The scene is repeated countless times a day in this wholesale market in the southern city of Guangzhou, where dozens of animals — from ordinary domestic pets to exotic creatures such as civet cats — are destined for the the dinner table.
Trucks arrive stacked high with scores of cages packed with dogs who have not been fed or watered for days ahead of their slaughter.
Dogs, more than anything else, seem to be a staple in this part of China, where consumers believe their meat helps to keep them warm during winter. But public awareness of the practice — and opposition to it — is beginning to grow.
A Chinese current affairs magazine shocked its readers last month when it published a picture of the market showing dogs crammed into a cage. It was flooded with letters from readers decrying the brutal nature of the trade.
Experts also fear the close contact between humans and wild animals in such markets could help unknown viruses jump the species barrier and spark deadly epidemics, such as the SARS outbreak earlier this year.
Some scientists believe the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus jumped to humans from civet cats, and some Chinese press reports have traced the origin of the epidemic to one of the many wild animal markets in Guangdong.
Despite the fears and anger, the trade is thriving.
"It is a very tough and unpleasant work. But I have no choice. I either do this or go hungry," said Ah Shui, a migrant laborer who has worked at the market for three years. As he speaks, two tiny pink bundles fall onto the ground from the truck. Upon closer inspection, they turn out to be pups, hairless, with eyes still shut.
Hanging from a nearby ceiling are a handful of freshly plucked dogs. Using a brush, a young woman paints them with sweet barbecue sauce before roasting them with an open flame.
"They cost four yuan a catty (US$0.50 for 1.3 pounds), but that will double when it starts getting very cold," said one worker.
In Hong Kong, animal rights lobby group Animals Asia Foundation is also trying to change eating habits. Though eating dogs is illegal in Hong Kong, many people flock to China in winter to tuck into what they consider a delicacy. Through a 14-minute video, which it hopes to release early next year in schools and perhaps even on television in China, the group is trying to bring home the message that dogs are really humans' best friends.
Fried or Food
The film follows the terrifying journey and miraculous rescue of Eddie, a mixed terrier that was saved from the squalid animal market in 2001 and given a new lease of life. Told as if from his perspective, the film shows how Eddie and about 200 other dogs are used for human therapy in Hong Kong. It takes viewers into a school for the blind, a hospital, and a home for the elderly. Inside, blind children and bedridden patients come alive, chuckling and playing with the dogs.
"The dogs give them a lot of spiritual support. These patients look forward to these visits," says a nurse in the film.
Spending time with companion animals is widely known to ease stress and bring a sense of well-being to patients.
"We are trying to get people thinking it may not be OK to eat dogs. They should come away thinking, 'That is something I don't want to do'," said Annie Mather of the foundation.
But in China, where growing affluence is feeding palates that are fond of anything exotic, Mather's job will be an uphill one. Her group estimates 5 million dogs a year are eaten in China, many from farms in the North that are now breeding imported mastiffs, St. Bernards, and dobermans with local dogs.
"They are breeding a super dog with a strong constitution, which will grow to its maximum weight in the shortest possible time, so they are ready to be sold at eight or nine months instead of a year," said Anneleise Smillie of the foundation. "These are not your backyard farms but really specialized operations ... because they know they can make a lot of money."
Written by: Planet Ark
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