In China, the existence of stray animals has been a social problem for decades. Some—mostly Western—countries that have a rich history in animal welfare have made enormous effort to save the lives of stray animals, but in other regions, specifically in Asia, this problem simply grew more serious in a way that causes greater social problems concerning public health and safety.
In this paper, I aim to discuss the causes and consequences of the stray animal problems along with the challenges faced by the animal rescue community. I discuss these issues in three interviews with experienced rescuers based in China, supplemented with extended research on topics mentioned in the interviews.
II. Interview with Savannah, long term volunteer for four cat rescues in Beijing
Savannah Lee is a full time teacher in an international high school in Beijing. She has been living in China for seven years and participating in stray cat rescuing for nearly four years. She is currently a member of many rescue groups, Cat Community, Beijing Dog Rescue, Kitten Care, and more that offer help in Beijing, Shanghai and a few other cities across China. The interview was conducted on November 12, 2020 via email.
First I asked her to describe the current situation about stray animals in China. In her own words, the situation is “very bad” as many stray cats and dogs are unvaccinated and neither spayed or neutered, potentially creating more strays.
Effective ways to control the stray population include education on animal care, especially on the importance of vaccination and sterilization. Education eliminates the stereotypes that sterilization hurts animals and creates instead an understanding that sterilization brings more benefits to an animal’s long-term health by dramatically reducing the risks of certain types of cancers.
Also, the idea of Trap, Neuter, Release (or, TNR), which is a practice commonly used in the animal rescue communities in the United States and other countries. It is a process where the animal is first trapped, brought to the hospital to be vaccinated and fixed, and released back to the place where you trapped them in. “This is a practice that should be introduced and used more in China.” Savannah said.
Then I invited her to discuss with details on how animal rescue organizations are funded and how they work in China. She mentioned that usually, animal rescue organizations are funded and taken care of by people who are willing to help with their own money, or through charitable donations. Because of the challenges of being self-sponsored, the financial support is limited, and so is the help they are able to offer. When an animal is found, the rescuers will come together to help, first fostering the pet at their house and raising money on their own until they are ready to look for “forever homes”.
She then mentioned the problems of animal rescue work, and introduced three key factors that would help based on her experiences with animal rescue. First, there should be education on how people can join the community and help on animal rescue, and accurate reporting on the situation. People need to understand how to take care of animals, and how much time and money to be invested in animal rescue.
Communication is undoubtedly important as well. Due to the constraints of having WeChat groups as the main tool of communication, people get confused by the many groups with different messages going in and out for just one rescuer, especially during a critical time frame, for example during night time or work hours.
Clarity also contributes to successful communication and the running of the organization. There are groups for animal rescue, for pet related questions, or groups specifically focused on dogs or cats. It is important that people find the right group or community to join, and get passed on the information they need.
As a born and raised American living in China, Savannah experiences major differences between the two countries when handling animal rescue issues, from funding available to the organization to having an actual organization facility or access to what the rescuers need, like a 24 hour veterinary care. Still, education and money are the key. In the United States people are more involved and aware of the animal rescue community compared to Chinese.
One instance of how people might potentially make a change occurred in November 2020, when a company in Shanghai put puppies and kittens into a vending machine where people could pay and play a game, and get the animal as a prize. A video about this went viral where people condemned and protested the exploitation of a live animal in a game. Three days later, the machine got shut down. Together, people can make a difference; they just need a good reason.
III. Interview with Muran, founder and content creator of Loving Home of Muran
Uncle Muran is the founder of a rescue group called Loving Home of Muran in Dongyang, Zhejiang Province, and also a content creator with over 23k followers in Chinese Tik Tok and Little Red Book about his rescue stories. The interview was conducted on November 13, 2020 via direct message on Little Red Book, a social media platform in China.
First I asked about his opinion on the major causes of the vast size of stray population in China, and he answered, “there is a rising population of irresponsible pet owners that decide to have a pet out of fashion, or, just for a spur of the moment, and when the moment is gone, they simply kick the animals out of the door.” He also mentions that there should be a strictly enforced regulation on pet ownership, which impose punishments on irresponsible owners to reduce such behaviors.
Being a content creator on animal rescue, Uncle Muran uses mainly two social media platforms, Chinese Tik Tok for video-sharing and Little Red Book for both videos and photos with short written posts. I asked if social media is effective as the main tool of communication and information sharing, he said yes because “it helps bring people into this community using my contents, mostly sad videos of strays when they are first taken in, or happy ones when they find homes.”
At the end of the interview, I offered to make a small donation but Uncle Muran immediately refused. He claimed to welcome as many volunteers as possible, but does not encourage donations unless being made in person. In his words, “for donations, we welcome anyone who has visited our base, or has truly known us to donate, and we are very grateful for any donations. However, we do not recommend anyone who we have never met, or spoken before, to make donations because we hope you know that your money is being used in the right place, but with the Internet, you never know, and we do not want to get into trouble.”
Uncle Muran also mentions that he has encountered some content creators who earn a profit by 卖惨, which roughly translates to sadfishing, a new term on social media that refers to the practice of getting attention using people’s sympathy, or making touching videos that do not speak the truth. He expressed a strong disgust to such behaviors.
IV. Interview with the co-founder of Tianjin Stray Animal Rescue Team
The interviewee was unwilling to give out her name nor any other information besides what is shown on her Weibo profile, and she answered my questions with very brief answers, sometimes in only a few words where I could sense that she was cautious when talking. The interview was conducted on November 10, 2020 via direct message on Weibo, a social media platform in China.
First I asked about how the animal rescue group that she is involved in works, and she explained that her team is a small scale rescue group based in Tianjin and that all her teammates are her friends and family. She specifically stressed that “we are not a shelter or any organization, but just a gathering of friends and family who want to help animals.”
Their main source of information is through Weibo. One of the major advantages of having Weibo as the main platform is that all information posted is open to the public whereas in WeChat, people need to be added directly into a message group before accessing any information. Their post content is only seeking adoption for animals they have rescued. The interviewee said, so far, Weibo has been working great for her team.
Similar to Uncle Muran, the team refuses to accept any donations as well. She said “we do not need any. Even if we do, we are more likely to raise money among the people we know, like friends and family instead of asking for donations from strangers.” She knows there are frauds using animal rescue as a hook to make money, and she does not want to give anyone a chance to make profit in this field. “People can always help by volunteering or fostering, which she believes is a better way to contribute in this community.” Clearly for her team, donations are not the best way to help them.
V.Follow-up interview with Savannah Lee in terms of the act of donating
After noticing the different reactions towards donations among three rescuers, I arranged a follow-up interview with Savannah to specifically discuss the act of donating. She has a rather different view and stated that donations are important in keeping an organization alive. In her words, “I do not agree with the statement that rescuers should not ask for money. If they are trusted rescuers then they should. Rescuing animals can get expensive, especially if they get sick. I once spent over 50,000 RMB out of my own pocket on the cats I have rescued and it was a lot of money for me as an ordinary person.”
However, there is only one action that Savannah said some rescuers do and that she was not happy about, which is using the donations for personal interests instead of on the animals that need help. She mentioned that she often heard about rescue groups raising money for a good cause, and then use the funds to go out and eat, or buy things for themselves.
It is interesting to see that different rescue groups handle things differently, especially on the matter of donating behaviors, but the ground rule is that all donations should be used only on the needs of animals.
VI. Conclusion with extended research
a. Lack of legislation on animal protection
China, among many other Asian countries, do not have any legislation and law enforcement for animal protection. Though various attempts have been made by both the people and government officials to raise the concerns of establishing laws for animal protection and against animal abuse, nothing substantial was achieved. Without any active legislation against animal abuse, such acts rarely break any laws, leaving rescue organizations overly dependent on volunteer work and unreliable donation funding.
b. Lack of support for animal rescue organizations
Most rescue groups and animal shelters that are currently operating across China are self organized without any governmental sponsorship. Few organizations have established home bases and full time workers while most are put together by volunteers and operate out of their own homes, usually apartment complexes.. Three major burdens on Chinese rescue groups development are the lack of stable financial support, the lack of volunteers, and a large demand for adoption.
Many rescue groups are founded, supported, and operated by the same group of people with similar interest in animal rescue. It is difficult for them to get outside support due to lack of communication, publicity, and interest from the general public. Another challenge for people working for rescue groups is where to store animals. Without a base, they are forced to bring stray animals back home, or to places that they own, and keep them until they are adopted, causing stress and distraction for their daily lives, especially if their family or partners are not entirely supportive.
c. Lack of education on sterilization
The lack of reproduction control among animals, especially stray animals, escalates the stray population dramatically. Sterilization is an effective method to control stray population, and on the other hand it is also recommended by vets to neuter or spay pets to avoid potential genital diseases or cancers as they grow older. However, it is not a common practice in China compared to Western countries. Many people believe it is a deprivation of the animal’s nature of reproduction, and it is not morally acceptable. Therefore, education on sterilization and its benefits is key to reducing the stray population on a fundamental level.
d. Lack of consistency in existing regulations
Cats and other small animals require no registration and face no ownership constraint. Yet paradoxically, legal dog breed and size are heavily regulated in China. This is similar to the breed specific legislation (BSL) in the United States, which regulates or bans certain breeds that are believed to be aggressive, but the regulation in China is stricter. It both bans many breeds and restricts the size and number of dogs allowed in a household.
In Beijing, one household is limited to one dog, and the maximum height of the dog is 35 centimeters. In the original report it uses the words “小型玩赏犬” or small-sized toy dog in English. Dogs need to be registered and inspected annually, so some breeds or larger sized dogs cannot be registered. The cost of registration fee varies in different cities. Some cities like Chengdu offers free registration, but in Beijing, the cost is 1,000 RMB in the first year, and 500 RMB for annual renewal.
By making certain breeds and sizes illegal, the regulations increase the risk of an animals’ subsequent capture and euthanization by the animal control department. The heavy fines imposed by restrictions on unregistered dogs result in more abandonment simply because some dogs legally cannot be registered even in capable households. This obtuse regulation leads to a Chinese tendency to purchase specific, legal permit-friendly dogs directly from breeders or pet stores.
With the lack of animal protection law combined with the heavy restrictions on dog ownership, the concept of responsible pet ownership is only a moral constraint, instead of a mandate that every pet owner should obey. People need to be educated on responsible ownership so that with or without law enforcement, they would not abandon animals.
Being a dog owner living in Beijing, I sincerely believe China must improve the acceptance and protection of pets and pet owners. Existing pet regulation uses public safety to wrongfully justify heavily regulating the types of dogs that are allowed to live. However, it is the people who need to be regulated. They should be educated on responsible ownership and animal care, reprimanded for animal abandonment, and encouraged to participate in animal rescue.
With national-level legal protections and sufficient knowledge on animal welfare, there will be no animals roaming the streets. Instead, they will be loved in a home where they belong.