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The Cruelty and Controversy of Beijing's Black Market for Dogs

At the Liyuan Dog Market, the largest canine bazaar in China, animals are often mistreated and sometimes die just a week after purchase, but dog lovers have few other options when they want to buy a pet.

by Nona Tepper
20 January 2015, 6:00am

Photos by Stan Aron

You can find everything from poodles to Labradors to Tibetan mastiffs in Beijing's Tongzhou district, but not all the canines are what the sellers say they are. Saline solution is injected into mutts to turn them into fashionable Chow Chows. A quick shave and some skin-stretching iron wire can turn a Pekingese into a popular Shar-Pei. But it's the xingqi quan, or "week-long dog," that transcends class and breed—these are animals that often die just one week after purchase from ailments either caused or concealed by breeders. All of this is just part of the daily routine at the Liyuan Dog Market.

"Everyone in Tongzhou is in the dog business," said Song, a roadside dog entrepreneur (who would only provide his surname). Peddling his bike along Rixin East Road, the man stopped me to offer directions to the market. But not before trying to sell me a corgi.

Liyuan is the largest canine bazaar in China. It's slated to close later this month, but for now, business booms on Tuesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. When I visited a few months ago on an off day, few shops were open, though there were breeders selling puppies out of car trunks along Rixin East Road. (At a nearby animal hospital, the chief veterinarian told me Liyuan had already closed and invited me to his home to sell me a dog. Only after receiving a tip from an intern at the veterinary clinic did I realize Liyuan is still open.)

Banned during the decade following China's Cultural Revolution from 1976 to 1986, today dog ownership is making a comeback in China's capital. Some estimate there are 1.2 million registered dogs in Beijing (a city of approximately 22 million). But, in a country boasting the second-highest number of rabies cases in the world, the Chinese Communist Party views large dogs as "vicious." Government crackdowns on dogs taller than 13.7 inches occur nearly every spring, and pet registration fees are set deliberately high to price people out of ownership (they currently stand at £105 per animal).

Despite being formally discouraged, dog ownership is still on the rise, with people mostly buying the pets online or at markets such as Liyuan. The tension between people willing to pay hundreds for a purebred pup and the Tongzhou breeders flipping dogs for a quick buck illustrates how confusing the pet industry can be to regulate in China. Closing Liyuan may just be the most convenient answer to a bureaucratic problem that has animal-rights activists complaining loudly.

The puppies sold at Liyuan are often mistreated—they're taken from their mothers at too young an age, they're fed scraps instead of nutritious dog food, they're either not vaccinated or vaccinated illegally, and if they do get sick the disease spreads quickly in the high-volume mills where they're raised. Painkillers and stimulants are injected into dogs to keep them bouncy.

China's Law on the Protection of Wildlife specifies that market vendors need a permit for dealing dogs, but offers no standard for how animals should be treated. Complicating matters is the fact that three separate government ministries oversee the way business is done at Liyuan, meaning that buyers who are seeking recourse after being sold a week-long dog have to navigate what can be a bureaucratic nightmare.

Activists began campaigning for Liyuan's closure in October 2012, after the Beijing Morning Post published an article about the cruel treatment of puppies at Liyuan, inspiring animal-rights supporters to pen spin-off pieces berating the market's insensitive breeders. (The article was later removed from the Post's website.) This June, Chinese activists organized and reached out to the foreign press to protest the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, an annual event where locals celebrate the summer solstice by killing, skinning, and eating canine. Perhaps the level of organization the campaign demonstrated—including circulating an English-language petition online demanding the festival's closure—made officials nervous. Vendors said Hongdian Dog Market in neighboring Hebei province closed in late November 2014. Later this month Liyuan will follow suit, perhaps in response to public demand, and vendors will be forced to either move their businesses online or illegally hawk their puppies from car trunks.

The market has likely remained popular because animal adoption remains uncommon among Beijingers. Equivalents to the Humane Society or the American Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals do not exist in the city. Mary Peng, director of the International Center for Veterinary Services in Beijing, said that "people are purchasing online or at markets because they don't know that there are any other options."

That leaves pet lovers at the Liyuan vendors' mercy.

"I've bought six dogs at this market and two of them have died," said Sisi Guo. "When you buy the dogs they seem healthy, but when you return they [the vendors] say it's not their fault and you're responsible. There's no way to get your money back."

Liyuan didn't always have such a bad reputation, vendor Huang Feng said. His family has been selling at Liyuan since the market opened in the 1980s. Back then, it was the largest dog market in Asia. Liyuan was shut down and scattered multiple times because of its shady dealings, but the roadside vendors always returned to illegally sell their puppies from car trunks. Unable to crush it, the municipal government legalized vendor's stores.

Feng's shop is decorated with pictures of his huskies winning international pet competitions. He doesn't seem too concerned about the coming shutdown of Liyuan.

More than half of his sales are already conducted online, he said; his award-winning huskies fetch him £43,000 per year. Once Liyuan closes, he plans to move his entire stock online to Taobao (a Chinese equivalent of eBay), save nearly £6,600 in annual rent, and, if worse comes to worse, sell along Rixin East Road.

Weng, who was peddling poodles from a Volkswagen trunk when I spoke to her, also plans to continue breeding and selling her dogs. When asked about the possibility of her selling sick dogs, she shrugged. "All animals die," she said.

Xinxin Deng wasn't so sanguine about the fate of her dog. Deng decided to buy a pet on China's National Day, a holiday celebrating the birth of the Communist Party. Out of the more than 300 Taobao vendors advertising Labradors, Deng chose the highest-rated vendor on the site, which claimed that its puppies were approved by the American Kennel Society.

When the 32-year-old made plans to meet the seller with her father, the man wouldn't give her his full name or the address of the puppy mill. Instead, he told them to come to a spot on Beijing's Fifth Ring Road and led them on a 20-minute trip down a side street to a house where ten large men greeted them at the door. Inside, 20 Labrador puppies were crammed into a small cage. Only one was moving. Deng's father entered the mill.

"They said, 'We've spent so much time showing you the dogs, you have to buy," Deng told me. "We'll lower the price, how much do you want to buy?'"

Two minutes later, Deng's father had the only puppy that moved wriggling in his arms. Communist Party officials might have describe Deng's new pet as a bourgeoisie import from the West, but Deng felt happy when she saw the black dog. She named him Dongguan—"winter melon," a fruit that is traditionally a sign of good fortune in China—and paid the breeder £215.

"I thought I could give a better life to this small, small dog," Deng said.

A month later, Dongguan was dead of kennel cough, despite Deng spending £860 in vet fees. Deng must wait at least six months before buying a dog again—her apartment itself is now infected.

After her dog's death, Deng and her friends posted on the WeChat social media site to raise awareness about what she went through. Deng also called the breeder back and pretended she wanted to refer a friend to the mill. The man then told her his full name and the exact address of the site. Deng recorded the phone conversation, and may take the information to police. But she is not optimistic about her chances for retribution. This is just how dogs are bought in China, she said. And besides, the vendor seems to have vanished from Taobao's listings.

"I just wish he [the breeder] would kneel down in front of me and tell me sorry," Deng said. "I don't want money. I just want the mill and the dog markets to shut down."

Photos and additional reporting by That's Beijing editor Stan Aron. Follow Nona on Twitter.