Picture this: you’re an international animal rescuer and welfare advocate, tasked with documenting one of the most egregious forms of animal cruelty on the planet – the dog and cat meat trade. You’ve arrived in Yulin, China, a sub-tropical city located in the Guangxi province, a notorious hotbed for pet meat consumption. It’s your very first trip to this magnificent country, but you won’t be doing any sightseeing. Instead, you’ll be attending the city’s 5th annual summer solstice lychee and dog meat “festival,” a barbaric event held every June that attracts thousands of people seeking to celebrate the season by feasting on heaping plates of dog meat and lychee fruit.
As a 20-year cruelty investigator and front-line rescuer in the U.S., you’ve seen your fair share of brutality against animals, yet you know that what you’re about to witness is the stuff of nightmares, visions that will probably haunt you for the rest of your life. But you must put your emotions aside. Your mission is to document what you see and bring it to the world while supporting Chinese activists fighting to end the festival, and the trade.
You’re Adam Parascandola, director of animal protection and crisis response for Humane Society International, and this is the story of your experience at the Yulin dog meat festival – the good, the bad and the very, very ugly.
It was 3:30 in the morning on June 22, the opening day of the festival. Tipped off by activists that a large truck has arrived at Dongkou Market and was unloading dogs at one of the slaughterhouses, Adam and his cohorts – a Chinese activist, an AP photographer and a New York Times reporter – raced to the scene (read the compelling NYT article here). In an attempt to throw off animal activists who have been protesting the festival with increasing fervor each year, the Yulin government had instructed butchers to go from slaughtering dogs out in the open during the daytime to concealing their gruesome activities under the cover of darkness or behind closed doors, Adam explained.
“By the time we got there the truck was mostly unloaded and the slaughterhouse had moved all the dogs into a large pen, where they were standing three or four deep on top of each other,” he said. “The area where they were actually doing the killing was hidden behind a wall, so we didn’t see that part but what I did see and document on video was this man who goes into the pen with a big stick and just starts beating the dogs. They believe frightening the animals improves the meat in some way. The dogs were screaming, trying to get away and get out of the cage – it was a really heartbreaking scene.”
He continued, “It took (the butchers) 20 minutes to realize they could just shut the door in our faces, which they did, but we could still hear the dogs. The local government had been claiming that these slaughters weren’t occurring at the festival, so we felt it was very important to document that they were actually killing dogs onsite.”
At this point in our interview I just had to ask – how does he do it? How does someone who loves animals and has dedicated his life to helping them emotionally handle such horrendous cruelty and suffering?
“It’s definitely different because although I’ve been in this field for about 20 years, most of my work has been in the U.S. where (animal cruelty) is illegal already,” he said. “Although it was kind of like going to a factory farm or a slaughterhouse, which is really tough, for me it was especially hard because there’s nothing you can do to help those animals at that moment. So in cases like that I just try to focus on the long-term, that this is going to help make things better for animals in the future, and that because the animals can’t speak for themselves we have a responsibility to be there and witness it. I also tell myself that it’s going on whether I’m there to see it or not. The slaughterhouse was very tough and it was definitely emotional in the moment but because I’ve done this for so long I sort of just push through and focus on the work. Not that the emotions don’t come up later.”
As the day progressed, Adam and his team – now joined by local and international media and activists from Vshine Animal Protection Group – continued documenting the festival while making sure to move together as a group for safety reasons. While some butchers expressed their displeasure at being filmed by throwing boiling water at the activists, Adam said he never felt that his life was in danger. As a foreigner in a city not accustomed to international travelers, if anything he felt like more of a curiosity than an object of anyone’s vitriol.
“It could be intimidating because these folks surround you and they’re taking pictures but I could sense that it wasn’t really hostile against us,” Adam said. “(The butchers and locals) definitely harassed the Chinese activists and the ones who come to buy dogs – there were scuffles that broke out with them. But nobody interfered with my documenting or with any of the other photographers at the live market.”
And for an animal lover, that market was pure hell on earth: thousands of ill-fated dogs and cats of all sizes, ages and breeds languishing in tiny, filthy cages, simply waiting to die. Whether by truck, bicycle or moped, most had been transported over long distances under horrific conditions and deprived of food and water, so they appeared stressed, traumatized, even sickly. Worst of all, many seemed to be former pets.
“That was important to see because dogs being stolen for the meat trade is a real problem in China,” Adam said. “You can definitely recognize it – I saw a Dalmatian and a Chow at one point and many dogs wearing collars.”
Although much of the country’s populace has turned away from the gruesome culinary “tradition,” it’s estimated that as many as 10 million dogs and four million cats are eaten annually in China. But as the divide grows between older generation dog meat traders and younger generation Chinese animal activists who want the trade to stop, clashes between activists and dog meat traders are becoming more and more commonplace, making events like Yulin a veritable battleground in China’s burgeoning animal rights movement.
“This isn’t a traditional festival that’s gone on for hundreds of years,” Adam explained. “Five or six years ago the dog meat traders felt that their market was declining, so they came up with the idea of an annual festival to drum up business. The local government initially thought by sponsoring it they could help bring tourism to Yulin, which completely backfired, so they quickly backed away and said they weren’t going to be involved. There was a lot of confusion this year because the government said there was no festival, which basically meant that they had pulled their sponsorship, but it’s not like they were taking action to make sure it wasn’t occurring.”
The good news is that this festival of torture may be on its last legs. For the past four years, domestic and international activists as well as animal lovers throughout the world have become increasingly vocal in their outrage and opposition to the gory event, calling upon the local government and the Chinese public to end dog and cat-eating in China and the cruel practices inherent in the unregulated trade. All that unwelcome global attention and criticism appears to have had an impact, reducing a once bustling event known to take the lives of 10,000 dogs and cats to a smaller, more subdued gathering with fewer traders, stalls and animals.
“At last year’s festival you could see rows and rows of booths selling dog carcasses but this year there were maybe two or three vendors,” Adam said. “(The local government) also banned the outdoor tables, which meant people had to wait longer to get into the restaurants, and it rained. But I believe all the massive attention and condemnation is the reason the festival was so drastically reduced this year.”
Thanks to the magic of social media, much of that massive attention and condemnation was fueled by hundreds of thousands of animal lovers, including celebrities such as Ricky Gervais, flooding domestic and international social media sites with online petitions, awareness campaigns and messages condemning both the festival and the trade.
“The response from people and the media was greater than we ever could have hoped for,” Adam said. “Although we have yet to see how effective (social media activism) will be with the Chinese government, I feel like we’re seeing new people coming to the movement in China. Many of them didn’t know about Yulin before this, so I think (social media has) been really helpful in bolstering those individuals who oppose the trade and letting them know that they’re not fighting this battle alone, that there are many people around the world who support their efforts.”
Although Adam said he will never forget what he witnessed at Yulin, he has since been busy laying the groundwork for a more humane China. Just last month, he returned to the country to help HSI launch China Animal Protection Power (CAPP), a command center in Dalian, China that provides financial support and training for Vshine and other animal activists dedicated to intercepting, rescuing, sheltering and adopting out companion animals seized from meat trucks. Since Yulin the task force has rescued more than 1,400 dogs, Adam boasted.
Caption: VShine means “a small light of kindness that brings great change.”
Heartened by so many young and passionate Chinese citizens who have taken it upon themselves to challenge their country’s antiquated attitudes toward animals and improve China’s reputation as a developing and progressive nation, Adam said he does see a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the end of the pet meat trade.
“It’ll be telling to see what happens between this year and next year, and whether the festival goes on in terms of the Yulin government’s reaction to this kind of intense scrutiny and pressure,” Adam said. “China is very different from South Korea in that there is a huge movement within the country to end the consumption of dog and cat meat. Even though the rise in pet ownership is relatively new, I think it’s more established in China than in Korea and the activists are extremely dedicated. I strongly believe that we will see the end of the dog and cat meat trade in Asia in the next decade…and I suspect that China will lead the way.”
I certainly hope so. Human beings are slow to change, and those who make their living off the backs of animal exploitation aren’t likely to surrender their livelihoods willingly. So while I agree we may indeed see an end to the dog and cat meat trade in the near future, it won’t come without a long, ugly fight. Which led me to my next question – how does Adam stop himself from hating those people – not to mention entire cultures – who support and condone such heinous cruelty?
“It’s hard not to feel anger when you see someone beating dogs the way that I witnessed at Yulin,” Adam admitted. “But undercover investigations at U.S. factory farms have shown us an equal amount of callous disregard for the suffering of animals, so I don’t think cruelty is cultural in that sense. I think that anyone employed in an industry that depends on cruelty has to dehumanize the animals on some level or they wouldn’t be able to continue doing their job. This dehumanization unfortunately often leads to even greater cruelty and an antagonistic attitude towards the animal in question – it’s a product of industries that thrive on exploitation. As for the population who consumes dog meat, much like the rest of the world, most choose to shield themselves from the horror and cruelty that has brought the meat to them and remain ignorant of the true suffering caused by the trade. Cultures, much like individuals, evolve over time and heinous acts that long ago didn’t cause people to bat an eye would be greeted with revulsion if witnessed today.”
He went on, “Though I am appalled by cruelty and hate the actions of these individuals, that doesn’t lead me to hate the individual or the culture. Anyone who lives a life that involves engaging in cruelty on a daily basis is an individual who is deprived of the joy and contentment of celebrating the beauty of the creatures we share the earth with. On some level they are hurting themselves and navigating the world in an unskilled manner that causes suffering (except for the few true psychopaths who aren’t affected by the suffering of others) and they deserve our compassion, as well. Were they to open their hearts to this compassion they would surely abandon these practices. We have seen people make this transformation in their lives and turn away from cruelty, whether toward animals or humans, and to compassion. We all have that capacity.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m truly grateful that we have incredible individuals like Adam Parascandola fighting the good fight in the effort to create a kinder, more compassionate world for animals everywhere. He is a true voice for the voiceless. Thank you, Adam.
To learn more about the dog meat trade in China, check out this excellent CNN article.
Want to see this cruel trade come to an end? Please support HSI and their incredible anti-dog and cat meat campaigns by visiting their donation page.
“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” – Mahatma Gandhi