intentioned campaigning and raising awareness on the international stage?
Practically speaking, HSI are trying to chip away at China’s ‘political apathy’ and ‘tolerance’.
Dialogue takes time and can be frustrating, and it’s often a slow burn, but in the last few years, we’ve started to see action at Yulin that has chipped away at the festival and definitely contributed to its decline.
However, with each progression HSI and anti-dog and cat meat campaigners gain, the mission to eradicate it becomes more difficult.
In Yulin, locals threatened civil unrest if the ban on dog and cat meat was not lifted, which the local government uncharacteristically bowed down to. It’s argued this creates windows of opportunity for these thieves to still operate, and for police to turn a blind eye to.
There are areas where the authorities do enforce the law, Adam said:
[I commend] areas where the police have a strong understanding of these laws and strict enforcement, many of these problems do not exist or are greatly reduced.
In some areas, the police have strong relationships with animal welfare groups who can then help care for animals confiscated when the traders are found in violation of the law.
Due to their presence on the world stage as one of the so-called superpowers, China is desperate to get rid of (or conveniently conceal) anything which may hamper their image.
But for a country which – in essence – acts with absolute totalitarianism and impunity over its citizens (their stringent internet laws being a prime example), animal rights is seen as nothing more than an indulgence the State cannot accommodate.
It’s only convenient for them to enforce the law when the world’s eyes are focused on them, such as during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In preparation for the games, the government ordered dog meat to be taken off the menu at its 112 official Olympic restaurants to avoid offending visitors.
It’s painfully clear, as well as tragic, that not enough is being done. The government and its citizens of the People’s Republic of China can no longer continue to turn a blind eye to what is occurring all too frequently.
The gangs act with little resistance despite the law needing to be enforced. Not just for the protection of the animals but for the health and safety of those who are eating unsanitised meat.
In the meantime, you can follow UNILAD’s Stop Yulin campaign, which will be running throughout the festival, from 21 to 30 June, to find out more.
Humane Society International and their Chinese animal group partners, VShine and Capital Animal Welfare Association, are petitioning the Yulin authorities to implement and enforce a total ban this year.
Speak out against this cruelty by signing the petition.