In his book Citizen Canine (PublicAffairs, 2014), science writer David Grimm links the rise of the 19th century and early 20th century movement opposing “animal cruelty” in the U.S. to the then-novel practice of keeping dogs and cats as inside pets, enabled by such recent inventions as flea and tick medicines and kitty litter.China is still a place whose newspapers report that government employees beat unregistered dogs to death on the street and bury alive stray mongrels seen as nuisances. Meanwhile, China’s rising urban middle-class is increasingly embracing pet ownership, spending 7.84 billion yuan ($1.27 billion) on pet care in 2012. Beijing alone is home to more than 1 million pet dogs.
Deborah Cao, an expert on Chinese law at Griffith University in Australia, sees growing pet ownership in China as helping to create a base of middle-class support for anti-animal cruelty campaigns in the country. “There is much greater public concern today in most Chinese cities, especially among young and educated people,” she says. “That is what I called the emerging grassroots animal liberation movement. … I think it has to do with more people having pets, having more contact with animals. And for some it is related to spiritual beliefs, such as Buddhism.”
In a country where citizen groups face intense government scrutiny and often harassment, a recent series of volunteer (or even ad hoc) animal-rights campaigns has made headlines—and scored some surprising victories. Partially in response to citizen-led anti-animal cruelty campaigns, on June 30 China’s Food and Drug Administration ended requirements for mandatory animal testing of domestic cosmetics.
In April, Chinese animal rights activists discovered, with horror, a mass grave of more than 100 stray dogs and puppies apparently buried alive by low-level security officials in Inner Mongolia. The Yinchuan Dawn Animal Home, a local nonprofit, posted photos to China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo, provoking public outrage and more than 18,000 re-tweets. Volunteers excavated the site, saving a handful of dogs and prompting online soul-searching. Wrote one Weibo user: “Life is precious, how could thugs conduct such a massacre?”
In early August, volunteers for the nonprofit Together For Animals In China (TACN) spotted truckloads of stolen dogs, many still wearing collars, on the road to the northern city of Tangshan, presumably to be sold for meat. Mobilizing through social media, hundreds of Chinese dog-lovers were soon driving to help block the trucks, retrieve their stolen pets, or provide water and food for the stricken animals. More than 2,000 dogs were rescued.
“Even though we don’t yet have an anti-animal abuse law in China, we still have some laws that can be used to protect the welfare of animals,” says TACN’s China manager Xiaoli. For instance, in the recent rescue campaign, the dog-nappers were caught with falsified documents for the quarantine and transportation of animals.
According to Jill Robinson, Chief Executive Officer of Hong-Kong based nonprofit Animals Asia Foundation, more than 100 animal welfare groups are now active in China, “working increasingly with provincial government authorities and policy makers on humane population control, rabies and disease prevention, responsible pet management,” and other issues. And the government is tightening enforcement of some existing laws. “Under a new interpretation of the Criminal Law, which includes wildlife consumption, China will also jail people who eat rare animals, such as the panda, golden monkey, Asiatic black bear or pangolin, for 10 years or more,” Robinson explains.
Across China, public attitudes about animal welfare are very much in flux—and often contradictory. “People in China who care and help animals in need are still very small in number, although increasing,” says Cao. “The majority still regard animals of all types as food or tools.”