Beijing — China's annual dog meat festival is underway in the southwestern city of Yulin. This year, however, the fair is taking place with the backdrop of a, and in defiance of a government initiative to improve animal welfare and reduce the risks associated with live animal markets. With rules and attitudes changing, activists hope this year could be the last for the Yulin dog meat festival.
The 10-day fair was first held in 2009 to celebrate the summer solstice. It has attracted thousands of visitors every year, many of whom pick live dogs from cramped cages to cook and eat. Cat meat, fresh lychee fruits and liquor are also on offer.
THIS REPORT INCLUDES GRAPHIC IMAGES OF DEAD ANIMALS
Dog meat has long been believed to bring good health and luck in certain parts of China, but the practice is taboo and deeply offensive to much of the rest of the world — and to many Chinese.
"This year's dog meat festival is the same as before, with very few [people] wearing masks," said Du Yufeng, a veteran Chinese animal rights campaigner who has been in Yulin since the fair opened over the weekend.
"The police on site don't stop people from gathering or eating dog meat," she told CBS News. The only difference Du reports this year is that the words "dog meat" have disappeared from banners at the festival. Now the decorations just tout "delicious meat."
"I hope government will ban the consumption of pets like dogs and cats in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic," she said.
Du, founder of the Bo Ai Animal Protection Center in China's Sichuan Province, has been fighting against the Yulin festival for eight years. As ever, she dutifully visited the Public Complaints and Proposals Administration of Guangxi Province this year, along with six other activists, and handed over a petition demanding the provincial government ban the slaughter of pets, for the sake of food safety.
China issued a temporary ban on all trade and consumption of wild animals in late February, after a "wet market" in the central city of Wuhan became the suspected epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak there. Many scientists believe the deadly virus jumped from bats into humans via a still-unidentified third species, thanks to the conditions at the market.
At such markets, live animals are kept in close quarters with humans and often slaughtered at the time of purchase.
"Coronavirus pandemics are caused by a huge concentration of animals of different species — animals with compromised immune systems," Dr. Peter Li, a China policy specialist with Humane Society International, told CBS News. "Dogs at the fair are in great concentration, with most dogs either dying or with illness. The cross-infection is serious. It is a potential breeding ground for outbreak of an epidemic."
The temporary national ban on eating wild animals is still in place, and the national government is currently drafting laws expected to bring in permanent new restrictions on the trade in and consumption of wild animals.
In recent weeks the Agriculture Ministry has also reclassified dogs as companion animals, rather than livestock. Many animal rights activists, including Du, believe that should be interpreted as a ban on dog meat consumption.
While the national government hasn't yet explicitly prohibited the eating of dog meat, the cities of Shenzhen and Zhuhai, both in the southern province of Guangdong, have now taken that step. In April they became the first cities in China to ban the practice.
The vast majority of Chinese people don't eat dog meat and want to see the Yulin festival come to an end, for the sake of both animal welfare and food safety.
Topics including "refuse to eat companion animals" and "cancel Yulin dog meat festival" have been trending on China's Twitter-like social media platform, Weibo.
"Please abolish this tradition and let's make a change together," reads one post. "This is one of the major reasons why the foreign countries criticize China, and it is awful and true — we can't deny it," wrote another user.
However, some Weibo users have defended the practice, suggesting criticism is part of a conspiracy in the West to blame China for the coronavirus and other global woes.
"Dog meat is very safe, much safer than salmon," insisted one poster, referring to the recent COVID-19 outbreak in Beijing, which some Chinese scientists say may have come from salmon imported from Europe. Others simply defend it as a valued tradition, with messages such as: "This is our custom, not your business."
Video from this year's Yulin festival, sent to CBS News by activists, shows vendors butchering dozens of slaughtered dogs on long tables, without wearing face masks. Locals gather nearby at outdoor seating areas, with no social distancing, to eat the meat cooked in stew.
"This fair is just a breeding ground for another virus outbreak," said Du. She said she confronted local authorities and residents and asked why they hadn't learned a lesson from the current pandemic. She said the people she spoke to just replied that they weren't breaking any laws.
Du and her fellow activists spent about $4,200 to buy 30 dogs and save them from slaughter during this year's Yulin fair.
"Banning dog meat consumption is going to be challenging, but I'm hopeful it will come soon," she told CBS News.
"I do hope Yulin will change, not only for the sake of the animals but also for the health and safety of its people," said Li, of the Humane Society. "It is really important that China starts legislating a national law to ban the dog meat industry and I hope it will happen within five years."
Last year, some 3,000 dogs were reportedly slaughtered to make stew at the Yulin festival. According to animal rights group Animals Asia, it's estimated that in China alone, 10 million dogs and 4 million cats, are slaughtered for meat every year.