Chen Yunlian (right), a retiree who runs a shelter for homeless dogs and cats, and a member of the Hong Kong SPCA hold Qianjin, one of the dogs who helped save a woman after the earthquake.
Chen Yunlian (right), a retiree who runs a shelter for homeless dogs and cats, and a member of the Hong Kong SPCA hold Qianjin, one of the dogs who helped save a woman after the earthquake. Anthony Kuhn/NPR
The massive earthquake that hit China earlier this month has spurred many civic groups into action, including animal lovers.
Retiree Chen Yunlian, who runs a shelter for homeless dogs and cats in the suburbs of Chengdu, the capital of the hard-hit Sichuan province, recently read a report in the Chengdu Evening News that grabbed her attention.
"These two dogs saved an elderly lady who had been buried under a collapsed building for more than 100 hours," she says. "Every day, they stayed by her side and licked her lips and face when she was thirsty. When the rescuers finally came, they barked, and the old lady was saved."
There were rumors that the dogs had later been killed by authorities who were trying to prevent disease. The decision by local governments to kill animals because of disease fears has not gone over well with people like Zhang Zhen, a young volunteer at Chen's shelter.
"I feel this is extremely cruel and barbaric," Zhang says. "We must not kill them. They're living beings too. They're earthquake survivors too. Why should we kill them? Just because we're people and they're dogs?"
A Rescue Effort
And so an expedition begins to save the dogs who helped save the woman. A convoy of vehicles sets out from Chengdu, carrying Chen's group, other local volunteers and a team from the Hong Kong Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The SPCA folks are pros, dressed in crisp white uniforms with epaulets, and equipped with dog-catching gear and portable kennels.
The team drives into the rugged mountains outside the city of Pengzhou, through an area of what used to be resorts. People are cooking lunch and washing clothes amid the rubble of their shattered homes.
Those who are asked for directions along the way have all heard the story of the dogs.
"The latest information we've got is that the last time they saw the dog was during the incident," Tony Ho, a superintendent with the Hong Kong SPCA, says during the trip. "And then they believe that the dog went back into the hill, which as you can see is quite a large area."
The group drives past a giant swath of mud and rocks. Locals say this landslide buried two entire villages. Their 600 residents are now entombed in a Sichuanese version of Pompeii.
The team comes to a hillside meadow surrounded by collapsed houses and encounters the abbot of a local Buddhist temple. In a loud, gruff voice, he says that the dogs are his. He disappears into the collapsed buildings and returns in a minute with a little yellow mutt.
The volunteers erupt in squeals of delight. Chen picks up the dog.
"We've been very lucky today," she says. "We found both the dogs and their owner. This one is called Qianjin, which means 'forge ahead.' The other is called Guaiguai, which means 'well-behaved.' We're heading off to pick up Guaiguai now. I couldn't be more excited."
But first, the volunteers hammer out a deal with the abbot.
"Because there's a need to rebuild the temple and, you know, all this area here, I think the animal welfare people are going to look after the dog for the time being," Ho explains. "They promised to return the dog once ... the temple is rebuilt."
'Man's Best Friend'
In recent weeks, Chen and her volunteers have saved more than 70 cats and dogs from the quake zone. But it's difficult. Many Chinese feel that people have a tough enough time surviving without having to worry about animals. But the earthquake has offered the opportunity to contemplate compassion and the value of life.
Doris Yiu with the Hong Kong SPCA team feels vindicated.
"Dog is man's best friend, and this proves it," she says.