A woman wheels her pet dog across a street in Shanghai. Aly Song/Reuters

Mary Peng advocates for the welfare of the rapidly growing number of "companion animals" in Chinese cities.

The images were shocking: Truckloads of wire cages jammed with bedraggled dogs, all of them looking like family pets that got caught in the rain. The animals were headed for the Yulin summer solstice festival, an annual event in the southern Chinese city, where they would be killed, skinned, and served as barbecue or hot pot.

Although the festival takes place each year, more and more activists and animal lovers are stepping in to try to prevent the slaughter and consumption of as many as 10,000 dogs.

The festival illustrates the paradox of a changing China: The clash between a traditional culture that celebrates the solstice with eating lychee and dog meat, and the growing middle class that treats the pet pooch as a member of the family.

Animal rights activists hold caged dogs they bought prior to the Yulin festival last June, to keep them from being killed. (Stringer/Reuters)

Some reports say there are as many as 1.2 million registered dogs in Beijing alone (a city of about 22 million), and 10 million in China overall, but that number doesn't include the unregistered dogs, which China would count as strays and confiscate.

Pet ownership is largely an urban practice, in contrast to rural villages, where dogs are still used as guards and to herd sheep. People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published an editorial in June decrying pet ownership and calling it one of the downsides of Western influence.

But in cities, many families with one child lavish additional attention on the family pet. Some older Beijingers walk around the city pushing strollers that hold a dog instead of a tot.

Mary Peng, founder of Beijing's International Center for Veterinary Services, thinks the best approach to ending the practice of killing dogs for meat is to make the conversation about public health.

"We have found it's much more effective to base the argument on science," she says. For the ever-practical Chinese in a country with increasing numbers of food-safety scares, the thought of eating meat that might have come from a dog with rabies or who had been poisoned is a powerful one. The emotional appeal—don't eat Fido!—will come of its own accord as the country's urban middle class grows, Peng thinks.

Peng, a Chinese-American New Yorker who has lived in China since 1991, has an acute sense of how to work the system here. When she adopted a cat not long after her move to the country and discovered that veterinary care for cats was less than ideal, she co-founded her own hospital. Today, ICVS offers boarding, grooming, emergency care, and a steady flow of free lectures on topics such as how to exit China with a pet or the legal requirements related to keeping a dog in Beijing.

In addition, Peng has become Beijing's go-to companion-animal expert, writing a column on pet issues for the English-language Beijinger magazine, serving as a board member of the Jane Goodall Institute in China, and creating a radio program, "Tails from China," on the Radio Pet Lady Network. She's in the process of revising a guide to companion animals to be distributed to Chinese schoolchildren in the city.

And when she's not talking about spaying and neutering feral cats, the hazards of unregulated puppy mills, or China's quarantine regulations for incoming animals, she's pushing to end the practice of dogs as menu items.

"It's one of the last vestiges of a very traditional food culture in China," she says. Cats and dogs are seen as "exotic delicacies" in China's south, and as a warming winter food in the country's north near Korea.

Mary Peng, shown with a little girl and her baby
rabbits.

The health argument strikes a chord, Peng says. "What do you think the chances are of having high-quality, high-grade, disease-free, antibiotic-free meat from animals who are completely off the grid?" she asks. Rabies is present in the dog population in China, and consuming a dog that might have had rabies is a "possible risk," she says.

Jill Robinson, the founder of Animals Asia, a nonprofit that works on everything from bear bile farms to conditions in zoos, says another issue is that many of the dogs have been poisoned so they can be easily snatched. When Robinson first came to China in the 1980s, she found dog farms that raised animals for meat. But farmers realized it was too expensive to prevent disease in the animals, and "it became easier for the trade to steal these dogs," she says.

In dogs recovered from dog markets, "we see licenses faked, dogs wearing collars, who had obviously been socialized into a family home," she says.

This year in Yulin, activists protested the festival as others came to sit at round tables in an alleyway and eat barbecued dog. Newspapers reported that one dog seller threatened to strangle a puppy unless someone bought him on the spot, so activists did.

The rise of social media in China has fueled activism. Ten years ago, the reach of animal-rights activists was "fairly limited," Peng says. "Now we have eyes on the street. If they're riding down the highway and they see a truck with 500 dogs crammed into tiny cages," activists start putting pictures on social media and there is a "huge procession of demonstrators," she says.

(Ironically, all this publicity has had the effect of temporarily letting sellers gouge prices for dog meat.)

In May, the Chinese actress Yang Mi put a much-viewed post on the social media site Weibo. She wrote, "I treat dogs as friends, I don't eat dog meat, and I oppose the use of dog meat as food," and she called for an end to the Yulin festival.

Peng believes that changing attitudes and growth in the practice of keeping a family pet will cause an evolution away from dog-meat cuisine. "I feel so strongly that the moral character of a nation is tied to the way it treats its animals," she says. "If you are kind to the animals, you are kind to each other."

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