The slaughter of a reported 50,000 dogs in an anti-rabies crackdown in southwestern China sparked unusually pointed criticism in state media on Tuesday, along with calls for a boycott of Chinese products from activist group People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Health experts, meanwhile, said the brutal policy underscores deep weaknesses in China's health care system, which sees more than 2,000 human deaths from rabies each year.
The five-day massacre in Yunnan province's Mouding county that ended Sunday spared only military guard dogs and police canine units, state media reported.
Dogs being walked were taken from their owners and beaten to death on the spot, the Shanghai Daily newspaper reported. Led by the county police chief, other killing teams entered villages at night creating noise to get dogs barking, then homed in on their prey, the reports said.
Owners were offered 5 yuan (63 U.S. cents; 49 euro cents) per animal to kill their own dogs before the teams were sent in, they said.
The slaughter was ordered after about 360 of the county's 200,000 residents suffered dog bites this year, with three people reportedly dying of rabies, including a 4-year-old girl.
"With the aim to keep this horrible disease from people, we decided to kill the dogs," Li Haibo, a spokesman for the county government, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.
Calls to county government offices rang unanswered on Tuesday. Located in mountains about 1,240 miles southwest of Shanghai, Mouding is famed for its numerous Buddhist shrines.
The official newspaper Legal Daily blasted the killings as an "extraordinarily crude, cold-blooded and lazy way for the government to deal with epidemic disease."
"Wiping out the dogs shows these government officials didn't do their jobs right in protecting people from rabies in the first place," the newspaper, published by the central government's Politics and Law Committee, said in an editorial in its online edition.
In an editorial, Xinhua said the killings wouldn't have been necessary if the local government had been more attentive, but called the slaughter "the only way out of a bad situation."
"If they'd discovered this earlier, they could have vaccinated the dogs and ... controlled the outbreak," the editorial said.
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