Could the barbarity be at an end? It just might according to jubilant animal rights activists, who say this year’s Yulin dog meat festival — where 2,000 to 3,000 canines are rounded up, forced into cramped cages, bludgeoned to death and eaten — has been canceled by authorities in the southern Chinese city.
Citing local sources, campaign groups say the sale of dog meat has been banned from a week prior to the June 21 annual festival, with offenders facing arrest and fines of $15,000. The move was apparently ordered by Yulin’s new Chinese Communist Party Secretary Mo Gong Ming in a bid to reform the city’s image after a sustained international outcry. A petition calling for the festival to be abolished gained 11 million signatures last year.
“Even if this is a temporary ban, we hope this will have a domino effect, leading to the collapse of the dog meat trade,” says Andrea Gung, executive director of Duo Duo Project, an anti-dog and cat meat campaign group. “This ban is consistent with my experience that Yulin and the rest of the country are changing for the better.”
However, it is unclear how any ban can be enforced, especially when the annual festival brings a healthy injection of cash to the city of 7 million. As the event has never been officially sanctioned, some advocates doubt the government’s ability to prevent individuals from partaking.
“Eating dog has been Yulin people’s tradition for quite a long time,” Ms. Tan, the owner of Three-Six Delicious Meat Restaurant in Yulin, tells TIME by phone. “I haven’t heard our government will stop the festival, or stop the selling of dog meat.”
While eating dog and cat has historic cultural roots in China, like many Asian nations, activists say the Yulin festival was only concocted in 2010 by dog meat traders and tenuously linked to the summer solstice. In fact, dog meat is much more common in China’s rural north, even as the nation’s burgeoning urban middle class increasingly keep well-preened pedigrees as pets.
“More people like dogs now, and especially in Beijing a lot have pet dogs,” says housewife Cheng Jie, while walking her four-year-old Pekingese by Beijing’s Houhai Lake. “But because there is rabies, a lot of people are still afraid of dogs and many parents teach their children to be wary of dogs.”
Activists say most of the 10 million dogs and around four million cats killed for meat each year in China are strays and stolen pets. The unregulated nature of the trade helps the spread of rabies and cholera, according to the World Health Organization. China has the second highest number of reported rabies cases in the world, with an average of 2,000 deaths per year for the past 10 years. About 90% of cases are due to dog bites.
“Most dog meat currently on the market doesn’t have a legal certificate,” says Li Weimin, a lawyer based in Beijing who has worked on the legality of dog meat. “It’s hard to tell the enforcement of the new rule in Yulin, but it’s progress. Other cities will watch Yulin closely and may follow its example.”
Even so, economics means the wider dog meat trade will likely continue. Because the majority of dog meat comes from stolen pets, there are no rearing costs, making it much cheaper than pork, chicken or beef, for example. Activists want stricter enforcement on existing prohibitions on the transportation of live animals to stamp out the trade for good.
“The Yulin dog meat festival is not over just yet,” says Peter Li, China Policy specialist at Humane Society International. “But if this news is true as we hope, it is a really big nail in the coffin for a gruesome event that has come to symbolize China’s crime-fueled dog meat trade.”
—With reporting by Yang Siqi / Beijing
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