I arrived in Tianjin China after 2 days travelling from Spain. My first impression of the city, as I stepped down from the bus in Tianjin bus station, that there is a lot of poverty here. There were many areas that can only be described as shanty towns and rubbish was piled high and everywhere. The smog was almost choking and the sun was completely blocked out by it. Most of the trees looked dead. The date.. the 19th March 2016. I arrived at my hotel exhausted, but really looking forward to meeting the person who was the main reason for my visit, Yang Xiaoyun, affectionately known as Madam Yang.
The following day I was met at my hotel by my translator and the person who would be guiding me through this trip, a gentleman called MK. We arrived at one of Madam Yang’s shelters early that afternoon. The shelter was located on what looked like an industrial area but instead of warehouses the area had private dwellings. There was the usual (what was becoming a familiar sight) rubbish strewn everywhere. Madam Yang can only afford to house her dogs in the ‘shanty’ town areas of Tianjin because there the rent is low. In front of the shelter there was a large allotment area where vegetables were being grown. I was greeted first by a young male volunteer who I later discovered is in a police training academy. Then I was introduced to Madam Yang by MK. MK had met the lady herself on several occasions before. After the initial handshake and Madam Yang looking at me with suspicion, she relaxed slightly when MK explained, among other things, that my visit was one of help, not judgement. I was led into the shelter and was immediately greeted by tens of joyous dogs, jumping up at me from all quarters. I was in the part of the shelter where only the small dogs were housed. On first inspection most animals looked in reasonable health. They were obviously well fed and their love for Madam Yang was undeniable. A few had skin problems and to stop the spread to other dogs or the condition getting worse a vet was needed to see the animals asap. A vets visit was also needed to examine all the dogs for a health check and to bring all animals up to date with their injections for example. On the whole the dogs looked well, happy and lively. However I did witness a few fights and the question of segregation needs to be addressed. I asked Madam Yang where did the dogs come from? to which she replied “Yulin.” Madam Yang informed me she had enough money for food and rent for all her shelters (at the moment), but she could not afford to pay for a professional vet. If she did the dogs would have to go without food. A lot of donations have now dried up due to the online hate campaign against her, but she is determined to carry on for the sake of the dogs. Madam Yang lives in the shelter with her charges and it has very basic amenities; a bed, a cupboard and that’s about it. It did however have running water. There was no heating in Madam Yang’s sleeping quarters that I could see and the dogs dried dog food (about 30 large sacks) was also housed there. I know many people are very poor in Tianjin, but it is such a shock to see how Madam Yang lives. The shelter was divided into two; large dogs separated from small dogs. The large dogs had individual pens on their site, the smaller dogs had a covered building and small yard on their site. The large and small dogs were separated by a wrought iron gate. Females and males were together, and it was unknown to me at that time if any had been sterilised. Altogether there were between 120-150 dogs. The shelter was clean (no poo to be seen) but there was a small ‘outbuilding’ that contained a lot of rubbish, but with determination it could be cleaned in a couple of days. I had packed my overalls, so offered my services. I am a ‘hands on’ sort of person and I had come to Tianjin not to just observe but to help as well. Madam Yang was a bit taken aback when I offered to clean; I do not think many people have done that before. Being the cautious person she is, Madam Yang wanted time to consider my offer. I also had the pleasure of meeting Madam Yang’s daughter-in-law. She had obviously been cleaning the shelter with Madam Yang and looked exhausted! I managed to have a short conversation with her through my interpreter. Madam Yang’s daughter in law also eyed me with suspicion. I brought up the subject of the attacks that had been aimed at her and that certain people were accusing her on social media of mismanaging funds and driving a brand new car. She laughed lightly at this and quietly replied, “I don’t drive.” I could tell that the strain of the hate campaign was taking its toll on this young woman. Her own blood family has been dragged into the fray and they too have received threats from individuals determined to destroy Madam Yang.
It is obvious that Madam Yang needs help in her shelters on a permanent basis. She receives help occasionally from family, friends and volunteers but the workload is far too much for just one person. At least two full-time paid staff and/or regular volunteers would be required to ease some of Madam Yang’s burden.
Later that afternoon Madam Yang took me to her new shelter. It is huge! She wants to house all her dogs together to ease up on the burden of her travelling to her various sites. She informed me that she has managed to secure a loan and that the money is being used to renovate the new shelter(s). The rent for the new site is 20,000 RMB a year. During my time in Tianjin Madam Yang was very preoccupied with the new shelter and I went with her on many occasions to see how things were coming along. The workmen were working with very basic materials. There was not even a cement mixer. Madam Yang has had to provide them with all the tools needed right down to new work gloves. One day I went to the ironmonger with her because steel girders were needed. These were ordered and paid for by Mrs Yang in the warehouse and she even had to get the girders transported to the new site herself. They were transported to the new shelter on top of a taxi. This new project is enormous and Mrs Yang is organising the whole thing. It would test the stamina of a person half her age. Because this new shelter is such an enormous undertaking, I worry if the loan money is going to cover all the costs. I will keep people informed on how the works are coming along. It became obvious to me in the time I spent at the new shelter that Madam Yang has absolutely no concept of giving or asking for receipts. Madam Yang paid workers in cash and neither party asked for paper documentation.
The following day Madam Yang was extremely busy with all her chores and did not have time to meet me until late afternoon, early evening. My interpreter had a business meeting so Madam Yang and I were alone and had to communicate with hand signals. Having this time alone however helped us to ‘bond’ even though of course the language was a problem. I saw Madam Yang every day of my trip and it was becoming clear to me early on that she wanted to get to know me before she was prepared to open up. Madam Yang’s day starts at 6 am and after a full days work (and even though she must have been desperate for rest ) she introduced me to her friends, I ate at their homes and was even invited to a birthday party. One evening Madam Yang took me to a restaurant owned by a friend of hers who also helps with rescues. This friend wishes to remain anonymous for fear of attack. I will call her Mary. Mary adores animals, especially cats and they were free roaming but lived on top of the restaurant roof. They obviously hung around there because they knew it was a source of regular food. All the cats looked healthy and very well fed. During the course of the evening the conversation focused on a Chinese man called Chi Chi who is anti China and lives in America. This gentleman sent 10,000 us dollars to Madam Yang for her animals. Because Chi Chi had donated he then started to insist that Madam Yang speaks out against the Chinese government. I am sure I do not have to explain how dangerous it is for any Chinese citizen to speak out against their government. When Madam Yang refused to do so, she was then accused by Chi Chi’s supporters of selling her dogs to Mary’s restaurant. Mary was holding back tears as she explained to me how devastating it was to be accused of serving dog meat in her restaurant. The restaurant was inspected and no trace of dog meat was found. Since then Mary has been hounded by unnamed individuals on social network and because the ‘bullying’ became so bad, she actually closed down her account. She explained to me that this only happened because she spoke out in favor and supported Madam Yang. It was of little comfort to her when I explained the same thing happens to Madam Yang’s supporters in the West. Unfortunately Madam Yang is obviously seen by certain people as a ‘product’ to advance their own objectives which has nothing to do with saving dogs.
In the middle of my visit to Madam Yang I went to her shelter with my overalls on. I was finally allowed to clean! But not for long. Madam Yang whisked me away for an early lunch. We returned to the shelter an hour later and my interpreter explained to me that Madam Yang really did not want me to clean. She felt embarrassed that I had come such a long way and that I should be enjoying myself visiting the sights of Tianjin. To try to persuade Madam Yang that I wanted to help in her shelters was futile, so I just did little things, like opening up containers of cooked meats, cutting up cooked sausages that some kind shop owner had donated and of course cuddling doggies.
Madam Yang is generous to a fault. I had to insist on paying any restaurant bills, forcing her money back into her purse. I had accidentally left my warm jacket back in my home town and one evening Madam Yang took me shopping to buy another one because I was cold. Again I had to be very strict with her to stop her from paying. I can imagine Madam Yang is probably taken advantage of by unscrupulous people because of her generous nature.
During my trip I interviewed Madam Yang and it was recorded. I asked her many questions, one of them questioning her stance on neutering the dogs. This is obviously a very touchy subject with Madam Yang and I had to tread very carefully so that I did not offend her or her beliefs. My translator explained that Madame Yang does not agree to neutering because of her religion; she is a Buddhist. I explained to Madam Yang that even though she disagreed with neutering we could still work together for a better life for her animals. As I said before, I was there to help Madam Yang, not to judge. I put it to Madam Yang could the sexes at least be separated? This she has agreed to do when she has the room in her new shelter. (Writers note: I contacted a vet for advice and was told that even though the dogs were not neutered the chances of the animals breeding were very low. The combination of stress, horrendous living conditions and infections spreading to the dogs prior to Madam Yang rescuing could render the animals infertile. If any puppies were produced, the mortality rate would be very high.) This could be one of the reasons why many dog meat butchers resort to stealing people’s pets. A vet visit to Madam Yang’s animals was needed asap. It was becoming obvious to me that working with Madam Yang was about taking small steps and diplomacy, not about demanding and lecturing. Madam Yang also agreed to allow vets to visit her animals. She however is not in a position financially to pay for vets, so other means will need to be found. I immediately put out an urgent appeal to No To Dog Meat (the British registered charity who did a fundraiser for Madam Yang in June 2015 and they collected over £80,000) asking them the details of the vets that they said they had arranged for Madam Yang’s dogs. So far no vets details have been forthcoming from the charity as of today’s date (10th April 2016). I searched for the vet that No To Dog Meat had organised, but to no avail. MK (my interpreter) then informed me a friend of his was friends with a vet and they attended school together. This vet has agreed to work with Madam Yang. I am in possession of all his particulars and will be liaise with him and Madam Yang to get her dogs seen to asap. Another question I asked Madam Yang was how does she account for donations? As I said before Madam Yang has no accounting skills whatsoever. I explained to Madam Yang the only way she was going to be able to account for past donations and to counteract online accusations of her committing fraud was to open up her bank account for public scrutiny. This she has agreed to do. Madam Yang has also been accused on social media of not opening up her shelters to the public. She informs me the new shelter will have living quarters where volunteers can stay, help, and witness first hand the animals in her care.
Nearing the end of my trip, Madam Yang handed me her phone and on the other end was a friend of hers called Tony and he spoke perfect English. He asked me to be completely honest and to tell him how my trip had gone. I told him I was disappointed that I had not managed to see all the shelters and that I would have liked to have helped more, such as cleaning, etc. Tony said he would tell Madam Yang to open up more to me on my next trip. He explained that Madam Yang is very cautious because of past experiences but she was willing to work with me (through him) to improve the welfare of the dogs that are in her care. With careful diplomacy, understanding, patience and give and take on both sides Madam Yang is willing to open up and accept help. This can only be achieved when both parties have complete trust in each other and are willing to work together for the good of the animals. I have no hidden agendas nor wish for self promotion. I went to China to see how I could physically help save dogs and cats from the horrors of the meat trade. Madam Yang is an iconic symbol of that fight. She has been rescuing dogs for over 20 years not as a charity but as an individual. Whenever she goes to a dog meat market she is taunted by butchers who torture their dogs in front of her and demand a high price. She has a police escort because of the threats of violence aimed against her and she has been physically attacked. Unfortunately Madam Yang is not only abused in her own country. Recently the hate campaign on social media against her in the West has been unprecedented. Because of this Madam Yang is reluctant to handle any more donated money, so to combat that I am in the process of organising a dog food supplier in Shanghai who is willing to take donations and the company will provide the dog food direct to Madam Yang’s animals. Further information will be posted when all the necessary arrangements have been made. The vet will be paid for directly as well and I am taking advice on how best to achieve this.
As ARAs we should be working with Madam Yang to bring the downfall of the evil dog meat trade; not just in China, but across all of the nations that still practice the barbaric torture and killing of dogs and cats for the dinner table. Madam Yang is the symbol of the anti dog meat movement and her sacrifices have caught the imagination of thousands. Together we can help bring awareness and hopefully one day a stop to this horrendous trade.