China's Rapidly Growing Animal Welfare Movement

Feb 05, 2014 | Updated Apr 07, 2014

China has been in the news relentlessly this past year in relation to the mass slaughter of elephants and rhinos in Africa and Asia for the country's inexhaustible demand of their tusks and horns. Comments to such stories often expose sweeping statements from people across the globe that all Chinese are cruel and heartless but, having lived and worked in China since 1985, I couldn't disagree more.

Operating Animals Asia's bear rescue sanctuary in Chengdu, we see an astonishing level of intelligence and compassion in our Chinese directors and staff -- and celebrate the brave Chinese welfare groups and individuals across the country who achieve unprecedented success against animal cruelty and exploitation.

In many ways, the animal welfare movement in China is maturing far faster than it ever did in the West. Without any laws to protect domestic, wild and endangered species from abuse, the animals are seeing significant victories as a result of the rising internal movement to champion their plight.

The past couple of years have seen Chinese animal welfare advocates ban the U.S. rodeo from entering Beijing, demonstrate against the import of seal parts from Canada, end barbaric live animal feeding in zoos, prevent the construction of a foie gras factory and rescue thousands of dogs and cats from the meat trade. The social networks are overflowing each and every day with the movement's latest successes, giving more and more young environmentalists the confidence to join.

Today, of our nearly 200 staff in Chengdu, the majority are Chinese -- most of whom would admit to not knowing anything about animal welfare when they arrived. What is most satisfying, however, is how these truly incredible people seize the power of their roles, determined to make a difference.

Toby Zhang, our External Affairs Director, began as a translator at the end of 2003. As he admits, he knew nothing then about the cruel bear bile farms, or about the physical and psychological abuse suffered by their victims. Today he proudly states that rather than a job, ending bear bile farming has become his personal dream. He goes further and says:

I don't really know why I love animals, but I think it is very important to stop people from abusing them, and this will not only save the animals themselves, but will also make people better people. It's no easy job ending bear farming in China, almost mission impossible, but I believe in Chinese people. They are kind people, they oppose bear farming as soon as they know what this torture means to the bears, and they believe in the mission of Animals Asia too -- to restore respect to animals.

In fact, the mission to which Toby refers, originates from China's benevolence towards animals from centuries ago, and is simply a rediscovery of Chinese ancient culture and values. Mang Ping, a professor at China's Central Institute of Socialism, promotes this belief when she says:

We have the same sympathy and mercy as the West towards animals. Ancient manuscripts show that animal protection was the first activity to be regulated by the ancient dynasties, and people under the Qing dynasty were not allowed to kill cubs, pregnant females, or working animals. Today, we see bears riding bikes, animals cruelly treated in labs, and so on, but can we return to our traditional culture? Our culture is embedded in benevolence, which is the core of Buddhism -- and if we lose benevolence, we lose Chinese culture.

This movement of Chinese people against injustices in their country is exhilarating, considering the successes for the animals it brings. Progress such as this enforces the notion that change can only happen when the people of the country support the change. I think back to campaigns with international calls for boycotts -- such as protest during 1988's Korean Olympic Games, when the world demanded that dogs and cats be taken off the menu. Korean students were outraged and, rather than joining a movement towards which they may otherwise have agreed, they rebelled at being told what to do by Westerners waving an imperialistic finger, and publicly said that they would kill and consume more dogs and cats.

This is why it is so important to continue building the momentum of caring people in China, who will get the job done. Irene Feng, our Cat and Dog Welfare Director, remembers wanting to change her career from the business to the charity sector in 2005. As she says:

What I like best about my job is that it's not working for money but for something meaningful for the animals, and helping to free cats and dogs from cruelty. Of course I know that I can't help them all, but the more our team works on this issue, the more the animals will benefit. I learned so much from my own dog, Maomao, and am proud of how much our welfare team have achieved to improve the lives of dogs and cats in China in the past ten years.

Our work reinforces this Chinese ownership of creating change within the country -- and
empowers our staff to spearhead projects that reach deep in to the hearts and minds of the public.

Just recently, one of our Bear Team leaders, Yang Li, was trailed on site by a local reporter writing stories about special people in Chengdu. Readers were so moved by Yang Li's story and how she cared for the bears that they voted her the "Power of Chengdu" ahead of 18 other candidates. Yang Li, like all of our bear workers, makes it her business to understand the bears' characters, their needs, their likes and dislikes and their medical requirements, inside-out. Their gentle, professional approach means that our bears are receiving the best possible care, and sees Chinese visitors to the sanctuary proud and supportive that Yang Li and our staff are ridding the country of what is spoken of as the "stain of China," and leading the movement to end bear farming, once and for all.