A truck packed full of several hundred dogs in dingy cages was rambling down the Beijing-Harbin Expressway in China late in the day on August 3, 2014. Its destination was Jilin, in northeastern China, one of the country’s major dog meat markets.
An advocate against killing dogs for meat spotted the truck and began live-blogging her location. Soon some 30 people were trailing the truck down the highway, and in short order local police flagged down the driver. Eating dog meat isn’t against the law, but it is illegal to transport them without health certifications—and this driver had paperwork (later found to be falsified according to the New York Times) for only 110 of the 400 dogs.
Still, the driver wasn’t ready to give up the dogs. Negotiations began. More volunteers showed up and started giving the dogs food, water, and medicine. Meanwhile volunteers on their way to the scene spotted four more trucks carrying dogs. They surrounded those trucks too, stopping them until authorities arrived.
In the end more than 2,400 dogs were rescued that day. Thousands of people came from around the country to help find shelter for the dogs. Some families even recovered their pet dogs who had been stolen. Within days, all but 30 of the dogs had homes.
China is often in the news for its role in driving the exploitative and sometimes illegal trades in animals and their parts, from dog meat to tiger bone, bear bile, and shark fin. Elephant ivory is one of the biggest—each year, some 30,000 elephants are killed in Africa to meet demand for ivory, mainly in China, where it’s carved into intricate works of art, jewelry, and tchotchkes.
But it’s increasingly common to hear these stories highlighting compassion toward animals, both domestic and wild, such as this dog rescue. It wasn’t the first or the last time dogs have been rescued en route to slaughter in China, but this was one of the biggest. Chinese animal advocates and nonprofit organizations have been working for years to end the slaughter.
“It’s just amazing,” says Peter Li, a professor at University of Houston-Downtown and China policy specialist at Humane Society International. “You don’t hear about this in Korea,” where dog meat is arguably more popular.
It’s easy to see China as the bad guy when it comes to protecting animals. But in reality the country is also home to a robust and rapidly growing animal protection movement that encompasses both animal welfare and efforts to fight wildlife poaching and trafficking.
In 1992, Li says, there was only one registered animal protection organization that attended the annual conference put on by the Humane Society and Animals Asia, another NGO. In 2006 there were a handful more. Now, according to Li, at least 200 registered organizations are advocating for animal welfare and wildlife protection—not counting the hundreds of animal shelters and rescues that have also sprung up.
Mary Peng is the founder of one of those groups, the International Center for Veterinary Services, the first such facility in China up to international standards. She founded the hospital after a health scare with her cat Boo Boo in 2002 led her to discover that China Agricultural University was virtually the only animal hospital in Beijing, and even they didn’t have the resources to adequately care for her cat.
“It was pretty desperate,” Peng says. “As a pet owner, before ICVS opened, we had no resources. We had no choices.” Now she estimates that Beijing has about 400 animal hospitals and clinics. It’s still not enough for the area’s 22 million residents, she says, but a whole lot better than none.
According to Li and others, the changes are being driven by China’s younger generation in coastal metropolitan cities. “Because of the rising living standards, people are no longer obsessed with getting food on the dinner table,” Li says. That combined with more exposure to international media gives them time to turn their attention to new issues, like animal protection.
Another driving factor? A new definition of wealth. The older generation is fixated on ivory as the ultimate status symbol, Li says. In Chinese the word for ivory is xiangya, meaning “elephant tooth,” which has led many to believe erroneously that ivory can be taken from an elephant without inflicting harm. The nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare did polling in 2007 in China that found that 70 percent of respondents didn’t realize an elephant had to be killed to take its ivory.
Younger Chinese are more likely to be aware that ivory comes only from a dead elephant, and knowing that makes it less desirable to them.
“Some [Chinese] people believe wealth should be shown by what they have, what they wear,” Li says, “But there is a growing trend among the younger generation to not define wealth by materials terms.”
Another sign of changing times: China is set to close down its domestic ivory market, widely believed to be the biggest in the world and responsible in large part for driving Africa’s elephant poaching crisis.
“It’s exciting news,” says Toby Zhang of AITI Foundation for Animal Protection in Beijing. But, he contends, the decision to ban the domestic ivory trade was a special case, more of a political move than to help stop elephant poaching.
Similarly, a crackdown on corruption has also helped spur changes. Sales of shark fin, for example, have dropped 70 percent in recent years. Shark fin soup is a luxury item often served at banquets used to curry favor with government officials. This practice has been restricted by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. As many as 100 million sharks are killed each year, some of which are threatened or endangered species, mostly for meet demand in China for shark fin soup. This crackdown has also affected bird’s nest soup and other wildlife delicacies.
Both Li and Peng emphasize that it’s the younger generation who will change how animals are treated and protected. Take the issue of traditional medicine: Many older Chinese turn to treatments using wildlife parts to cure ailments from arthritis to fevers to ulcers. Peng recalled how when she moved to China, her father asked her to bring back tiger bone wine, an elixir believed to impart strength.
“Now we’re starting to realize with evidence-based medicine that these products—bear bile, tiger bone, ivory shavings, pangolin scales—have no true medicinal value. There are already other products that can provide the same benefits,” Peng says. “A lot of these myths are rooted in deep traditional cultures, and it’s going to take generational change for these beliefs to be overcome.”
Children are also learning more in schools about animal care, wildlife, and conservation. Because of China’s one-child policy, parents often defer to them, Peng says. These children are sometimes called “little emperors” and “little empresses” for the power they can exert over their parents.
“Especially if they are little emperors and empresses, they have tremendous familial impact. If Grandma and Grandpa say, ‘Let’s have shark fin soup for a special Chinese New Year meal, the kid will say, ‘But sharks are endangered, and we shouldn’t be eating their fins.’” Peng says. “If that one child starts to protest, you better believe the whole family gives in. That’s how it works here. The kid is the epicenter of life. They wield enormous influence.”
Once people learned about how elephants are shot by poachers who hack their tusks off their faces, they became “painfully aware” of the role that the ivory trade plays in elephants’ decline and changed their attitudes about ivory.
The rising number of pets in China’s cities also appears to be a big driver of change. Until recently pet dogs in China were practically unheard of. During the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, animals that didn’t serve a purpose weren’t welcome because they took up valuable food resources, Peng says. The revolution’s backlash against the bourgeoisie also contributed—nothing was more bourgeois, she adds, than a “little lapdog plaything.”
After 1976, as China emerged from the revolution, views of dogs plummeted further. A rabies epidemic in China from 1980 to 1990 left about 50,000 people dead, almost all of whom were infected by dogs. There were no vaccines for dogs or people, and hospitals were barely functioning. Beijing banned pet dogs.
It was only in 1993, after the ban was lifted, that dogs began to claw back their reputation. Peng recalls waking up early to go and visit with the first pet dogs in Beijing, who were only allowed on the streets for walks before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m.
“I saw the first five Pekingese hit the street—it was like seeing a dinosaur!” she says. But change is coming fast. Now Beijing has five-star pet-friendly hotels, restaurants will bring a dish of water for the dog, and massive online communities of owners gather for dog-friendly group adventures, like a walk along the Great Wall.
This radical change not only explains the growing resistance to dog meat but is also part of the reason people are seeing wildlife differently.
“This is the front line of introduction to animals,” Peng says.
“The growing number of pet owners means increasing voices for animal protection,” Zhang says. Having a positive experience with a pet makes people more likely to be compassionate toward all animals, domestic and wild. “However, loving animals may not necessarily lead to the right attitude towards animals, and sometimes extreme expressions by animal lovers have a negative impact.”
You don’t have to look far for examples. Pizza the polar bear, who lived in a cramped indoor enclosure at a mall in Guangzhou, entertained shoppers daily for years. It may also explain the growing number of marine parks and the new orca breeding center, which comes at a time when many other countries are shutting down such operations.
“Today a lot of Chinese people are still very interested in the whole idea of seeing animals in captivity,” Taison Chang, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, told National Geographic in March.
“People are naturally curious and want to learn more about the animals,” Peng says. “We must find a balance where animals kept in captivity for research and education purposes are provided with adequate space, enrichment, and appropriate diets.”
Zhang isn’t as hopeful as Peng about the rate of change in China, but he is noticing differences.
“A few weeks ago, when I went to visit the Forbidden City, I saw a pair of huge ivory tusks exhibited,” he says. “A very young couple saw them too, and the girl said, ‘How cruel it is.’ I knew at that time that I’m not alone.”