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WARNING: CONTAINS DISTRESSING CONTENT
Many people may think about eating dog meat with a grimace, but you'd probably be surprised to learn it's not just the stuff of dodgy backstreet restaurants.
Instead, in certain areas it's more commonplace than the public would like to believe, with the BBC reporting that around 30 million dogs are eaten around the world annually - 10 million of which are consumed in China.
While the country's dog meat industry thrives year-round, the Yulin Dog Meat Festival is arguably what gets the topic into headlines, with 1.5 million people signing a petition earlier this year to bring the festivities to a grinding halt.
The controversial event, which has been running since 2009 and takes place annually in a city in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, sees an estimated 10,000-15,000 animals beaten, tortured and killed for their meat.
However, if the festival ever comes to a definitive end, realistically it's likely that its demise is a while off yet - meaning for now there must be a different objective: intercepting the stream of animals so that they can be brought to safety.
Harbin Slaughterhouse Survivors is one such organisation to do precisely that, dedicated to rescuing as many of the thousands of animals that end up in China's meat market as possible.
Based in the north-eastern Chinese city of Harbin - where the team estimates around 30,000 dogs and cats are slaughtered each week - Harbin SHS rescues animals from the meat trade, along with those who have suffered neglect, abuse or abandonment.
Harbin SHS was set up in July 2016 by Emily, Aimee and Hayley, three ex-patriates from England, Australia and Ireland respectively.
They had started off helping at a local shelter in Harbin, where they found that dogs weren't finding homes and weren't receiving the treatment they needed.
Realising that local shelters were overcrowded, the trio decided they could be doing more to help.
While the team can't buy dogs directly from the industry, animals are brought to Harbin SHS on a daily basis from activists and places like local shelters or meat truck stops.
Following any required treatment, neutering, vaccinations and paperwork, the dogs are then popped onto planes to be rehomed around the globe.
They initially set about facilitating local adoptions, but as China has not yet introduced any animal protection laws, they decided to prioritise sending dogs abroad for rehoming to ensure they get the best care possible.
Emily, one of the three founders, went out to China to study, travel and teach for six months - but ended up finding she had a much bigger role to play.
Emily told LADbible: "I came out to China just to study, travel and teach - I was only meant to be there for six months.
"I knew nothing about the meat trade or anything about what was going on with animals in China.
"I've been veggie since I was 12 so for me, I'm always a little weirded out by the consumption of animals but I never really associated that with domesticated animals like dogs and cats.
"That was really a shock to see these dogs that could be anyone's dogs back home, that had been used for meat."
The three first started off with five dogs they'd heard were in need, fundraising for their vet bills and taking them in.
Soon, the five rescues turned into 400 during Harbin SHS's first year and over time, the operation continued to grow - having been responsible for the rescue of more than 2,000 dogs and cats as of spring/summer 2019.
The motive for their hard work may seem pretty blatant, but the matter is actually far more complex than many realise.
For instance, while eating dog meat in China is legal, often the process is not.
As with most countries, any meat sold for consumption in China must come with certificates that verify the animals have been raised in a sanitary condition.
However, as China does not have dog farms, many of the dogs sold for the purpose of consumption don't have the required health certificates - meaning dogs sold into the meat industry are stolen pets, strays and runaways, or sometimes come from puppy mills.
Emily said: "Loads of people don't quite understand that if you say a 'dog meat dog' they presume that it's going to be this special breed and it's going to be a dog that's been bred purposely for meat, whereas nine times out of 10 they're golden retrievers, bulldogs, labradors, border collies, huskies - any breeds you can think of."
China also doesn't have the same animal protection laws like many other countries do, meaning the government won't step in.
Emily continued: "We've come from backgrounds where we kind of take it for granted that we have animal protection laws and we have things like government shelters.
"Whereas in China there's not quite that sense, there are no animal protection laws."
Rachel Hinman, the Los Angeles Director for Harbin SHS, added: "There's no animal regulation. There's essentially no legislation or protection in place, so it's kind of a free-for-all."
Rachel also told us how there's a cultural element they must be respectful of.
She said: "There's a belief that the dog meat has a certain medicinal benefit, and especially that's why there's the Yulin festival because they believe the dog meat cools you Qi, your energy.
"There's also a perception that when an animal dies in fear and in pain, that the adrenaline and the chemicals that are released in the body of the animal increase that benefit and increases the taste."
Sometimes, the team are also blackmailed by slaughterhouse workers, who know they can make more money through extortion than from their usual 'market price', as they know rescuers will go to great lengths to save dogs.
WARNING: CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT
On Harbin SHS' Instagram feed, where rescues are documented regularly, the team shared a series of videos sent to them by blackmailers, writing: "These are the videos taken at the slaughterhouse holding and sent to the local rescuer for blackmail by the slaughterhouse workers.
"The final video is the threat."
The last clip contained graphic footage of several slaughtered dogs.
Harbin SHS added: "These were once pets, or used for breeding so their offspring could be pets. They were family members. They trusted humans.
"And even when being starved for days and held in a place of death, they still wag their tails at the sight of a human. Even when that human is the biggest scumbag on earth."
It's difficult to estimate an average cost of treating and rehoming one dog as factors can vary so much, but even a dog that is healthy when it is rescued will need basic tests, vaccines and neutering, which comes to around £338 ($425/€385).
And that's before you've even taken any flights into consideration so that they can be rehomed.
All of the 8 dogs are safe! pic.twitter.com/OuqXaXL91J
- slaughterhouse_survivors (@harbinshs) March 26, 2019
Financial help is always appreciated, meaning the team welcomes 'anyone crazy enough to fly over and spend time with us'.
Emily said: "In terms of helping us, we're always looking for volunteers and donations for help keep everything going, because we have huge overheads.
"Every animal that we take we have to make sure that they go through all of the process to make sure that they're healthy, and then hopefully we can find them a home at the end of it."
However, Emily believes the work can also start at home, adding: "Definitely just being aware of situations and helping spread the word. Even if it's locally - everywhere has issues with animal welfare and animals needing help, so even starting within your own community if you have a few hours going and helping local rescue."
Featured Image Credit: Harbin SHS
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