I’m outside a dog meat slaughterhouse in Yulin, China, surrounded by an angry mob of more than 100. They’re screaming and shoving me. The ones who have smart phones are shooting the scene. The ones that don’t are shooting with their mouths — profanities, insults, and an occasional wad of spit.
“Get out of here!” one man shouts.
“You’re going to be locked up!” says another.
The cops holding me cuffed seem somewhere between indifferent and amused, and when they finally pull me away towards the squad car, one of the men approaches with a vicious look and kicks me in the side.
That’s when I realize I may not get out of Yulin alive.
Ten years ago, I was a young faculty member at Northwestern School of Law, one of the fancy new breed of law and economics scholars. The dean of the law school asked me then where I expected myself to be 10 years down the line.
Neither of us could have possibly guessed the answer: fighting for my life against a mob of dog meat traders in China.
I am a co-founder of the grassroots animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). Rescuing animals is our mission. We go to the darkest, most dangerous, and most secretive places on earth to stop violence against animals. We don’t ask for permission. We simply go in, defying the law where necessary, and take injured animals out. Animal rights activists call this “open rescue” because we publicize our actions — and our faces — openly to the world.
As an open rescue activist, I have witnessed some of the most disturbing sights imaginable. Chickens so deprived they are eating each other alive. Piglets so crowded they are trampling one another to death. And farms that resemble evil fortresses from a sci-fi movie, with their massive assembly lines of death and cases and cases of pharmaceuticals. But even I was not emotionally prepared for what I saw in Yulin: people killing and eating dogs.
In recent years, the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, a week-long celebration of the summer solstice where over 10,000 dogs and cats are killed for meat, has triggered international scorn, from Ricky Gervais to the US Congress. In mid-May one hundred thousand Chinese marched in the streets to end the trade.
Yulin officials have resisted pressure by outsiders to change. Indeed, they have redoubled their efforts to insulate dog meat from criticism. Photography is now effectively banned, as traders will violently descend on anyone with a camera. The slaughter itself happens only in secured locations under the cover of night. And from the moment foreigners step into Yulin, they are followed by undercover police.
This is where I step in. I am a son of China. My ancestral homeland is Yulin’s neighboring province of Guangdong. My brown skin and fluent Mandarin allow me to slip into an area like Yulin almost completely unnoticed. I am also one of the most experienced investigators of animal-abusing facilities in the world, having infiltrated dozens of farms, breeders, and slaughterhouses in my 15 years as an animal rights activist. If anyone is going to take the public into the dog meat farms of Yulin, I tell myself, it will have to be me.
But it’s not going to be easy.
I’m entering an outdoor market with the other members of my investigatory team, Julianne Perry, a whip-smart Dartmouth student, and Chris Van Breen, a deeply compassionate activist from San Jose whose day job is working as a plumber. They are tailing me by about 200 feet for security and support. This is the day where I’ll meet the victims of the dog meat trade face to face.
It’s late afternoon by now, so the market is nearing its close. Dead animals are everywhere — fish, goats, and pigs. Live animals are rare. I wonder if I’ve followed the wrong lead. And then I hear it — the unmistakable barking of a dog.
I follow the barking to the back of the market where I find two small white puppies chained to a pole. I don’t dare take any pictures, as there is a band of seven men chatting and smoking right next to them. The dog meat trade is run by gangs who aren’t afraid to use force. Companion dogs and strays are stolen off the streets. Some of the dogs are still wearing their collars at the time of slaughter. This past February, a blind man’s guide dog was stolen by men who leaped out of a van and grabbed the dog before anyone realized what was happening.
Most of the men at the rear of the market wear disheveled, dirty clothes. They sit in a circle on the stone steps of a small building, laughing, shouting, slapping backs. They have an air of confidence, arrogance even — as if they are saying, “This is our territory.” And I can’t help but think back to the stories I have heard of violent gangs marauding the streets in search of dogs. Could these be such men? I take a breath, remind myself to be confident and loose. I walk into the circle.
“I want to buy a dog from a dog meat farmer.”
“Where are you from, boy?” the oldest of them, the clear ringleader, says. He is perhaps 50, with a sullen expression and dead eyes.
“Taiwan, but I travel to China often. My family is from Guangxi. My girlfriend in Taiwan told me to bring her home a dog, and I think it would tickle her to have a dog from the dog meat trade.”
The men look skeptical. The ringleader’s eyebrows furrow.
“There are no dogs here now. You missed them by 20 minutes.”
“What about those two dogs?”
“They’re not ready for slaughter,” another man says.
“Would I be able to buy them?”
“Yes, but it would cost you,” the ringleader says.
“I want a meat dog, though. These dogs don’t look like dog meat dogs.”
“All dogs are meat dogs! It just depends on their personality. If they are friendly or the right breed, we can sell them as pets. But if they are fearful, they are sold for meat.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard. I want to see a meat dog, straight from the farm.”
The men seem perplexed and suspicious. But I slap some backs, pump up their egos, and laugh loudly. Eventually, one of the younger men warms up.
“I can take you to my farm,” he says.
The ringleader intervenes, “But don’t think you can get the dogs cheap.”
The younger fellow, with dirty hair and splotches on his face, hops on a rusty bicycle and tells me to follow. He is, at most, 30, but he is already missing multiple teeth. The ringleader walks to his motorcycle and tells me to get on the back. He says it’s too long a distance to walk. I have no idea where they plan to take me, or what they intend to do. I don’t want to abandon Julianne and Chris, who are dependent on me to get back to our apartment, but this could be my only chance to find a dog farm.
I look the ringleader in the eye.
The dog farm I am entering is not actually a dog farm. It’s a pig farm that has been refitted to raise dogs. The farmer had been driven out of the pork business by competition with Western giants like Smithfield. To him, I learn as we talk, all animals are the same. Dogs, pigs, he tells me, there’s no difference. At least on that, we agree.
The farm is dilapidated — trash everywhere, boards piled up. A large rusty gate serves as an entrance. The smell of dog shit permeates the air. The brick walls form a rectangle, with residential areas on one side and animal pens on the other. There are holes in the walls and the roof that allow rain to leak in. Barking is constant.
The first dog I see is a little black pup who, with his puffy hair, looks like a chow. He is attached by a short chain to a tree, and the only cover he has, in this rainy season, is a hole in the ground. The second dog I see is a tiny white dog, losing fur across his body, with two others, his brothers, cowering in the same concrete pen. They have the round distended bellies of starving children. They bark incessantly, seemingly begging for help, but the moment I approach, they all flee to the furthest corner of the pen.
I walk around the farm, trying to secretly record video with my iPhone. But I quickly realize the farmer doesn’t mind; indeed, he’s proud of his work.
“These are well-kept dogs, all very healthy,” he says.
“Why is their skin red, and why are they losing all their fur?”
“Just something that happens in the summer.”
I see hundreds of fleas crawling over the dogs’ skin, and the feces matted into their sparse fur. Could this man really believe what he is saying? But he looks at me with the earnest, proud look of a farmer showing off his prized livestock. This, to him, is humane.
Three hours later, I’ve made my way back to the market — much to the relief of the team, who worried I might be dead. We head back to our temporary base of operations, a rundown apartment in central Yulin. At the apartment, we huddle together and view my photos of the dog farm. We are deciding who we will try to save. It’s a dark conversation, focused on which of the dogs is most likely to survive — and least likely to compromise our mission by creating too much noise. We decide on two of the three brothers, including the little white dog I saw in my first few moments on the farm. It breaks our hearts, but we decide the third brother is too fearful to make it out. He will bark or bite or scramble away. We will leave him behind in the dark concrete pen to live out the rest of his short life, alone.
Conventional animal advocates operate under what political scientist Timothy Pachirat calls the “politics of sight,” i.e. the assumption that exposure to the horrors of animal agriculture will create change. “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian,” Paul McCartney famously said.
But this is a myth. Exposure, on its own, is neutral. It can just as easily lead to desensitization as liberation. In China, for example, the slaughter of most animals is right out on the street for all to see, yet concern for animal rights is virtually nonexistent. Pachirat argues that advocates must discard the politics of sight for what he calls a “politics of relation.” It’s not enough to know of the violence against animals. We must know the animals — pigs, chickens, cows, turkeys, goats. We must understand them, meet them, and create relationships with them — like the relationships Americans have with dogs and cats — if we are to create change.
Consider gay rights. It was only when masses of LGBT folks started coming out — talking, laughing, and hugging people, face to face — that the movement was able to achieve transformation. (“My uncle is gay, and I would not want anyone to mistreat him!”) To create change, we must do the same for animals. Think of Cecil or Harambe or even Nemo. When people know animals, truly relate to them, they are moved to protect them from violence.
Open rescue, with its stories of animals taken from the brink of death, is perhaps our most powerful tool to build such a politics of relation. Each of DxE’s open rescues has garnered media attention, inspired thousands of activists, and introduced the public to charismatic individuals of another species. When our audience watches the animals recover, they root for them. They feel for them. They form a relation.
But there is a personal reason for this rescue mission as well. When I was 9, I visited China for the first time. I was a young boy who loved dogs more than anything in the world.
A few days into our trip, we walked towards a strange restaurant. Cages lined the store outside. There were monkeys and snakes and raccoons. Patrons could point to an animal to have them killed and prepared as food. Then I saw a dog shivering in one of the cages. I shrieked. But my parents said there was nothing we could do to help, that dogs were no different than the pigs we ate back home. So we left the dog to die.
Twenty five years later, I wanted to change that story. I wanted a happy ending.
Sweat is coursing down my spine, partly due to heat and partly due to stress, and I’m picking the little white dog up from his filthy concrete pen. He’s the most friendly of the three, but he’s still frightened out of his mind. He pees on my shirt out of sheer terror. The pup’s ears are pressed tight against his head.
Julianne and I place him into a crate and quickly move on to the next dog. He nips at me, as I’m picking him up, but it’s the weak bite of a dog who has lived his life in fear. The bite doesn’t even leave a mark, much less break skin. He squeals for just a moment, but once I set him down in the crate with his brother, he is calm.
Then the hardest part comes. The third brother. We look at him, in his miserable and filthy state. For one year, he has known nothing but the four walls of this disgusting pen. He is terrified of anything that moves other than his two brothers. We decide we can’t leave him here to die, scared and alone. When we approach, he scampers away. He tries to climb up the concrete walls to escape. Julianne and I corner him. As he tries to dart between us, Julianne grabs him by his backside. He’s surprisingly calm once in her arms, but we still wonder — will he make too much noise?
It’s five days later. The three dogs are safe, and our investigation has moved from farm to slaughterhouse. I am hiding on the floor of a bathroom — which, in Yulin, is little more than a hole in the ground. Dogs are being beaten and killed 10 feet away, on the other side of the wall. I have seen or heard it happen dozens of times before. A worker grabs a dog with huge tong-like calipers. The jaws close around the dog’s neck. Then the dog is dragged across the slaughterhouse floor, often while shrieking in terror, to the other side where a heavy metal club and blade await. The club comes down on the dog’s head in a rain of blows. (Some dogs go down with one blow, but many take a dozen or more.) The worker brings the knife to his throat. And the dog makes one last delirious cry, as his body shakes uncontrollably and his blood stains the slaughterhouse floor.
As I lie there, silently, waiting for my opportunity to leap onto a six foot fence nearby and place a hidden camera on the window, I keep forcing myself to think of the three dogs we saved — the first white dog I saw, Xiao, the other one that we had planned to take, Lao, and the third brother, the most fearful, Pao. Pao, Lao and Xiao. I keep repeating their names in my head, visualizing their now happy faces, as I sit there listening to the screams of dogs being brutalized.
This is the most dangerous site I have ever investigated. The market where the slaughterhouse sits is massive, with perhaps a hundred stands and warehouses, many of which have beds for workers or owners to sleep in at night. The slaughterhouse itself is next to a shipping area that receives animals — goats, cats, cows, even raccoons — throughout the night. Worse yet, the slaughterhouse is nearly pitch black at night, making my effort to position a hidden camera insanely difficult.
I spend nearly two hours getting the cameras positioned properly in hopes of a passable vantage of the slaughterhouse’s inner workings. Still, I am confident. I’ve never been caught before, and I can’t imagine I’ll be caught here. The people of Yulin are unsophisticated, I tell myself, arrogantly. They’ve never had to deal with open rescue activists before, and they won’t be looking for cameras.
For four nights, this method serves me well. Then, suddenly, it fails.
On the fifth night I am standing on the outside of the slaughterhouse, balancing delicately on a fence with 3-inch rails. I look down, and there is a woman standing 10 feet away, staring at me as I stand above her head flashing a light into the dog slaughterhouse.
She runs off immediately, and I jump down and call out after her.
“I was looking for the bathroom, ma’am. Do you know where it is?”
But she ignores me. I curse out loud, “What the fuck is anyone doing here at 2 am?”
I run back to the slaughterhouse. I need maybe 10 more minutes to position and test a final camera. This is the first time I have a good understanding of where the slaughter actually happens within the processing facility. I figure it might be my last chance to film. So I take a risk and finish the job. Then, I’m on my way out. It’s a half mile walk to the market exit.
The first sign that something is wrong is three lights in the distance. They are motorcycles, and as they approach me they begin to slow. Two men are on each bike. I ignore them and keep walking, but I hear the men chattering in the local Yulin dialect.
One of the men follows me, and another shouts, “Where are you going? Who are you?”
With my modern-looking dress and Dell backpack, which they can now see quite clearly with their motorcycle lights, I don’t have a good explanation.
“I was using the bathroom,” I say. “Thanks!”
I give the men my friendliest smile. It’s an approach that has worked well with security guards and police in the US. Kill them with kindness.
But not tonight. Someone grabs at my backpack from behind and pulls me back.
“What’s in here?” he yells. I turn around. The six men have swelled to 12. Another 15–20 people mill around in the market, watching the interaction from afar, and a number of the market stands now have their doors open. I curse myself for not noticing earlier that so many shopkeeps live in the market.
I go from friendly to ferocious, in an effort to scare some of the men off. I’ve been told that the dog meat traders, while violent, are easily frightened by a show of confidence.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I shout. “Take your hands off me!”
My confidence is not all puffery. I have been in more fights than I care to admit, played football and wrestled in high school, and am, perhaps, 30 pounds heavier than any of these men.
It’s the wrong move. One of the men sucker punches me on the side of the head. Two others grab me and start pummeling my face and side. Another attempts to take my bag, which has over $5000 in camera equipment, and even more important, an SD card with the prior night’s footage of the slaughterhouse.
I hear my glasses crack with one of the punches and curse myself for failing to bring contacts. I fall to the ground, my head pounding in pain. These men have been torturing and killing dogs, I say to myself, and now is my chance to get revenge. My 20-year-old self would have relished the fight. But my 34-year-old-self has had the benefit of a decade of meditation and nonviolence. I know this is not a fight I can win. I push one of the men aside, twist myself out of the grip of the one holding my bag, and turn towards the men.
“Brothers, let’s stop,” I say. “I mean you no harm.”
But the men approach me again, and I prepare myself for the next barrage. Remarkably, a woman steps up. It’s the same woman who caught me outside of the slaughterhouse. She pushes the man in front away, and yells, “Stop hitting him!”
And that gives me enough room to make my escape. I hear them arguing with one another behind me, but I don’t waste a second in my dash for the exit. I make my way out of the market and into the Yulin night.
I am looking at the footage our cameras have captured. Dog after dog screams in terror as they are beaten to death. Other dogs scurry and run the moment someone walks into the room, and I begin to understand what drives Pao’s fear.
Every night, when I place the cameras, I meet the victims. There are labradors and beagles. German shepherds and little terriers. They whimper at me as I work, and I see their faces when I flash my light into the slaughterhouse to test the cameras.
There is the little tan dog with the blackish face. He is huddling with another, much larger dog, who can barely keep his eyes open, probably due to sickness or injury. I see him there on two of the nights I visit the slaughterhouse. He is always with his sick friend, and always pressed against the slaughterhouse fence. Then he disappears one night, and I know he and his friend are dead.
Then there is the white dog with brown spots and a broken leg. So many of the dogs are grievously injured in transport. He was one of them, and was in so much pain that he could hardly stand. And yet, in the crowded environment of the stockyard, he was constantly forced to run, and push, and fight — on three legs. After two days of desperate struggle, I watch as a man beats him to death. He shrieks and begs, but there will be no rescue. His lifeless body is tossed onto the pile.
The dogs of the meat trade tend to run on the small side, and all are young, usually just a year old, and gentle. The aggressive dogs won’t make it to slaughter. The dogs must be meek enough that they will take a beating and not fight back. Every dog I saw had the same look of innocence. Every dog I saw seemed to be begging me to set them free. And every dog I saw was let down by me when I packed up my cameras and left them in the pens to die. Weeks later, I still see their eyes.
I barely sleep for days, darting back and forth between the apartment and the slaughterhouse to position cameras and change batteries and SD cards. When I come home there are always new problems with the three dogs we have saved. Their skin condition is worsening. One of them begins to limp. Another makes a strange sound while eating.
Still, being with these dogs keeps me going. Xiao, the smallest of the three, warms up to me first. By day three, he is no longer scared of me. By day five, he approaches and allows me to kiss him on the head. Watching them grow from being afraid of anything other than the corner of the room, to romping around the small apartment, to finally sleeping on my bed for the few hours I sleep each night, keeps me going back to the slaughterhouse. Every one of the slaughterhouse dogs is as wonderful as the three we have at the apartment, I say to myself. And, while I cannot help them all, I can share their stories with the world.
I am making one last trip to the slaughterhouse. It’s early in the morning, just 12 hours after I was spotted, and we’ve decided that this will be the last visit. Just grab the cameras and go. It’s a tough call, given the assault I endured, but we figure the darkness will have made it difficult for them to identify us. One more trip, I reason, is safe.
That is a catastrophic mistake.
I enter the market and position myself to remove the cameras. Suddenly, the lookout, Julianne, messages me to get out immediately. She says the cameras, which we thought had been concealed, are gone. Confused, I walk back towards the exit, and I’m shocked to see six men pushing and grabbing at her. One person has already taken her phone. I have to decide: reveal myself as an ally of hers, or try to document what is happening? Her safety is my first concern. So I put my hand on one of the men and ask him to leave her alone.
“Please take your hands off her,” I say. “We’ll be leaving now.”
The men immediately switch their attention to me.
“It’s him! He’s the one I saw,” a man says. It’s one of the men who assaulted me a few nights before. “Grab him now before he gets away.”
A group of five men begin pounding on me. When I struggle to approach Julianne to free her, they slam me to the ground and twist my arm behind my back. I hear my glasses — my backup pair — crunch again as my face hits the ground.
As I lie on the ground with face planted into the dirt, I hear celebratory shouting. The dog meat traders are smarter than I realized. We’ve just been victims of a sting.
Over the next two days, I am interrogated in a Chinese jail for 15 hours, and held in solitary confinement the rest of the time. The room I’m held in is a garish blue cell. It has no windows, no sink, and no toilet. The lights are never turned off.
I do not sleep or eat, and the longest single interrogation is a relentless six hours. Six hours where I literally give the same response over and over to six different interrogators. “Thank you sir, but I would prefer to speak to the embassy before answering that question.”
The officers threaten me with espionage charges. They threaten me with burglary. They even threaten to let the dog meat traders “get” me. (“You know, we are the only ones protecting you from them,” one officer says.) But I refuse to give the officers the information they want — the address of our apartment, where they would find our equipment, our footage, and most importantly, Pao, Lao and Xiao. The officers bring me on a tour through downtown Yulin and ask if I live at half a dozen different apartment complexes. But I do not give them an answer, and I hope that they will eventually tire of this and let us go.
Ultimately, it is our keys that give us away. The markings and numbers on the keys lead them to our landlord and room. And on approximately the seventh trip out into the city, surrounded by 12 police officers, I realize that the game is over. The police have found the right building, and they will soon be taking the three dogs.
When the police knock on the door, I hear barking on the other side. Chris opens the door, and my heart drops, knowing he, too, will be arrested and the dogs taken from us. The officers barge in. They confiscate all our equipment — our laptops and cameras — as they search the place upside down. Miraculously, however, they ignore the dogs, who they allow us to put in the bathroom while they search. A few hours later, the officers say we are all going back to jail.
“What about the dogs?” I ask. “They can’t stay in the apartment by themselves, with no food or water.”
“They’ll have to,” an officer responds. I beg them to allow me to ask the landlord to take care of them. That is a large ask, given that she does not allow dogs in the apartment. Indeed, we’ve been sneaking them in and out. But much to my surprise, she agrees. (I later learn that she felt bad because she had informed on us to the police.)
Back at the jail I’m sitting in the office of the highest officer in the city of Yulin. He’s offering me Taiwanese tea and has me uncuffed sitting next to his desk.
“We’re all friends here,” he says. “So let’s be friendly!”
He asks me to unlock our phones and laptops. I won’t agree to this, which makes him exasperated. He explains that I don’t have the right to say no to him, and that the consequences of refusing will be severe. He says we won’t get out, or get our equipment out, until we unlock the devices.
We finally settle on my showing his forensic team the files on the computer from a distance. They sit on the other side of the table, as I show them every file on the computer over the course of 3 hours. But the boss breaks our agreement and demands that we delete the files — even innocent footage of our three dogs playing. What he doesn’t know is that I’ve already sent a considerable amount of footage to the States. I pretend to pause and ponder his demand, as if it’s a hard choice. Then I agree. One of his tech staff installs an app that supposedly shreds files on my computer, and they delete all the footage we’ve shot.
For the first time, the officers are good to their word. They release us, and even give us back our computers, minus a few $3000 cameras, but they also say that we will be deported from China. I ask them, “For what offense?” They never give me an answer. We grab a cab home, and when we get back to the apartment, it’s a relief to find that the dogs are happy and healthy. They jump up and down to see us, and moan so longingly it’s almost as if they are in physical pain.
I don’t even mind that there’s a motion sensor installed, and a strange group of angry-looking young men stationed — undercover police officers, we later learn — outside of our apartment. Another group is stationed on the first floor. We won’t take another step in China without the police knowing where we are.
It’s two weeks later. I’m home in Berkeley, playing with one of the dogs in our living room. We’ve now named him Oliver, after the orphan from Dickens’ novel, and he is dancing and twirling in joy. He’s one of those goofy dogs who always manages to amuse himself, and in the most flamboyant ways. Every few minutes, I have to remind myself that we really got him out; that he was going to be brutally beaten and eaten, but that now he is safe.
A few weeks later, I’m watching ABC’s Nightline. They’re featuring our investigation of the dog meat trade. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s remarkably positive coverage. They’ve made us out to be heroes when we’re really just ordinary people who love dogs. On the other hand, they’ve ignored what was, to me, the most important message of our rescue: that, to truly save dogs and other animals, we have to look first and foremost at ourselves. It’s not just the millions of dogs who die in shelters or labs in the United States, horribly sad though their stories are. It’s that what drives dog meat in China is what drives bacon or hamburger in the West: the false belief that we can exploit animals because they are different from us. Until we upend that belief system — which animal rights activists call “speciesism” — animals, including dogs, will always be in danger.
I look at Oliver playing in the backyard and think back to the dozens of other animals I’ve rescued from farms. A sick piglet we named Miley. A tiny crippled hen, who became Emma. And a dying chicken, Mei, we pulled from an egg farm’s manure pile. While the species is different, the story is the same. A human being, motivated as much by ignorance as malice, concluded that Oliver’s life didn’t matter. It’s a story as old as human prejudice.
But when I look into Oliver’s eyes — when the world looks into his eyes — I see a different story unfolding. I see more and more ordinary people, just like me, deciding to take an extraordinary risk. To walk behind the closed doors, past the lines that we normally draw, and beyond the moral frontiers that we have always kept. I see more open rescues happening just like ours, spreading across the globe and daring the government to try us in the court of law or the court of public opinion. I see an industry and ideology crumbling under the weight of hypocrisy. And I see a world where all the slaughterhouses have been replaced with sanctuaries — spaces where the animals of this earth can live in peace rather than violence.
I smile and get up to look at a map. It’s time to plan our next rescue.
Wayne Hsiung is lead investigator in the DxE Open Rescue Network and co-founder of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), the international grassroots animal liberation network. He formerly practiced law at two national law firms and served on the faculty of Northwestern School of Law. His work with DxE has been covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Nightline.