Dead dolphin, dog meat festival rile China’s animal lovers

BEIJING -- For animal lovers in China, the week seemed to bring one discouraging headline after another.

First, tourists in a southern resort reportedly manhandled a stranded dolphin and took photos with it rather than immediately call for help; the mammal later died.

Then, customs authorities announced that they had caught two men trying to smuggle more than 200 bear paws into the country from Russia; the feet are considered a delicacy in some parts of China.


On Friday, the southern city of Yulin went ahead with a dog meat festival, over the objection of activists who complained many of the table-bound canines were abducted strays and pets being slaughtered at unlicensed butcheries.

All three episodes provoked intense attention, both on news websites and on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter; a pro-dog demonstration was even held Thursday in Beijing, with protesters in colorful animal costumes dancing in a plaza in support of the Yulin canines.

The strong reactions illustrated the growing concern for animal welfare among the Chinese populace, heartening animal activists. Yet, at least in the case of the dog meat festival, they also pointed up lingering tensions with those who say new attitudes are threatening some cultural traditions.

“Thousands of dogs will be eaten at a dog meat festival in Yulin,” wrote one Weibo user, Yu Jichun. “As long as such a festival still exists in China, this country can’t start talk about becoming civilized.”

But some in Yulin argued that their longstanding practice of eating dog meat with lychee fruit on the summer solstice is good for health. Xie Pingxiang, deputy director of the Guangxi Traditional Culture Research Institute, said that eating dog meat “is just a traditional habit. It doesn’t break the law and has nothing to do with morality either.”

Grace Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said that in the past two years, the use of social media in China to protest incidents of perceived animal cruelty has skyrocketed. “The online response has been terrific,” she said. “In the past, this kind of outrage usually came from supporters overseas. But now momentum is growing inside China.”

Gabriel noted that more than 100,000 people had signed an online petition condemning dog meat festivals, and that several cities have abandoned such events in recent years as they have attracted negative publicity. “I was kind of surprised that Yulin went ahead this year,” she added. “As more and more people keep dogs as pets, more and more people are against slaughtering them for meat.”

Still, she added, China needs to improve its legal protections for animals, noting that the country lacks legislation to shield “companion animals” such as dogs and cats from abuse, abduction and killing. “There is no law to protect them, other than quarantine laws, which require that animals sent to slaughter have quarantine certificates,” she said.

Song Jinzhang of the China Small Animal Protection Assn. said he traveled to Yulin earlier this week to investigate preparations for the dog meat festival. He said government inspectors accompanied activists from his group on a mission to shut down an illegal dog-slaughtering facility and that 48 dogs were saved. He noted that the government has stopped issuing new licenses for such facilities and will not renew those that expire.

Still, he said, the key is “to try to convince people not to eat dog meat, because that will reduce demand.”

Some observers, however, said the activists’ efforts to condemn the dog meat festival might backfire.

“In the beginning, it might be just a small group of people who are eating dog meat,” wrote one user on Weibo. “But with all this blanketing promotion and PR push by the ‘dog lovers,’ the whole thing has become a huge promotion for a local dog meat industry in Yulin. Many people who never ate dog meat before might want to come to Yulin to give it a try now.”

Though the dog meat festival generated strong debate, reaction to the dolphin incident was much more unified.

“Taking a stranded dolphin out of the water for a photoshoot is not just ignorant, it also shows no empathy toward life,” wrote one Weibo commentator. Said another: “A dolphin is a type of kind and smart animal that everyone loves. Hope the ‘tourist incident’ in Hainan would not happen again. RIP to the little dolphin. Let’s commemorate this lost life.”

Gabriel noted that more Chinese can now afford to travel, “but even if they have a lot of money, their environmental awareness is extremely low.” Citing reports that Chinese tourists in Africa have been caught buying up huge amounts of ivory, she added: “These people are giving China a bad name. As China is trying to build its ‘soft power,’ this is something that the government has to address.”

She and others, though, might be heartened by later reports on the dolphin incident.

Although initial dispatches blamed tourists for interfering with the rescue of the marine mammal, the Hainan Daily, a local government newspaper, subsequently reported that the men who were seen lifting the animal out of the water were in fact lifeguards attempting to save it. (One lifeguard did, however, concede that he and his colleagues snapped photos during the episode.)

Authorities said the animal died partly because there was no marine wildlife rescue center nearby; specialists had to come from Haikou, a four-hour drive, to the beach in Sanya where the dolphin was found.

“We are not professional wildlife rescuers,” lifeguard Chen Zhongcheng told the paper, adding that he felt wrongly disparaged by the media attention. “What we can do is to try to protect the dolphin and prevent tourists from getting close to it and wait for the professional rescuers to come.”


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Tommy Yang in the Times Beijing bureau contributed to this report.