Erin O'Dwyer

Journalist, Editor & Storyteller


Animal kingdom

Foist Bear

Photo: Dave Tacon
Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald
November 20, 2012

In China, where dogs and bears have long been treated poorly, activists are finally making progress in their bid to stop the cruelty.

Qiao Wei hesitates for a moment, then opens the cage. The barking, growling pack bursts forth, charging him in a blur of black, tan and sable. They are mongrel dogs – about 200 cross-breeds – and their unkempt coats sprout in bristly patches, gouged with the scars of street fights and mistreatment.

The dogs snarl and Qiao responds sternly, raising his voice in a manner that commands respect. In an instant, the mob quietens and they wag their tails. Only a brindle mutt refuses to obey, rushing forward and biting Qiao’s hand. Qiao shouts at the dog, then glares at it fondly, shaking his head like a benevolent parent.

“Dogs bite out of self-protection,” he explains. “When they first came here, they were aggressive and wanted to attack. Now they have changed and most of them are friendly. You might see the bad side, but I see the good side. We can see the hope, so we want to do the job.”

Shy, quietly spoken and a little plump, 27-year-old Qiao Wei is an unlikely political activist. Yet, like many of his generation, the former computer sales manager is well-educated and tech-savvy – and he is on the crest of a wave bringing social change to China.

Qiao took over the day-to-day running of the Qiming Animal Protection Centre, on the outskirts of Chengdu, the capital of the south-western province of Sichuan and one of China’s largest cities, after his sister, who established the centre, left to get married in 2007. In those five years, Qiao has become a seasoned protester. His family assist in bankrolling the enterprise and he receives donations from concerned citizens and larger non-government organisations. He has helped stop three truckloads of dogs, with about 300 animals in total, from reaching the dog-meat markets in north-eastern China, and has rescued another 600 mutts that were originally sold as pets and then abandoned, often thrown from cars and left for dead.

Qiao has also been bitten a dozen times, bashed on three occasions and threatened with death by the dog traders who live in villages outside Chengdu. After years of pamphleteering outside dog-meat restaurants and staking out slaughterhouses, he has to be careful where he shows his face. “With many of our campaigns, my face will be on TV, so every dog trader knows me,” he says.

It’s surprising to learn that there are no animal-welfare laws in China. Of more concern is that no laws exist to regulate the treatment of farmed animals before their meat hits the dinner table. In an increasingly affluent country in which many young people have never known famine or poverty, more meat is being eaten than ever before. And with China’s population now topping 1.3 billion, that means animal farming on a massive scale.

Yet China’s economic boom has also brought increasing concern about animal welfare. “It is only 20 years since the concept of animal protection began in China,” says animal-rights lawyer Cai Chunhong, speaking in an elegant restaurant in a wealthy part of Beijing. “It was introduced with the process of globalisation and now many young people and elites are beginning to accept it.” In her sophisticated silk dress, Cai appears to inhabit a world far away from the concrete floors and steel cages of Qiao Wei’s animal shelter. However, the concept that animals are chattels, to be exploited at will by human beings, is still accepted and taught at Chinese universities. “Especially among vet majors,” Cai adds. “They study animals just to find out how to best use their meat, their fur, their skin and their oil.”

When it comes to dog meat, the industry is largely opportunistic. Some dogs are still farmed, but raising dogs for meat is expensive. When vaccinations became too costly, dog farmers carried on without them, leading to the wildfire spread of diseases on farms.

Now, much of China’s dog meat comes from ordinary dogs – animals that have been rounded up and shipped off to illegal slaughterhouses. Some are family pets captured by traders with catch poles, some are taken off the street, some are unlovable curs that didn’t sell in pet shops. They are packed together in tiny cages, roped down on the back of trucks, and given no food or water on their long journeys to southern or north-eastern China, where they are slaughtered and their meat on-sold to restaurants.

Food-hygiene laws require that chicken, beef and pork meat going to market must be inspected, Cai explains. But when it comes to dog meat, there’s no such requirement.

The Chinese will tell you dog meat is mostly eaten in the south, in the provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi and Guizhou, or in the north-east, in provinces such as Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning. But the truth is that dog meat is widely available in China. It’s found year-round, across the country, in both high-end restaurants – where it is sold as a delicacy – and in cheap eateries, where it is served alongside chicken, beef and pork. In addition, in traditional Chinese medicine it is considered a tonic, to be taken in winter to warm the body and protect against illness.

Historically, it has been a readily available source of nutrition, on hand during times of war, siege and famine. And when it comes to eating dog meat, the Chinese have no preference for different breeds, though traders prefer larger animals simply because they yield more meat.

After the Chinese revolution of 1949, the Red Army slaughtered hundreds of thousands of dogs, in accordance with Chairman Mao Zedong’s decree that keeping pets was “bourgeois”. Ironically, Mao frowned upon eating dog, though it was not enough to stop the practice in its tracks.

The West’s revulsion at eating dog meat is no doubt due to the fact that dogs were among the first animals to be domesticated, and have long been regarded as companion animals. Activists in China are drawing on the same thinking to support their cause. “Friend, not food” is their slogan of choice.

“Though China’s economy is developing very fast, Chinese ideology still lags behind,” says Cai Chunhong. “Animal protection is an integral part of a country’s civilisation, ethics and culture, so there must be some improvement to our animal protection laws.”

Supersonic change is happening everywhere in China. The profound shift in attitudes towards animal welfare may be little more than a happy accident, yet veteran campaigners are watching on, amazed and excited.

A series of stunning government backdowns – all a direct result of public concerns about animal cruelty – has protesters feverish with anticipation that animal-welfare laws may finally be introduced. Last October, an American-style rodeo – due to be held in Beijing’s famous Bird’s Nest stadium – was banned after 71 different animal welfare groups wrote an open letter in protest. In May, a British producer shelved plans to open what would have been the world’s biggest foie gras farm in China. And in July, the Chinese government announced it would stop serving shark fin soup at official banquets, despite its consumption being a symbol of high status in Chinese culture. The practice of finning – in which the shark’s dorsal fin is removed and the shark is left to die at sea – has made this dish especially controversial.

Calls to ban the dog-meat trade are growing stronger, as more and more Chinese keep dogs as pets. A watershed moment occurred on April 15 last year – “the 4.15 incident”, as animal activists call it – when a truckload of dogs was spotted on the Jinghu expressway outside Beijing. An animal lover posted the truck’s location online and within hours a flash mob had formed. More than 100 young people surrounded the truck, stopping it in the middle of the road, rescuing 500 sick, dehydrated and dying dogs en route to slaughterhouses in the north-east.

Now, almost every week, dog-meat trucks are tracked and stopped. Each time, activists rally supporters through Weibo (China’s hybrid version of Facebook and Twitter, both of which are blocked by the government). After each truck is spotted, Weibo goes berserk. “We use the internet to spread the news of the rescue, what materials we need and whether we need money,” says Qiao Wei. “We also post photos of the dogs to find their original owners.”

In the Beijing office of Hong Kong-based charity Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), a young engineering graduate turned animal activist, Danny Fang, taps away at his smart phone. “The iPhone can do anything,” he says, grinning at me. He searches “dog meat restaurant” and “Beijing”, and instantly a dozen red flags pop up on the map. We drive to one in the middle of the city and find it busy long before the lunch crowd is due. There are 17 different dog-meat dishes on the menu: dog tail, dog skin, dog kidneys, dog with tofu, dog with spices, dog soup and dog cooked in a hot pot. The dog is twice the price of other meat dishes. A delicacy, as Fang observes sagely.

The manager is evasive when asked where the meat has come from. Fang wants to peddle his message – that dogs are friends, not food, and eating dog meat is unsafe – but he has forgotten his flyers. He gets his chance at a table of rowdy, 50-something men, pink-faced from beer. He’s preaching to the converted: none of them is eating dog meat.

One man tells us that it is too warm for dog meat, which is usually eaten only after autumn begins. “But it’s been many years since we ate dog meat,” he says, on behalf of his friends. “We don’t eat it now because we think dogs are not to be eaten.”

In nearly 30 years of campaigning, English animal rights activist Jill Robinson has never seen anything like the changes happening now. “It’s such a vocal outpouring,” says the Hong Kong-based Robinson, who founded AAF in 1998. “When I first started, there weren’t even the words for animal welfare [in Mandarin]. Now they’re tripping off the tongues of government officials.”

Robinson, who is also the AAF’s CEO, is the slick end of the animal-rights campaign. Her well- connected foundation, which receives most of its funding from private donors, has offices in seven countries and provides backroom support to the new breed of grassroots activists; it gives backing, for example, to the Qiming Animal Protection Centre. Two decades ago, there were just three animal-welfare groups in China. Now there are more than 100.

Robinson mentions how young animal activists now flash-mob on the streets. They dress in dog costumes or lock themselves in cages, then happily smile for the news cameras. In one incident, dozens of students holding placards and wearing animal-face masks protested at a meat market in Changchun, in the north-eastern province of Jilin. In another, also in Changchun, protesters and their children donned furry, striped animal ears.

“We would never have seen anything like this five years ago,” says Robinson. “You simply weren’t allowed to demonstrate on the streets [in mainland China] but, for some reason, the authorities are tolerating demonstrations related to animal welfare. It’s very, very empowering.”

Of course, flash mobs are just the window dressing. Stopping the dog-meat trucks is the real deal, winning protesters serious political influence and credibility among officials and police. “Years ago the police wouldn’t bother to confiscate the dogs,” says Robinson. “The driver would slip the police a few dollars and be on his way. Now the dog traders realise they have got a very intelligent force working against them.”

Every time Robinson speaks to Good Weekend she’s hard at work. During a reconnaissance at a market, she’s scoping for the presence of dog meat cages in darkened backrooms. At an animal shelter, she’s inspecting the rescued dogs, looking for placid candidates who might be adopted out to overseas supporters. And at a care facility for the intellectually disabled, she’s overseeing an animal-therapy session, a program called Dr Dog which she first introduced in Hong Kong in the early 1990s.

In China, whole rooms go quiet when a question is too politically charged, so animal activists refer to themselves as “volunteers” and even the most hardened campaigners decline to consider their work “political”. Robinson describes animal liberation as a kind of soft political activism, a way of opening up a conversation on other issues that have been less palatable to the Chinese government.

“Probably the animal rights issue is something that has been easier to address,” she says. “It’s less controversial and it shows the authorities becoming much more responsible. I think it’s showing them a way to deal with other issues as well.”

With a mop of shaggy blonde curls and clipped British tones, Robinson runs her foundation with Farrah Fawcett charisma and Princess Diana diplomacy. She divides her time between Hong Kong and Chengdu, where she regularly plays host to wealthy donors. Support has come from a number of Australian celebrities, including entertainer Olivia Newton-John and chef Simon Bryant.

Robinson’s main passion is the moon bear. Her live-in quarters at the China Bear Rescue Centre in Chengdu are cheerfully decorated with all manner of ursine paraphernalia: stuffed bears, bears on cushions, bear posters, bear books, bear figurines.

The treatment of the moon bear in China is particularly distasteful. Farmed for their bile, the bears are kept in tiny individual cages and “milked” once or twice a day. In traditional Chinese medicine this bile is believed to improve eyesight, protect the liver, prevent gallstones and reduce inflammation but a growing number of traditional doctors assert that synthetic products, or even herbs, are a better alternative.

In the past, bears have worn 10-kilogram metal jackets to stop them from removing the rubber milking pipes fitted into their abdomen. Now, a more “humane” treatment is in place: a hole or fistula is created in the bear’s abdomen to enable bile to drip freely from the gall bladder into a bowl placed beneath their cage. Bears may be milked for bile for a year or two. In some horrific cases bears have been milked for up to 30 years – the better part of their life expectancy.

Monica Bando, the experienced vet director at the China Bear Rescue Centre, breaks down as she explains how a section of the small intestine is removed to create the fistula. “I’m sorry, it’s a very emotionally charged issue,” says Bando, a vet of Japanese-Norwegian heritage who has worked around the world. “You’re removing otherwise healthy intestines in an otherwise healthy bear to create an extraction site for no other purpose than to harvest bile, which is not necessary. It’s a huge cruelty.”

Official figures put the number of bear farms at 68, but the real number could be well over to 100. As many as 10,000 bears are suspected of being held in farms in China, though there are fewer than 16,000 left in the wild. The larger farms hold as many as 2000 or 3000 bears.

Incredibly, in March, “bear farming” was the second most Googled phrase in China, behind only Jeremy Lin, the Asian-American basketball star. This awareness is largely thanks to the work of Shenzhen investigative journalist Xiong Jun Hui. Her undercover documentary on bear farming was posted online in February and was watched by over 1.3 million people within days of its release.

To film the stomach-turning treatment of the bears, Xiong Jun Hui posed first as a tourist, then later as a bear-bile buyer, using hidden cameras. “It was very risky, but it was worth it,” she says. “I was surprised not only because there were so many hits, but also because of the feedback from the people. They are thinking about whether the development of the economy should be at the cost of animal welfare.”

Officially, the Chinese government is “working towards” ending bear farming. Yet every year the China Bear Rescue Centre takes in more bears. Many are missing paws or limbs, either because they have been illegally trapped in the wild, or because their paws have been removed and sold on the black market, to be used for medicine or prepared as a delicacy.

Many bears kept at the centre have spent decades in captivity, and many have large liver cancers due to the stress placed on their bodies. It’s an issue that has Jill Robinson close to tears. “We’ve been on this since the first day I walked into a bear farm in 1993,” she says. “We have the agreement [with the Chinese government] to ‘work towards’ the final elimination of bear farming but it’s just too open-ended. ‘Working towards’ could mean anything – months, years or decades.”

Despite her frustration, Robinson believes real, and rapid, progress is at last being made. “I was getting very despondent a few years ago,” she admits. “But it’s turned around so dramatically in the past few years. At last everything that we’ve put into the movement is showing benefits.”