Celebrities Square Off Against Chinese Dog Meat Festival

PHOTO: A group of dogs in China shown on video captured by the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere.PlayDirect Action Everywhere
WATCH Celebs Take on Chinese Dog Meat Festival

With the help of Hollywood celebrities including Matt Damon, Joaquin Phoenix and one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, animal activists in the United States and China are rallying to stop a Chinese dog meat festival that began this week and will reportedly lead to the slaughter of thousands of dogs.

“We are here asking you to stop the cruelty,” said Damon in one of the public service announcements released last week.

An undercover video inside a slaughterhouse in Yulin earlier this year shows many of the dogs still wearing collars, suggesting they were pets stolen off the streets of Beijing and Shanghai and sent to Yulin to be eaten this week, according to American activists who recently returned from China.

PHOTO: An image of a puppy in a cage in China, captured by the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere.Direct Action Everywhere
An image of a puppy in a cage in China, captured by the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere.

The festival in the city of Yulin in south China is timed to start with the summer solstice, based on a belief by some residents that eating dog meat at the beginning of the summer will bring good luck all year. It is legal to sell and eat dog meat under Chinese law, but in Yulin and elsewhere, stray and even family dogs are endangered by a sprawling black market illegal trade.

Eating dog is “not widespread” in China, according to Michael Zhao of the Asia Society, but there are a few pockets where it remains popular.

“There’s definitely a lot of myth,” Zhao said. “I’m not seeing a lot of scientific literature saying dog is good for your body or for your health, so I would say it’s a lot of myth in this sort of traditional subscription to that idea.”

As many as 10,000 dogs are expected to be slaughtered this week in Yulin. Activists with Direct Action Everywhere, an animal rights organization that sent three members undercover to Yulin in April to document the upcoming preparations of the festival, say they’ve been able to catch some of the brutality on camera at one of the largest slaughterhouses in the city. They provided the footage exclusively to ABC News.

PHOTO: A group of dogs in China shown on video captured by the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere.Direct Action Everywhere
A group of dogs in China shown on video captured by the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere.

The video shows dogs being stomped on, tortured and beaten with metal rods, before having their throats slit and bodies boiled in order to be sold to local restaurants.

“I was shocked and horrified by what I saw,” said Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere. “Many of them [are] breeds that Americans know very well, like Labradors, Cocker Spaniels. So it was terrifying.”

“You walk toward the slaughterhouse and you just hear the screams,” Direct Action Everywhere’s Julianne Perry told ABC News.

Hsiung and Perry said they had a close call when some dog meat traders discovered what they were doing.

“They grabbed us, both of us, [and took us] over to a wall and two of the men -- there were about 10 men and six women -- two of them picked up metal polls,” Perry said. “They were holding them in their hands and hitting them in their hands. These were men that we had seen the previous day beat animals to death. And I remember sitting there next to Wayne thinking, ‘This might be where I die.’”

Local authorities then took the pair into custody and threatened them with charges of espionage and burglary, the activists said, but released them after two days of interrogation. They were then deported, they told ABC News.

Hsiung and Perry were able to smuggle out the video footage they had captured, along with three dogs bound for slaughter. The rest they had to leave behind.

“There was a little black dog who was sitting at the bottom,” Perry said. “I couldn’t go and grab him. At the end of the night, I had to walk away from him, knowing that the next day I would watch footage of him being beaten to death.”

PHOTO: Julianne Perry and Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere carry a dog to safety.Direct Action Everywhere
Julianne Perry and Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere carry a dog to safety.

An animal foundation started by Lisa Vanderpump, an entrepreneur and reality star of Vanderpump Rules and the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and her husband Ken Todd, has also been on the ground in Yulin, filming an upcoming documentary to bring attention to what Vanderpump called a “barbaric” practice.

“You can never erase those images from your mind once you’ve seen them,” she said of the photos of the animals. “And it’s a fine line because it’s a juxtaposition between wanting to stimulate interest but not wanting to put people off... And I believe as a celebrity -- and I use that word loosely -- as a person, that if we turn away, ultimately we’re condoning it.”

The activists said they’re starting to make some impact in Yulin and that the killing has been “pushed back to what they call ‘Dog Meat Street,’” according to John Sessa, executive director of Vanderpump Dogs, who was recently in Yulin for the organization. “The brutal slaughtering is going on more behind the scenes, but it’s obviously still going on in back alleys and it’s definitely occurring on a daily basis.”

“I think we should put pressure on China to stop it,” said Vanderpump.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told reporters Tuesday they have “learnt from the local government that folks in Yulin have the habit of eating lychee [a tropical fruit] and dog meat at the summer solstice, according to China’s lunar calendar.”

“It is the food preference of individuals. There is no such thing [as] holding celebrations for that,” the spokesperson said. “The local government of Yulin has never supported, organized or hosted any so-called dog meat festival.”

An Op-Ed in English-language China Daily, titled “Eating dog meat is a matter of choice,” recently focused less on the practice of dog consumption – a question on which it says society is “divided” -- and more on the illegal trade of dogs.

“It is not possible to persuade all dog-meat lovers to not eat dog meat, but at least we can regulate the industry to eliminate illegal dog meat trade, so as to protect dogs and dog-meat lovers and provide some relief for dog lovers,” the article said. “Dog lovers need to refrain from criticizing those who eat dog meat while those with a taste for dog meat should refuse to buy illegally traded dog meat.”