Up to 10,000 dogs and an unreported number of cats were killed this year to be eaten Sunday and Monday during China's annual Yulin festival — but not without an overwhelming amount of resistance.
The Yulin dog meat festival, which officially launched in 2009 as a way to mark the summer solstice in China's Guangxi province, has been a target of animal rights activists since its inauguration.
This year, dozens of celebrities, academics and international welfare organizations took up the cause as well, putting more pressure on local authorities than ever before.
Whether you're an atheist or believer, vegan or hunter, you must agree that torturing a dog then skinning it alive is wrong. #StopYuLin2015— @rickygervais
"I was in Yulin late last month," wrote Peter Li, an associate professor of East Asian politics at the University of Houston, in a widely shared article published by the South China Morning post last week. "What I saw was a city in preparation for the annual massacre."
"A slaughterhouse at the city's Dong Kou market had just received a new supply of dogs shipped from Sichuan," he continued. "The unloaded dogs looked emaciated, dehydrated and terrified … dogs and cats, many wearing collars, displayed behaviour associated with household pets."
Li is one of many animal rights advocates and journalists who have stated that an increasing number of the dogs served at Yulin are stolen from China's expanding community of pet owners.
As disturbing images and videos purported to be shot during festival preparations started circulating around the web earlier this month, animal lovers took to the internet to express their outrage.
Nearly four million people have signed one petition, created by a Change.org user in Ontario, calling upon the governor of Yulin to stop the festival. A different petition from the Duo Duo Animal Welfare project has 1.4 million signatures.
The hashtag #StopYulin2015 has been used more than one million times on Twitter this month alone, thanks in part to attention from high-profile social media users like Ricky Gervais, Gisele Bundchen and Paris Hilton.
Actors Fan Bingbing, Sun Li and Yang Mi are among the Chinese celebrities who have spoken out in opposition to the festival on Weibo and YouTube, joining hundreds of thousands in China who have already been criticizing it online for years, according to Time.
Ahead of the festival on Saturday, a retired school teacher from northern China reportedly travelled to Yulin and paid about 7,000 yuan (approximately $1,400) to save 100 dogs herself. The Guardian reports that the woman, Yang Xiaoyun, also bought 360 dogs last year.
Despite mounting pressure to put an end to Yulin's dog meat festival, city officials have been reticent to take action.
In fact, they've been distancing themselves from the controversy altogether, calling the festival "only a local folk custom, without official sanction" in a state news agency report.
"Some residents of Yulin have the habit of coming together to eat lychees and dog meat during the summer solstice," the city's news office wrote on Weibo, according to the BBC. "The 'summer solstice lychee and dog meat festival' is a commercial term, the city has never [officially] organized a 'dog meat festival.'"
Dog meat is eaten in some parts of China but is not a common dish, The Associated Press writes, explaining that owning dogs as pets was discouraged under early Communist Party rule.
"The urban value system which sees dogs and cats as companions is becoming more dominant while the more traditional and rural value system that sees animals as tools and sources of income is being challenged," said Li to the New York Times in an interview about the festival earlier this month.
When asked about criticism from dog meat traders who have said that stopping the festival could hurt business in Yulin, and that animal rights activists are "introducing a harmful Western ideology into China," he responded that "the impact of shutting down the dog meat trade would not be remotely significant for the Chinese economy."
"Opposition to eating dog meat began with the Chinese themselves," he also noted. "The bond between companion animals and humans is not Western. It's a transcultural phenomenon."