June 21 marks the summer solstice and also the Ďdog- meat festivalí in Yulin, a city bordering Mongolia in the remote Guanxi province. Dog hot pot with litchis has, for generations, been the dish of choice during the festival. So it will this time too, though under the disapproving eyes of animal lovers in China and across the world.
Activists have already saved four puppies found packed in a cage on the back of a motorbike. They seemed gentle, used to human company, perhaps they were stolen pets. In fact, well-known breeds, some with collars still intact, were found in the Yulin market.
For the last three years across China, activists have been saving dogs, even stopping trucks on the highways. Theyíve pooled thousands of yuan to buy the dogs, and posted pictures of the torture they are subjected to for being sold as meat. Individuals have opened shelters for rescued dogs, run by volunteers.
A huge debate is raging on the ethics of eating dog meat. Many youngsters who grew up eating it, now cannot, especially those who keep them as pets to ward off the loneliness of big cities. China today ranks among the top 10 countries where dogs are kept as pets. But many people buy enormous dogs as status symbols. The government now has rules on the size and kind of dogs that can be kept as pets; some cities have one-dog policies, and a few require your neighbourís permission before your dog can be licensed. This diarist once lived surrounded by villas in which huge Alsatians were kept as guard dogs, confined to verandahs, never allowed to step inside the villas. Not once did the owners play with them.
Three years back, a dog-meat festival in Jinhua, an ancient city near Shanghai, was cancelled at the last minute because of a global outcry. This year too, a worldwide petition is being circulated asking the Yulin governor to ban the festival. The local government has declared itís just a folk custom, removed it from its official calendar, and directed its officials not to publicly consume dog meat; restaurants have been asked not to advertise it. Selling dog meat has become almost like dealing in drugs, complain vendors.
All this has raised the hackles of many Chinese. One columnist in China Daily asked whether it would be ok if Indians went to the United States of America and asked Americans to stop eating beef. Dog meat has been eaten in parts of China for thousands of years, he wrote. There are even special spices used to cook dog meat ó as this diarist found to her consternation when she bought a bottle of five-spice powder in lieu of Indian spices, only to be told by a Chinese guest what it was actually meant for. However, China has the second largest cases of rabies in the world (India tops the list), with Guanxi being most infected. Mass transportation and consumption of dogs increase the risk of rabies, vets have told the Yulin authorities, asking that the festival be banned. A few years back, a rabies scare resulted in a fall in dog-meat sales. But the cure turned out to be worse than the disease: where previously, locals would bring cooked meat to the market to sell, now, dog-sellers started bringing live dogs and slaughtering them in full view of customers, to show they were healthy.
In India, we fear dog meat might be mixed in regular meat to save costs, but in China, itís more expensive than pork or beef, perhaps because itís in short supply. Itís eaten mainly in winter, for its supposed heating properties. Thatís the time dog-owners in the countryside find that their dogs are disappearing. A rope with a bait is thrown over high compound walls.The eager dog who bites it, is yanked over the wall.