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To say that people in China eat dogs is something of a stereotype.

Sure, some still do, but these days, more and more Chinese are buying dogs as pets and treating them like beloved family members.

In the last year, that growing affection has taken a radical turn. Activists have begun stopping trucks along the highway carrying dogs to slaughter and then negotiating their release.

A Last-Minute Rescue

A recent case occurred in December in Eastern China's Jiangsu Province. Dai Huajing was driving along a road and saw a truck filled with dogs packed into cages like fur coats. The truck driver was negotiating a price with butchers at a roadside market.

"The dogs' mouths and legs were tightly tied up and the cages were very, very small," Dai recalls. "They couldn't move."

Dai grabbed her cellphone and began calling fellow animal lovers. The news ricocheted around Sina Weibo, China's most popular, Twitter-like microblog.

Within several hours, about 150 activists had surrounded the flatbed truck, demanding the animals' release. As negotiations dragged into the night, they used baby bottles to feed the dogs water and petted them through the rusting, wire-mesh.

"We're going home, don't be afraid," said Gao Jin, one of the protesters, as she tried to comfort a sad-looking mutt.

Eventually, the activists pooled nearly $8,000 and bought the dogs' freedom.

Dai said her decision to confront the dog-meat sellers was instinctive.

"I think it was a very natural thing to do," she says. "A truckload of dogs would be sent to be butchered. So, the first thing I had to do was to stop it."

Multiple Rescues In The Past Year

Over the past year, animal lovers have stopped eight other dog-meat sellers along China's roadways and rescued an estimated 2,000 dogs.

Dog meat is legal here, but a growing number of Chinese want to ban it.

It's part of a shift in attitudes toward animals in China driven by rising incomes, urbanization and increased pet ownership.

To appreciate the changes, consider the scores of students and volunteers who travel every other week to the shelter where the dogs Dai helped rescue now live.

On a recent Sunday morning, a mostly young crowd piled into a pair of buses for a 90-minute ride from the Chinese city of Nanjing to the shelter in the countryside. Along the way, they crouched on the floor of the bus and pulled apart steamed pork buns to feed the dogs.

Many of the volunteers were students like Sun Chenkai, who studies at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics. Sun says education is changing the way young people here see animals.

"We learn from textbooks about the bond between pets and humans," said Sun, as the bus rocked back and forth down a bumpy, rural road. "When you are in danger, your pet will come to your rescue. If kids are imbued with this concept, they would know animals are people's friends and we should not eat them."

A Heated Debate

Roadside rescues have sparked a heated debate about dog meat. Last summer, Shanghai TV aired a show on the issue in which dog lovers squared off against dog-meat lovers. Some of the participants seemed deliberately provocative.

"I firmly support eating dog meat," said a woman, who grinned and pumped her fist in excitement before a studio audience. "Dog meat is tasty. It's my favorite, my favorite!"

Fan Xiantao runs a famous chain of dog-meat stores and restaurants in China. He went on the TV show and defended his business.

"I've been butchering dogs since I was 8 years old and I still do it now," he said. "Do you know how many dogs I butcher every year? No less than 100,000."

Fan lives in Jiangsu Province's Pei County, where dog meat is a major industry. He says at least half a million dogs are slaughtered there annually.

Fan, who was in Shanghai on business recently, insisted his methods are humane in an interview with NPR.

"The way we butcher dogs is not very cruel," said Fan, between sips of coffee at a Starbucks in the city's financial district. "We have a traditional method that's very effective. Normally, we club them. We hit them in the head and kill them instantly."

What happens when a dog survives the first blow?

Fan says one strike always works.

A Long Tradition

Fan also says Chinese have been eating dogs since ancient times and there's no reason to stop now.

"It is a national delicacy and eating dog meat is a culinary tradition," says Fan, who dismisses the activists who want to outlaw his business.

"They are rather pathetic," he says. "How can they stop dog trucks when they don't have money?"

Fan has a point. Money and sustainability are real issues for dog rescuers.

Gao Jin works part-time at the shelter that cares for the dogs that were rescued in December. The shelter, really a sprawling dog farm in the mountains, already has too many animals people don't want.

"The monthly adoption situation is not very good," says Gao, who gives tours of the compound while wearing a headset and a pink plastic speaker strapped to her waist. "Because among the 1,800 plus dogs here, the vast majority are farm dogs. This type of dog isn't particularly liked in China. Many prefer purebreds."

Ha Wenjing, a former publisher, founded this private shelter, called Pingan Afu. She says it costs about $200,000 a year just to feed the dogs, and she finances the operation through volunteers, corporate donations and her own cash. Ha acknowledges that stopping trucks to prevent dog slaughter is unsustainable.

"Relying on individual animal welfare organizations, hoping they can save 100 dogs every day, we really don't have that ability," she says.

But that doesn't mean they won't keep trying.

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