Dozens of dogs and cats have been rescued from a Chinese slaughterhouse just days ahead of the widely-condemned Yulin Dog Meat Festival.
The 34 dogs, puppies and kittens were caged in squalid conditions at a slaughter facility when Chinese activists, led by Humane Society International, negotiated the release of all the animals inside.
It follows a huge rescue operation by activists last month who saved 200 dogs that were headed for the slaughterhouse.
The festival, which only began in 2010, has spawned petitions exceeding millions of signatures, with celebrities such as Ricky Gervais and Alesha Dixon speaking out against the annual event.
HSI discovered in its latest rescue operation that some of the dogs were wearing collars, suggesting they were pets stolen by dog thieves to fuel the trade.
Peter Li, HSI’s China policy specialist, led the rescue operation, and said: “The police presence is heavy in Yulin right now, and the atmosphere is very tense, so this was not an easy rescue.
"But we were determined to save animals from their gruesome fate at Yulin, and it was such a relief to leave the slaughterhouse cages empty for one day at least.
"The dogs and cats were clearly afraid, especially the older dogs who looked very fearful.
"But once they realised we weren’t there to hurt them, but in fact we would make their suffering stop at last, they very quickly responded with licks and wagging tails.
"It’s shocking to think that if we had not been there, all these animals would have been beaten to death and eaten.”
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The animals have been transferred to a shelter where they are being evaluated and treated by veterinarians before being prepared for adoption.
Whilst homes in China will be found for most of the animals, some of them may be flown to the UK and the US to start a new life, HSI said on Wednesday.
The Yulin festival begins on June 21, with thousands of dogs and cats set to be slaughtered and eaten.
International pressure has seen the number of animals killed reduced from 15,000 dogs in 2010 to an estimated 2-3,000 killed last year.
But hundreds are still killed each day in the weeks leading up to the festival.
Humane Society International's five facts about Yulin:
1. It’s not a traditional festival, it was only invented in 2010 by dog traders to boost profits
2. Before the festival started, Yulin had no history of mass dog slaughter and consumption
3. An estimated 30 million dogs a year are killed across Asia for their meat, some 10-20million in China alone, and thousands die just for Yulin
4. The World Health Organisation warns that the dog trade spreads rabies and increases the risk of cholera 20-fold
5. Dog meat is only eaten infrequently by less than 20 per cent of the Chinese population