Over the last week, there's been some pretty intense media coverage of China's Dog Meat Festival, which has become something of a tradition over the last two decades. As the name suggests – and much to the dismay of all the people who see dogs as friends rather than food – tens of thousands of dogs are slaughtered and eaten each year at the event, which takes place in the city of Yulin, Guangxi province.
I was in Yulin on Saturday, when locals once again raised glasses loaded with lychee wine to the heavens and tucked into bowls full of freshly roasted, fried and boiled dog.
Pet-lovers across China and the rest of the world have been quick to lament Yulin's apparently boundless appetite for puppy flesh, and several Chinese celebrities have made online pleas to bring the festival to a halt. However, locals are reluctant to give up their annual gathering. When I spoke to one female vendor in the downtown Dong Kou meat market, she told me she’d lost count of the number of dogs she’d sold in the last week but guessed it was well over a hundred a day – business has rarely been better.
Shandai, from animal protection group the Guangdong Shoushan Volunteer Center, reckoned that previous estimations of 10,000 dogs being sacrificed for the festival are too low, claiming the figure is more like 40,000. (Plus 10,000 cats, in case you're not really a "dog person".)
Walking around the city, the presence of animal rights protesters seemed to have resulted in an unapologetic backlash. Locals filling their baskets with freshly chopped paws and tails were defensive over their dog-eating customs, one woman in the market declaring indignantly, “I’m not forcing them to eat dog, so they can't force me to stop.”
“Even more people are eating dog this year," complained Pian Shan Kong, an animal activist from Guizhou who has been observing the festival for three years. "As outsiders come to protest, locals are spurred on to resist.” Kong is currently holding four rescued pups in his Yulin hotel room – the guy who sold him them reportedly got angry when he realised they weren't destined for the dinner plate, and threatened to slice all four open on the spot if Kong couldn't match his inflated asking price.
Dog lover Yang Xiaoyun took it one step further and purchased a total of 300 caged dogs, which she spent 11 hours ferrying back to her hometown in Tianjin. Despite her good intentions, the 90,000 RMB (£8,500) she spent buying them will no doubt continue to feed dog sellers across the region.
China’s dog meat industry is a largely unregulated trade, with activists claiming that the animals are usually stolen pets or strays, posing a health-risk to anyone tucking in. Dog dealers however, insist that the dogs are "tu gou", a type of dog that are mostly bred on farms for their meat, and that the moral objections are therefore no different to eating other cute animals, like lambs.
An attempted demonstration by animal rights activists took place on Saturday outside the Yulin city government building, culminating in a few banners being snatched and quickly torn to shreds. This was followed by an angry exchange of abuse between locals and protesters, before security guards were called on to disperse the crowd.
While the rest of China continues to debate the morality of putting dog meat on their plates, it’s clear that for Yulin residents no puppy dog eyes are going to stop them having their banquet.
As one local proudly pointed out, “If you’re not talking about the World Cup, you’re talking about our festival – that can only be good for our reputation as having the best dog meat in China. In the future, Yulin will become even more famous!”
Isobel was at the Dog Meat Festival shooting a documentary for vice.com. Keep your eyes on the site for its release in the next couple of weeks.
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