I’d been given the opportunity to save two dogs and two cats from being butchered alive, but it felt like an impossible choice. Then I spotted the ragged white and black cat clambering high up the cage wall. With every step, he meowed louder, as if pleading with me to get him out of there.I’ve visited many dog and cat slaughterhouses in China in my role with Humane Society International, which aims to protect animals worldwide from unnecessary suffering, as millions of dogs and cats are killed annually across the country for the meat trade. They are mostly stolen pets still wearing collars when they are crammed onto trucks and driven for days without food or water to the slaughterhouse.
Many dogs are hanged from trees as a cheap method of slaughter (Picture: AFP/Getty Images) Former restaurant owner Khieu Chan watches Four Paws team members rescue dogs from a facility in Takeo province (Picture: AFP/Getty Images) A woman prepares dog meat for customers at a slaughterhouse in Siem Reap (Picture: AFP/Getty Images)Four Paws initially met with the owner of the slaughterhouse who said he was desperate to get out of the business.
By the time they reach their destination, many have already died from suffocation or dehydration. They are the lucky ones. What awaits the survivors is heart breaking.
They will be beaten and their cage mates will scatter in the slaughter pen to escape, skidding on the floor awash with blood. These terrified, emaciated, former pets will be traumatised by the time it’s their turn to die.It was in one such slaughterhouse I found myself, in the suburbs of Yulin in southern China, and where I was asked to make a terrible choice.
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It was a month before the start of the notorious Yulin dog meat festival , when thousands of dogs and cats are slaughtered and consumed in an annual event that has been taking place since 2009.
In May, the backstreet slaughterhouses are quieter than during the festival, so I was identifying a few key places to return to during the macabre festivities in June, in a bid to rescue as many of these poor creatures as we could from such an awful fate.
As I walked inside one, I was hit by the stench of death. It was a killing factory for dogs and cats. The floor was littered with entrails, fur and flesh. The instruments of butchery lay around, a de-hairing drum and a vat of boiling water in the corner.
The slaughterman, a cigarette hanging from his lips, nodded at me to sit while he answered my questions, such as where the dogs came from and how business was going in general.
The slaughter workers had been hired not too long before so they didn’t connect me with the protests against the Yulin festival that had happened, they just thought I was being curious.
When we were done talking, I asked him if he felt sorry for the animals at all. My face must have betrayed my upset as I gazed at the cats yowling loudly, skinny and sickly, because suddenly he started shouting, saying I had two minutes to pick two cats and two dogs, and then I should leave.
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For a second I froze. How could I possibly choose who should live and who should die? That’s when I saw the black and white cat, staring directly into my eyes as he clawed his way up the cage.
‘Let me have him,’ I said to the slaughterman, who to my horror grabbed the cat by the neck with huge iron tongs and began to yank him away. I hurriedly fetched the cat, noticing another one at my feet. It was ginger and white and looked absolutely petrified. Trying not to appear emotional, I told the slaughterman, ‘he’s coming with me too.’
Then I saw two small dogs huddled together in the crowded dog pen, one black and white and his brown companion, wide eyed and afraid. I pointed at them, unable to meet the eyes of the other dogs. I knew it would break me.
Accompanied by local Yulin activists, we moved as fast as possible before the slaughterman could change his mind.The black and white cat we later named Huru, and the ginger one Yulu; the black and white dog we called Ricky, after our supporter Ricky Gervais, and his little brown friend we called Tom.
They looked so tiny and vulnerable, and had come so close to death. Both Huru and Yulu were wearing collars, so I figured two families somewhere were missing their furry friends. Ricky and Yulu now live in the United States. Ricky even visited Capitol Hill with HSI to help us lobby for a US ban on the dog meat trade. But Huru will always have a special place in my heart, as the cat who begged to be rescued just at the right time.
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Huru is now the most spoiled cat in the world, living his best life in the UK, snoozing in cardboard boxes and open drawers. His human Jane regularly sends me photos and I’m thrilled to see him looking so happy, his fur now fluffy and brilliant white, so different from the bedraggled cat I rescued.
Sadly, Tom never made it. Despite our best efforts, he never recovered from the trauma, but at least he passed away surrounded by kindness.
The faces of dogs and cats I have been unable to save over the years still haunt me . It can take you to a very dark place if you let it. There was one black dog in particular I will never forget who looked utterly broken, and I didn’t get to her. I have said sorry to that dog in my mind so many times. It’s hard to think about.
I’ve been back to China many times since. Thanks to the help of Chinese animal activists, hundreds more dogs and cats have been saved. Their happy endings spur me on to fight for change. As I write this, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the city of Shenzhen has just passed a ground-breaking ban on dog and cat meat consumption, the first of its kind in mainland China. It truly could be a watershed moment in efforts to end the brutal trade, and spare cats like Huru and Yulu, and dogs like Ricky and Tom, from such torment.
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