RESIDENTS of a Chinese city criticised for an annual festival in which thousands of dogs are slaughtered and eaten have held their feasts early to avoid international criticism.
People in Yulin, southern China, started gathering last weekend to eat dog and lychees to celebrate the longest day of the year, ahead of the summer solstice which falls on Saturday, Chinese state media reported.
They hoped to avoid protests by animal rights activists.
In recent years, the festival has been targeted by activists who have drummed up public awareness of the event with posts on social media and online petitions, and descended on the city to protest outside slaughterhouses or markets where the dogs are sold.
It is estimated that around 10,000 dogs were killed and eaten at last year’s Yulin Summer Solstice Dog Meat Festival.
The public uproar reflects the increasing affluence of ordinary Chinese, who keep pets, travel overseas and are changing attitudes toward traditions they may not have questioned before.
Photographs on state media showed groups of Yulin citizens tucking into plates of dog meat and vegetables around dining tables strewn with lychees.
Other disturbing photos, circulated widely on Chinese blogs, were of skinned, cooked dogs hanging from hooks at street stalls or piled on tables.
Under the Yulin tradition, eating dog and lychee and drinking liquor on the solstice is supposed to make people stay healthy during winter.
It is unclear if the supposed health benefits diminish if the feast occurs before the actual solstice, as is the case this year.
Animal rights activists say the event is a public health risk because the dogs are not checked or quarantined to ensure they are free of disease.
In fact, many are strays snatched off streets around China, including some stolen from their lawful owners.
The dogs are often poisoned with toxic chemicals that could be harmful to humans, activists claim.
Deng Yidan, a campaigner with Animals Asia, said the image of both Yulin and China suffers from the event.
“Negative coverage is growing – dog theft, criminal activities, food hygiene issues, and rabies fears – not to mention the division in society between those for and against the festival.
“Together these have brought significantly more negative publicity to Yulin than economic benefits,” Mr Deng said.
The Yulin government has sought to distance itself from the feasting, saying it is not officially endorsed.
State media reports say the government told restaurants to remove references to dog meat from their menus and signboards – though it did not bar the sale and consumption of the meat, which is not illegal in China.
The government has denied the formal existence of such a festival, saying it is a culinary habit practised only by some businesses and people.
Public pressure stopped another dog meat festival, in eastern Zhejiang province, which was cancelled in 2011 despite dating back hundreds of years.