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In China, more people are buying dogs as pets and treating them like family members. That's a change from the past when Chinese were more likely to eat dogs, though some still do. In the last year, the growing affection has taken a radical turn. Activists have begun stopping trucks that are carrying dogs to slaughter and negotiating the animals' release.

NPR's Frank Langfitt has the latest on China's animal rights movement.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Dai Huajing was driving in East China's Jiangsu Province late last year when she saw a truck filled with dogs packed into cages like fur coats. The truck driver was negotiating a price with butchers at a roadside market.

DAI HUAJING: (Through translator) The dogs' mouths and legs were tightly tied up and the cages were very, very small. They couldn't move. There was no space at all.

LANGFITT: Dai grabbed her cell phone and began calling fellow animal lovers. The news ricocheted around Sina Weibo, China's most popular Twitter-like microblog.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

LANGFITT: Within several hours, about 150 activists had surrounded the flatbed truck, demanding the animals' release. As negotiations dragged into the night, they used baby bottles to feed the dogs water and petted them through the rusting wire mesh.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

LANGFITT: Video from the scene shows a woman telling a sad-looking mutt not to be afraid. He's going home. Eventually, the activists pooled nearly $8,000 and bought the dogs' freedom. Dai said her decision to confront the dog meat sellers was instinctive.

DAI: (Through translator) I think it was a very natural thing to do. It was their truck and a truckload of dogs would be sent to be butchered. So the first thing I had to do was to stop it.

LANGFITT: Over the past year, animal lovers have stopped eight other dog meat sellers along China's roadways and rescued an estimated 2,000 dogs. Dog meat is legal here, but a growing number of Chinese want to ban it. It's part of a shift in attitudes towards animals in China driven by rising incomes, urbanization and increased pet ownership.

To appreciate the changes, ride with the volunteers who travel by bus every other week to the shelter where the dogs Dai helped rescue now live. Along the way, they put on plastic gloves and pull apart steamed pork butts to feed the dogs. Many are students like Sun Chenkai, who studies at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics. Sun says education is changing the way young people see animals.

SUN CHENKAI: (Through translator) We learned from textbooks about the bond between pets and humans. When you're in danger, your pet will come to your rescue. If kids are imbued with this concept, they would know animals are people's friends and we should not eat them.

LANGFITT: Roadside rescues have sparked a heated debate about dog meat.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHINESE TV SHOW)

LANGFITT: Last summer, Shanghai TV aired a show on the issue, in which dog lovers squared off against dog meat lovers like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHINESE TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through translator) I firmly support eating dog meat. Dog meat is fragrant. Dog meat is tasty. It's my favorite. My favorite.

LANGFITT: Fan Xiantao runs a famous chain of dog meat stores and restaurants. He went on the TV show and defended his business.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHINESE TV SHOW)

FAN XIANTAO: (Through Translator) I've been butchering dogs since I was eight years old and I still do it now. Do you know how many dogs I butcher every year? No less than 100,000.

LANGFITT: Fan lives in Jiangsu Province's Pei County, where dog meat is a major industry. He says at least half a million dogs are slaughtered there annually.

Last week, I caught up with Fan for coffee at a Starbucks in Shanghai. He wore a black baseball cap and a leather jacket. Fan insisted his methods are humane.

FAN: (Through translator) The way we butcher dogs is not very cruel. We have a traditional method that's very effective. Normally, we club them. We hit them in the head and kill them instantly.

LANGFITT: When I asked what happens when the dog survives the first blow, Fan says one strike always works. He says Chinese have been eating dog since ancient times and there's no reason to stop now.

FAN: (Through translator) This is Asian or Chinese national culture. It is a national delicacy and eating dog meat is a culinary tradition.

LANGFITT: Fan dismisses the activists who want to outlaw his business. They're rather pathetic, he says. How can they stop dog trucks when they don't have money?

FAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: Fan has a point. Money and sustainability are real issues for dog rescuers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

LANGFITT: Gao Jin works part-time at the shelter, which now cares for the dogs which were rescued in December. The shelter, really a sprawling dog farm in the mountains, already has too many animals people don't want.

GAO JIN: (Through translator) So far, the monthly adoption situation is not very good because, among the 1,800-plus dogs here, the vast majority are farm dogs. And this type of dog isn't particularly liked in China. Many prefer purebreds.

LANGFITT: Ha Wenjing founded this private shelter called Pingan Afu. She says it costs nearly $16,000 a year just to feed the dogs. Ha finances the operation through volunteers, corporate donations and her own cash. She acknowledges that stopping trucks to prevent dog slaughter is unsustainable.[POST-BROADCAST COPRRECTION: It costs $200,000 a year to feed the dogs at the Pingan Afu shelter.]

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

HA WENJING: (Through translator) Relying on individual animal welfare organizations, hoping they can save 100 dogs every day, we really don't have that ability.

LANGFITT: But that doesn't mean they won't keep trying. Ha says she and her supporters will keep working to raise money. So when they see another group of dogs headed to slaughter, they'll be able to act.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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