Dozens of furious animal rights activists clashed with vendors and customers at the Yulin Dog Meat festival in China's Guanxi Province on Saturday, in a show of solidarity for the thousands of pooches that are slaughtered there each year.
Each summer, thousands of tourists and locals flock to the unofficial festival, held on the eve of the summer solstice to feast on the flesh of an estimated 10,000 dogs carved up for dishes such as dog hotpot. These are accompanied by a side of sweet lychees and ample amounts of booze, as dictated by local tradition.
Yet, even in a country infamous for its vast dietary predilections, growing concerns over public health and animal cruelty has spurned increasing controversy over dog meat festivals taking place in Yulin and other parts of China.
In the lead up to this year's festival in Yulin, local authorities took a giant step back from the event and vowed to crack down on food safety regulations surrounding dog slaughtering practices.
This year, the government also told its employees not to touch dog meat at restaurants and banned all dog imports into the province that had not first passed laboratory testing.
Days before the festival, animal rights activists hounded restaurants, vendors and slaughterhouse owners in the area, and launched several social media campaigns calling for an end to the centuries-old event and customs.
"Some crazy unidentified people broke down the door of our slaughterhouses and stalls and stole our dogs. They are actually the robbers and are breaking the law," the owner of one of the city's most popular restaurants told the South China Morning Post.
Other animal advocates reportedly dug into their own pockets to purchase pups for as much 1,150 yuan ($185) each, while a group of Buddhists from Guangdong, Sichuan and Chongqing provinces recited prayers as they shuffled among hanging dog carcasses at the city's biggest wet market on Wednesday.
On Saturday, the demonstrations culminated in a brawl between angry dog lovers and diners on Yulin's Jiangbin Road, which is lined by multiple restaurants serving dog meat.
One restaurant patron received a bloodied mouth before police broke up the confrontation, according to witnesses.
But shouts and murmurs from the international community, Chinese celebrities and rights groups indicate that not enough is being done legally by the government to cutoff the bloodlines to the black market industry generated by the dog trade business.
"It's an industry characterized by criminality, cruelty and poor hygiene," Jill Robinson, founder and CEO of rights group Animals Asia, said in a statement. "Dogs are stolen from their homes — increasingly by being darted and drugged in the street. Poisons that will find their way into the meals of the festival-goers."
Research conducted by Guangdong-based animal rights group Best Volunteer Center, supported this statement, finding that 99 percent of the dogs at the Yulin festival had been snatched from owners and trucked in from other provinces for illegal sale.
The protests against the festival in recent years have weakened businesses peddling dog meat and diminished the consumption of dog-laced dishes at restaurants and market stalls, according to Chinese media. Yet the event continues.
Locals defending their legal right to consume the animals said they don't want trouble, but also "don't want to give up the most important local customs."
"The dogs we eat are raised by local villagers just like pigs and chicken," one resident, Zhang Bing, told the South China Morning Post. "The summer solstice tradition of eating dog and lychees has been long held in the countryside. It became a festival as more and more dog meat restaurants opened in Yulin in the past decades."
"Yulin people eat dog meat in all seasons, just like Cantonese eat chicken every day and foreigners eat beef," she said.
Animals Asia maintains that the "inhumane" consumption of dog meat under the aegis of culture and tradition is not a viable "excuse for corruption and cruelty."
"The progression of civilization requires culture and tradition to be continuously reviewed," the group said in a statement. "Traditions and customs inconsistent with modern civilization cannot be maintained."
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