My name is Hayley O’Keeffe and I am the press officer for NoToDogMeat.
My business, the Animal News Agency, has been supporting the charity in getting media coverage since 2020.
Of course in that time, it has not been possible to bring dogs to Europe, due to pandemic restrictions, and every year when we are awake all night receiving unbearable images from our brave NoToDogMeat campaigners who attend Yulin, it feels hard to think of ever actually bringing over survivors.
From afar I have covered many stories on these brave survivors, and the amazing work that Julia and NoToDogMeat have done in China and beyond, to help these beautiful dogs and lobby for change.
From NoToDogMeat uncovering a gruesome slaughterhouse, to our recent story on the poor poodles who were saved after a grooming school discarded them to the meat trade, we work very hard to make sure that we expose and highlight what is going on in real time.
There are of course our happy stories too, like fabulous Felicity, who appeared across European media when she walked the red carpet with Julia, wearing a stunning gown made by senior volunteer Michelle Parker. Felicity appeared alongside the world’s most glamorous movie stars, and her red carpet moment appeared in the likes of Mail Online and Vanity Fair.
I am proud to work with NoToDogMeat and feel that I know this subject very well, it is a subject that I deeply care about.
But I can categorically tell you that I was completely unprepared for how it would truly feel and be, when I assisted Julia in Paris when our latest rescues Debbie and Delphi arrived.
Waiting at the airport is no joke, and after a tense wait in Parisian traffic on one of the hottest days of the year, we both felt incredibly nervous as we stood at the gate waiting for our flight volunteers to emerge.
The dogs had a 13 hour flight from Beijing, and NoToDogMeat shelter manager Anna, who had taken them to the airport had told us that another dog called Echo was also on the flight, and that she had met Echo’s owners.
When Echo appeared through the doors a sense of relief came over us, Echo, like Debbie and Delphi, had also been rescued by her owners, who were living in China and had found her on the streets.
The friendly little terrier-type dog came out of her crate with a tail wag and a happy face, and after a quick wee outside was happy to interact with Felicity, our beloved Samoyed ambassa-dog who was at the airport to meet our arrivals.
But our wait was just beginning, and long after Echo and her owners had left the arrivals lounge, we were still holding out for Debbie and Delphi. At this point Julia explained that in the past flight volunteers have not realised that they need to bring the dogs through, leading to a logistics headache for the charity, a mountain of paperwork and most importantly an even longer wait for the crated pets.
The suspense was unbearable as we continued to wait, and I must admit at this stage I ‘stress ate’ a rather large bag of crisps!
It was heartening too, to see flight-leaver from Beijing stop to pet Felicity, and see the warmth that they felt for our gorgeous ambassa-dog.
And then all of a sudden the doors opened and a larger and smaller crate were being pushed through arrivals.
Debbie and Delphi had arrived! The most beautiful moment came when Julia and Felicity leaned over to peer into Delphi the Samoyed’s crate. The dog, who has been shaved for comfort and has had a recent eye operation looking out, with a mix of relief and confusion etched on her face.
Felicity, who has gone through the same process just seemed to know, and was happy to welcome both dogs with a dignified serenity, a survivor’s solidarity which brought a tear to my eye.
I leaned over to greet Debbie, and spoke to her: ‘Hello Debbie dog’, the friendly girl’s beautiful furry ears pricked up, her smiling face looking out at me, as if to say: ‘Oh hello there I love you’. Their sheer resilience was astounding and wonderful.
These moments are of course amazing, and hopeful, but I was not prepared for how sad they would be too. Behind Debbie and Delphi are hundreds of other dogs who need this chance, and these two have waited since before the pandemic to have their moment.
As Delphi was gently lifted from her crate in the airport car park there were lots of tears. Julia herself had rescued the pup along with Felicity from a cruel meat market truck, and while Felicity stood there looking every inch the pampered pet, Delphi has a way to go before she will be quite so majestic.
“I’m so sorry you had to wait”, “what about all the others”. This isn’t a fun game, it is brutal and hard and emotionally draining, and for Julia who bravely founded this grassroots charity it is constant and all consuming.
The dogs safely in the van on their comfy beds, we drove back to NoToDogMeat’s Paris accommodation, which has a small garden area and patio where the dogs could stretch their legs and feel safe.
On arrival the welcoming committee of rescues Annabelle, Alice, Camille and of course Felicity were gently introduced to Debbie and Delphi, and we were overwhelmed once more by their kindness for the new arrivals.
These dogs have all been through very similar and barbaric experiences, they absolutely know this about each other, and the empathy and love they showed floored me.
What nobody tells you too is that these dogs love to keep clean, and despite being crated for 13 hours, held their toileting until they arrived at the Paris accommodation. I’ve never seen such a big wee!
The dogs were also hungry, and both enjoyed big bowls of food. Their first meal was Percuro, an insect-based complete food, which incidentally helps to offset the charity’s carbon footprint.
Percuro was then swiftly followed by some cheeky pieces of ham and chicken, the dogs gratefully accepted the snacks and treats, their eyes widened and you could tell they didn’t quite believe the situation they were in. It must have felt like a quantum leap!
“You are in Happy Land now” I said, as Delphi and Debbie laid down on soft comfy beds, their bellies full.
NoToDogMeat is very proud of the conditions at the Beijing and Hebei shelters but shelter life, living in facilities which house hundreds of dogs, can never be the same as living in a home – what all dogs deserve and the reason the rehoming programme is so important.
That first night there was no sleep, as we watched over the new arrivals, and processed the stresses of the day. Naturally days like this bring up a lot, and there were also updates to send to Anna in China who was anxiously awaiting news that the dogs had arrived safely and were settling in well.
It was also important to tell the media our news, sharing the story and pictures to generate more donations, to help bring more dogs to Happy Land. In the early hours I edited videos, pictures and our story, before sending them off to national papers in time for their morning news meetings.
The next morning, and a trip to the vets. A first ever walk on a lead for Debbie, who eventually had to be carried.
We visited the supremely kind Dr Gilles Chauvin in St Mandes, Paris and the dogs received an all-important health check to prepare them for their new homes.
Delphi has recently had an operation to save her sight, and Dr Chauvin said that she has recovered well.
Debbie had a sebaceous cyst removed from her back, and a wart removed from her face but otherwise was given a clean bill of health.
What struck me about the visit was how placid the dogs were. Debbie wanted to sit on my lap the whole time in the waiting room, and Delphi, who is significantly bigger, happily stood on the vet’s table as it was elevated from the ground.
All dogs are so trusting and kind, but I found it astonishing how dogs who have been as brutalised as these two have, can so quickly respond to safety and kindness with love.
Another important job at the vet was to get European passports for the pups, so they can continue their journey to the UK and their new homes.
When we arrived back at the accommodation it was important for the dogs to rest, and both of them enjoyed gentle strokes and brushes as they laid on the patio in the sunshine.
The other dogs also enjoyed a pamper and a walk with us in nearby woodland, before returning to their new friends for some dinner and a snooze.
When people think about adopting a dog from China I don’t think they always appreciate the logistics and heartache that are involved. And Julia in my view is a wonder woman for shouldering that time and again.
This is a hard and brutal process, and as Debbie and Delphi begin their fresh new start, Julia and NoToDogMeat now begin work again to help more dogs in need.
Yulin is right around the corner, and Mr Zhao is already on his way there with a group of volunteers. Volunteers who are still traumatised by what they witnessed last year.
This is not all about happy faces and feeling good, this process actually makes people feel really bad. Debbie and Delphi are the tip of a gargantuan iceberg, and Julia shoulders that every single hour of the day.
I am so happy to have helped in this rescue in a small way, and all I am left feeling is sheer admiration for Julia, NoToDogMeat campaigners in China and all they have experienced and endured.
They are utter heroes and the emotional sacrifice is a scar they will bear forever.
This sense of purpose and drive to make a difference is what makes people truly human and we should all try to be more like that.
Please donate to our Yulin fighting fund by clicking HERE