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We Talk With a Rescuer at the Yulin Dog Meat Festival

Humane Society International's Adam Parascandola documented horrific acts at the annual festival in China. He also helped rescue dogs and cats, bringing them to the U.S.

Lisa Plummer Savas  |  Sep 1st 2015


Editor’s note: The idea of eating dogs and cats is disturbing to those of us who see them as companion animals. This story and its photos, though the images are not graphic, may upset you, but we believe that putting an end to the cruel dog and cat meat trade is an important cause to write about and support.

Picture this: You’re an international animal rescuer and cruelty investigator, tasked with documenting one of the most egregious forms of animal cruelty — the dog and cat meat trade. You have arrived in Yulin, China, a sub-tropical city located in the Guangxi province that is also a notorious hotbed for the trade. It’s your very first trip to this magnificent country, but you won’t be doing any sightseeing. Instead, you’ll be attending the city’s 5th annual summer solstice lychee and dog meat “festival,” an event held every June that attracts thousands of people who celebrate the new season by feasting on heaping plates of dog meat and lychee fruit.

As a 20-year cruelty investigator, animal advocate, and frontline rescuer in the U.S., you’ve witnessed your fair share of animal brutality, yet you know that what you’re about to see is the stuff of nightmares that will haunt you for the rest of your life. But you must put your emotions aside and carry out your mission: Document what you see, bring that message to the world, and support the Chinese activists working tirelessly to end the festival and the trade.

You’re Adam Parascandola, director of animal protection and crisis response for Humane Society International, and this is the story of your experience at Yulin – the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly.

People waiting for a table at one of the festival’s dog meat restaurants. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

People waiting for a table at one of the festival’s dog meat restaurants. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

It was 3:30 in the morning on June 22, the first day of the festival. Tipped off by activists that a large truck had arrived at Dongkou Market and was unloading cages and cages of dogs at one of the slaughterhouses, Adam and his small team, consisting of a Chinese activist, an AP photographer, and a New York Times reporter, raced to the scene.

In an attempt to throw off animal activists who have been protesting the festival with increasing fervor over the past several years, the Yulin government had instructed butchers to stop slaughtering dogs during the daytime and out in the open and to instead carry out their activities in concealed areas, Adam explained.

“By the time we got there, the truck was mostly unloaded,” he said. “The slaughterhouse had moved all the dogs into a large pen, where they were standing three, four deep on top of each other. The area where they were actually doing the killing was hidden behind a wall, so we didn’t see that part. But what I was able to document on video was this gentleman who goes into the pen with a big stick and starts beating the dogs. They believe frightening the animals improves the meat in some way. The dogs were screaming and trying to get away — it was a really heartbreaking scene.”

Dogs in a holding pen at one of the Dangkou Market slaughterhouses. The illegal pet meat trade not only victimizes animals but is also a risk to food safety and public health. Rabies transmissions to humans are very common in dog-eating regions of Asia. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

Dogs in a holding pen at one of the Dangkou Market slaughterhouses. The illegal pet meat trade not only victimizes animals but is also a risk to food safety and public health. Rabies transmissions to humans are very common in dog-eating regions of Asia. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

He continued, “It took (the butchers) 20 minutes to realize they could just shut the door in our faces. The local government had been claiming that these slaughters weren’t occurring at the festival, so we felt it was very important to document that they were actually killing dogs onsite.”

As the morning progressed, Adam and his team — now joined by local and international media and more Chinese activists — continued their mission to document everything they saw while moving together as a large group for safety reasons.

For an animal lover, the scene at the market was hell on earth: thousands of ill-fated dogs and cats of all shapes, sizes, ages, and breeds — many of them stolen pets — tightly packed into tiny, filthy cages while they waited to die. Most had been transported over long distances under horrific conditions and had been deprived of food and water, so they appeared stressed and traumatized, even sickly. Some of them still wore collars.

Dogs who would soon be named Tom and Ricky wait at the slaughterhouse before their rescue. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

Dogs who would soon be rescued and named Tom and Ricky wait at the slaughterhouse. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

While some of the butchers expressed their displeasure at being filmed by attempting to throw boiling water at the activists, Adam said that as a foreigner he felt like more of a curiosity rather than the object of anyone’s vitriol.

“It could be intimidating because these folks surround you and they’re taking pictures, but I could sense that it wasn’t really hostile against us,” Adam said. “[The butchers and festival-goers] definitely harassed the Chinese activists and the ones who come to try to buy dogs — there were scuffles that broke out with them. But nobody interfered with my documenting or with any of the other photographers at the live market.”

But the butchers, vendors, and restaurant owners profiting from the Yulin festival have reason to be upset with all the unwanted attention. For the past four years, domestic and international activists as well as animal lovers throughout the world have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the gory event, calling upon the local government and the public to end dog and cat eating in China and the cruel practices inherent in the unregulated trade. Although it is estimated that 10 million dogs and four million cats are eaten annually in China, much of the country’s populace has turned away from the practice.

A man transports dogs to the festival. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

A man transports dogs to the festival. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

As a divide has grown between older-generation dog meat traders and younger-generation Chinese animal activists who want the trade to stop, clashes between activists and dog meat traders have led to a tense atmosphere at the event, making Yulin a veritable battleground in China’s nascent animal rights movement. Unlike other forms of public protests, animal welfare demonstrations are more tolerated by the Chinese national government.

“This isn’t a traditional festival that’s gone on for hundreds of years,” Adam explained. “Five or six years ago, the dog meat traders felt that their market was declining, so they came up with this idea of an annual festival to drum up business. The local government initially thought by sponsoring it they could help bring tourism to Yulin, which completely backfired, so they quickly said they weren’t going to be involved. There was a lot of confusion this year because the government said there was no festival, which basically meant that they had pulled their sponsorship, but it’s not like they were taking action to make sure it wasn’t occurring.”

 VShine activists in action during the Yulin festival. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

VShine activists in action during the Yulin festival. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

Thanks to mounting pressure and international outrage, the festival has become a more subdued event and is showing signs of being on its last legs, with the number of animals killed steadily dropping year after year.

“It definitely seemed much smaller, which was very encouraging to see,” Adam said. “Last year, you could see rows and rows of booths selling dog carcasses, but this year there were maybe two or three vendors. Plus, [the local government] banned the outdoor tables, which meant people had to wait longer to get into the restaurants. It also rained. Absolutely all the massive attention and condemnation is the reason that the festival was so drastically reduced this year.”

All that attention came in the form of a tremendous global outcry. Hundreds of thousands of people, including celebrities such as Ricky Gervais, joined the anti-pet meat movement before and during the festival, flooding domestic and international social media sites with online petitions and millions of messages condemning the festival and the country’s cruel culinary tradition.

“The response from people and the media was greater than we ever could have hoped for,” Adam said. “Although we have yet to see how effective [social media activism] will be with the Chinese government, I feel like we’re seeing new people coming to the movement in China. Many of them didn’t know about Yulin before this, so I think [social media has] been really helpful in bolstering those individuals who oppose the trade and letting them know that they’re not fighting this battle alone, that there are many people around the world who support their efforts.”

A terrified cat climbs the wall of the holding pen. She was later rescued by Peter Li, HSI China policy specialist. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

A terrified cat climbs the wall of the holding pen. He was later rescued by Peter Li, HSI China policy specialist. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

Although many animals lost their lives at Yulin this year, there were a few happy endings. During his trip to Yulin a few weeks prior to the festival, Peter Li, HSI’s China policy specialist, managed to rescue two dogs and two cats from one of the Dongkou slaughterhouses. Although one of the dogs unfortunately passed away from illness not long after his rescue, the other dog, Ricky [named after HSI supporter Ricky Gervais], was brought back to the U.S. and has since been adopted into a loving home after a short stay at Washington Animal Rescue League (WARL).

“Peter was there to document the increased activity leading up to Yulin, when it’s a lot less contentious, so he was able to access a lot of places that would have been very difficult to see during the festival,” Adam explained. “He was at a slaughterhouse, and little Ricky came up and starting nosing him. The other dog, Tom, was sort of glued to Ricky, so that’s how Peter picked them. He had an AP photographer with him who took a really powerful picture of a cat hanging on the wall of the holding cage. Peter said he couldn’t leave him there and that the cat also had a buddy, so he couldn’t take one without the other. He talked to the butcher and was able to get the animals from him.”

He continued, “I’m positive Ricky was somebody’s companion at some point because he’s super sweet, social, walks on a leash, and is very comfortable indoors … it was very clear that someone had treasured him at some point, so I’m assuming he was a stolen pet.”

Shine activists cuddling little Ricky and the rescued cats. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

VShine activists cuddling little Ricky and the rescued cats. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

Little Ricky arrives at the Washington Animal Rescue League with Adam Parascandola. (Photo courtesy WARL)

Little Ricky arrives at the Washington Animal Rescue League with Adam Parascandola. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

Meanwhile, HSI has been working to support Chinese activists intent on stopping the pet meat trade by launching China Animal Protection Power (CAPP), a command center in Dalian, China, that provides financial support and training workshops for activists, including HSI’s local partner VShine Animal Protection Group, a grassroots organization dedicated to intercepting and rescuing dogs and cats from meat trucks, as well as sheltering and rehabilitating them until they can be adopted into loving new homes.

Heartened by so many young and passionate Chinese citizens who have taken it upon themselves to challenge their country’s antiquated attitudes toward animals while improving China’s reputation as a developing and progressive nation, Adam said he does see a light at the end of the tunnel.

“I think it’ll be telling to see what happens between this year and next year, and whether the festival goes on in terms of the Yulin government’s reaction to this kind of intense scrutiny and pressure,” Adam said. “China is very different from South Korea in the sense that there is a huge movement within the country to end the consumption of dog and cat meat. Even though the rise in pet ownership is relatively new, I think it’s more established in China, and the activists are extremely dedicated. I strongly believe that we will see the end of the dog and cat meat trade in the next decade … and I suspect that China will lead the way.”

Read more about the dog meat trade on Dogster:

About the author: Lisa Plummer Savas is a freelance writer, journalist, devoted dog mom, and animal activist. In an effort to help make the world a more compassionate place for non-human species, she is especially focused on using her writing to spread awareness about animal welfare and cruelty issues. She lives in Atlanta with two spoiled German Shepherds, one very entitled Pug, and a very patient, understanding husband. Read more of her work by visiting her blog and website. You can also follow her on Twitter.