Lisa Gao, a passionate animal-lover who lives in Guilin in Guangxi province, has watched the recent worldwide effort to end the dog meat festival in Yulin, about 500km to the south, with intense interest.
Every June, about 10,000 dogs are slaughtered in Yulin as part of the celebration marking the summer solstice. This year organisers have been forced to adopt a lower profile after an intense campaign by animal rights groups and lawyers, at home and abroad, who say the tradition promotes animal cruelty. Celebrities including actresses Betty Sun Li and Vicki Zhao Wei posted Weibo messages condemning the practice.
Gao welcomes the activism but feels it suggests, at least to the outside world, dog slaughtering is confined to the festival. For years, she has worked to spread the message it extends far beyond Yulin in June. "More than 1,000 cats and dogs are eaten here in Guilin every day at peak times in the winter and hundreds in the summer," Gao said. "But the outside world has heard nothing about it."
According to statistics compiled by the Humane Society International last year, there are currently about 43 million dogs in China that will end up as food. To local residents and people in the dog meat trade, the recent focus on Yulin is puzzling. Dogs are eaten across the south and in the east, as well as elsewhere in Asia, in South Korea and Vietnam, for example. They argue the trade is no different from poultry or pork. Others might point out that cruel practices can be found throughout the meat industry. Why are dogs more deserving of protection?
Part of the reason dogs have garnered more attention is that our relationship with them has changed. They have been embraced as household pets, and are often treated as a member of the family. We see them as experiencing the same emotions as ourselves, a personification carried further in Disney movies and on television shows that portray them as scamps and heroes.
For many people, especially those in the city, a dog is the only animal they have regular contact with, and eating them is viewed as outdated and unnecessary.
The activist campaign has been gathering steam on the mainland. In September, Animals Asia Foundation tried to persuade mainlanders to stop eating cats and dogs with an advertising campaign that urged: "Be healthy. Say no to cat and dog meat."
For Gao, the dog meat stalls in wet markets across Guilin have been the source of her worst experiences in years of saving animals. They sell a variety of breeds, including ones kept as pets, although the most popular choice is mongrel. The animals are offered both alive and dead.
Gao described the stalls as "living hells", bloody and rank. She guided me through a poultry and livestock market on Thursday. One man paid for a live dog which the seller killed and skinned. Other dogs, some with visible wounds, were squeezed into small cages. "I won't forget the eyes of the [dead] dog lying on the ground," she said. "It's a heartbreaking moment for any animal-lover."
At night, restaurants throughout Guilin tout "signature dog meat". Dozens of tables line a short downtown stretch locals call "dog meat street".
It's served stewed, roasted or sliced up with hot pot. At about 90 yuan (HK$113) a kilogram, the meat is more expensive than pork or beef, but patrons, most of whom are locals, say it's tasty. It warms them on cold days and detoxifies the body in summer.
In Lingchuan county, which is administered by Guilin, dog meat is viewed by the local government and the media as part of the area's cultural heritage, extending back 2,000 years. "Lingchuan dog meat has been used by the county government to attract tourists from other cities in Guangxi," Gao said.
At one slaughtering site in the county, an acrid smell filled the air as dogs packed into cages behind chain-link fences barked and whined. The boss, Yang Baoling, described the slaughter process. He grabs a dog by the neck and hauls it from the cage, pummels its head with a stick, then pulls out a knife to skin it. He throws the body into boiling water, and finally it's chopped up and ready for sale.
"I can sell more than 500kg of dog meat each day in the winter and about 100kg a day in the summer," Yang said. "I buy from rural households and pay 20 yuan a kilogram, which I sell for 70 yuan after the slaughtering and cooking.
"I collect and buy the dogs from nearby villagers. Many local restaurants just buy dogs that have been stolen or abducted from other provinces," he said. "To be honest, there are no local dog farms in Lingchuan even though consumption of dog meat is so big here. It would be expensive to run and it's dangerous to raise dogs in crowded places because of the risk of rabies and other diseases."
Gao said that because of the demand in Guilin, restaurant suppliers must import cats and dogs from other provinces such as Jiangsu , Anhui , Jiangxi and Hunan .
The most famous dog meat restaurant in the county is Jichang. Its walls are covered with photographs showing local officials treating guests.
"Many tourists across Guangxi come here for our dog meat," one employee said. "We also offer vacuum packaging for them. It's the best gift from Lingchuan. Many officials like our products."
The staff member said that if the controversy surrounding the Yulin festival were to spread to Guilin or Lingchuan, the local economy would "undoubtedly" suffer.
One Guilin resident wondered why animal rights activists had focused their campaign on Guangxi. "The tradition is not unique to us. Many other provinces across the country such as Zhejiang , Yunnan , Guizhou , Guangdong, Jiangxi and Jiangsu are known for eating dog meat," the resident said. "Are you ashamed of eating pork or chicken? Why should we be ashamed and stopped from eating dog?"
Gao, for her part, continues to push for an end to the practice. She said most stalls and restaurants selling dog meat lacked the proper food safety permits, and has informed local authorities. "But I have not had a response," she said.