This week I am in Borneo, speaking at the Animals For Asia Conference, about the world of World Protection for Dogs and Cats in the Meat Trade (NoToDogMeat), the charity I founded.
I have been travelling to China since 1999. But it took me until 2009 when I was in Guangdong Southern China, where I came across a horrific dog meat market.
My experience made me realise that just donating to animal charities was not enough – I needed to do something more.
What shocked me the most was seeing a torture market was right next to the pet dog market.
I turned round I saw a boy who could have been no more than seven or eight years old clutching a tiny puppy his father had just bought him. A moment of excitement and pride for any child.
And then the two of them were watching silently as almost identical dogs were being dragged out of the cages and killed right in front of us.
To me, this was wrong on so many levels: For the poor animals of course, but also for the moral development of a child.
For the next few years I knocked on every big charity door I could find to ask for help and to offer my own help but without luck. I know now many have not even started to tackle this difficult subject.
So in 2012 I started a social media campaign using our distinctive NoToDogMeat logo. I invited everyone from around the globe to join me and campaign with one voice.
By 2013 our World Protection charity was established officially. A few years later we were granted consultative status at the UN, and so from there our grassroots our story began.
The more I researched the taboo subject of using dogs and cats for food and fur the more I saw how wide-scale the problem really was. This year alone over 30 million dogs and cats will have been tortured and killed throughout Central and South East Asia.
I have now witnessed a decade of terrible suffering. It is hard to believe despite the pandemic and risk to public health the black market trade continues.
The dogs and cats used for food are often stolen pets. They come from dog farms, pet dog breeding farms and even grooming parlours, all killed in a really cruel way.
In some regions people believe that if the animal suffers the stress of torture cortisol rushes through the body to tenderise the meat but in my experience it is a complete disregard of sentience.
There is no connection between a dog and cats life and its pain. I do not eat meat myself so I do not think any animal should suffer but seeing someone’s pet dismembered, plunged into boiling water or barbecued after being skinned alive is a nightmare.
I am a lawyer, so I knew I could help when it came to pushing for animal welfare laws to be created or amended. I realised very quickly it was human attitudes that needed to change.
So for this reason in addition to our open policy which allows ordinary individuals to become activists anywhere to campaign using our logo, we set up partnerships with grassroots advocated who share our vision of compassion
And that’s how our collaborations began. We have created a series of education and outreach programmes that our partners can adapt to suit their unique circumstances.
This took time as we spent years on the ground ourselves understanding why for example someone would sell their own pet for food, learning how ordinary people felt about the trade and communicating with butchers to get their perspective.
No one can solve such a complex issue as the dog and cat meat trade from a remote air-conditioned office. However locally we can work together to nurture empathy and compassion towards our companion dogs and cats. We can help everyone understand the meaning of animal sentience and this in turn brings change.
In 2015, we set up a partnership shelter with a very brave animal advocate named Mr Zhao in Hebei, China.
We had worked together previously on some of the daring truck rescues you may have seen on the web and I could tell we shared a vision of compassion and change.
The volunteers who come to the shelter are all ages. Students or even retired ladies who help us prepare the dogs’ food. Working with such a range of animal lovers across the generations helps us spread our message to communities who hold false beliefs on the benefits of eating dogs or drinking cat tonics.
Our strong friendships with our partners when they bravely come with us to the notorious annual festival in Yulin. Or help us try to close slaughterhouses and stop the big trucks.
Their hard work is humbling and to regularly face such suffering is not easy. They are so motivated when they see how well our rescues recover when they reach our sanctuary and how loving the dogs and cats are.
Many of our rescues are rehomed overseas but when we can we try to rehome in China.
Our work with volunteers at grassroots level has helped them to understand about the dog meat trade, to mobilise them to act with us and to help promote compassion.
The pandemic presented a huge challenge for us and also an opportunity for Anna, one of our former volunteers at Hebei to set up a base closer to Beijing.
Initially this place was to house the handful of rescues that had been waiting to fly to new homes. But with the forced expulsion of many pets and the continuing sale of dogs for meat in markets around the airport we now have over 267 dogs .
This number is small compared to Hebei where we house over 500.
Anna is a university graduate. She has taken our education programme to companies in Beijing. She gives lunchtime awareness about the trade publicising our adoption programmes.
This initiative has been extremely well received. Recently she was invited to bring some of our rescued dogs to a film premiere. This kind of outreach work potentially has a big impact as many employees are male and in the past have dined on dog with their bosses.
Anna, like Hebei shelter manager Mr Zhao, invites students to visit the dogs at the shelter. She also hosts meet and greet adoption events in shopping malls. Previously it was frowned upon to bring dogs, especially dog meat trade survivors, to such public venues.
It is really heartening to see parents learning about where the animals have come from and also teaches them that our survivors are just like shop bought pets.
Seeing children witness animal torture deeply affected me. It has been an issue that we have continued to raise with the UN and how it relates to their own Sustainable Development Goals.
I am really pleased to announce that just last month the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child included in their general assembly statement a note on the harmful effects to children participating in and witnessing violent animal abuse.
This for us shows a major step forward to bring lasting change.
In Cambodia we have made educating young children a big part of our local collaboration. Although eating dogs is still endorsed by those in power or at festivals involving alcohol, the reasons people sell strays or their own dogs to dealers is often economically driven.
When we set up a partner programme close to the Thai border we at once saw how the so called ‘pot and pan man’ would tour villages exchanging plastic buckets for hapless dogs and this gave us the idea to work with village officials to do things like building a small well so everyone could have clean water. Working with the community helps us to build trust and gain support.
We have worked with teachers in schools to encourage them to introduce animal welfare as part of the curriculum.
This year our activities have centred more closely on the capital Phnom Penh, where dog meat is frequently sold in roadside kiosks.
Our partner there Tet Lin also went out to the Kandal Province to try some experimental learning techniques. Children ceremoniously buried a slaughtered dog head and then got to meet some of Tet’s rescues. They were taught about how animals have feelings and how kindness mattered.
Of course we know learning should be fun and how important sport is to youngsters. During the pandemic the famous London Marathon was held virtually and this meant it could be ran anywhere in the world. It was wonderful to see teams of school children rise to our challenge to #RunForTheDogs
They all received a medal and were joined by our supporters around the world who also ran. This feeling of solidarity and of being a family for change helps us strengthen our voice that ‘Cruelty is not Cool’
In the last ten years our teams have protested and lobbied western and Asian governments to create and implement laws to protect animals. In 2020 China declared dogs and cats were on the agricultural whitelist and therefore in theory at least, not food. Just recently in Korea ministers have publicly called to end the trade. But we know that if law is created but not enforced dogs and cats will continue to suffer.
In another collaboration we have been supporting the work of Greg Quimpo in the Philippines.
He has been working on a brave new approach to bring change in the Visayas Islands close to his hometown. This is something we plan to expand to other regions
Unlike many parts of Asia, the Philippines has had an animal welfare act since 1988 which outlaws the mistreatment of animals. There is also a specific provision to exclude the use of dogs for food. (The only exception being ritual slaughter of animals)
Change, however, takes patience and is a process. Our project endorsed by the local authorities works with the police to enforce legislation and to do this they need to be well versed in the law and share our concern. This is something a local partner like Greg can effectively communicate.
Working with the authorities we have been giving official lectures on animal welfare in a large number of police stations. It was then decided collectively that before imposing hard line punishment on abusers we should start together with the police and engaging with the community. Positive relationships are being built and education is at the forefront. It has been amazing to see the caring side of the police and through the medium of animal welfare they too have improved their community engagement.
Activities have included donating food and veterinary supplies and guiding villagers on how to care for their companion animals. All the while reinforcing our message that dogs are not food.
Our work in Asia is ongoing and requires dedication with a flexible approach tailored to the unique circumstances of each country. We do believe that as moral beings each and every one of us has the obligation to promote an ethical framework that includes animals.
For our own human story and progress, taking dogs and cats off the menu is for the benefit of all.
To find out more about NoToDogMeat and to donate go to www.notodogmeat.com