The summer solstice is rapidly approaching, and with it, the infamous Yulin Dog Meat Festival, in which tens and thousands of cats and dogs are slaughtered for the purpose of making traditional summer dishes. While dog meat has been consumed in China, especially Southern China, for centuries, the practice is on the wane across much of the nation.

Not in Yulin, however, where even international outrage — including from within China — has not stopped a nightmarish annual festival (if you’re curious of what goes on in Yulin, you can see photos, but be warned that they are extremely graphic).

As residents of the region drink lychee wine and prepare a variety of meat dishes, the world is watching, and it’s raising complicated questions about cultural traditions, ethics and even public health.

Though the practice of consuming dog and cat meat may date back hundreds of years, the Dog Meat Festival is actually a fairly recent development, first appearing in 2010. Tens of thousands of dogs and cats are hauled to Yulin for the festival, where they’re sold both live and butchered to people who want to prepare their meat to celebrate the onset of summer.

The festival has become so controversial that the government of Yulin has stepped away from it, insisting that it’s an event coordinated by local businesses and organizers, not a government-sanctioned event.

Meanwhile, animal advocates in China have successfully drafted laws banning the sale of dogs and cats for food, but the legislation hasn’t passed the National People’s Congress.

Celebrants and proponents of the festival argue that it’s an important part of their cultural heritage, and that it’s no different from any other meat-centric festival, whether it be a Memorial Day barbecue or Christmas goose or Eid lamb. They point out that animals are slaughtered for food all over the world in the millions annually, and that if people are going to eat other four-legged animals, they don’t have much standing for criticizing Yulin’s annual festival — in a VICE feature on the festival, for example, one interviewee noted that cows are sacred in India, but this doesn’t stop people in Britain (or anywhere else) from eating them.

Critics, however, believe the situation is more nuanced. Setting aside discussions about cultural sensitivity and the difference in opinion over what constitutes a companion animal, some argue that there are some serious health implications. While selling dogs and cats for any purpose is entirely legal in China, transporting them without permits is not, making much of the brisk trade in Yulin illegal.

That trade also takes place without any oversight, with animal rights activists reporting that dogs and cats arrive sick, injured or dead — and that they’re sold for meat even though they may carry contagious diseases. Rabies, cholera and other diseases have been linked with the Yulin festival and other events where people consume companion animals, and the filthy conditions in meat markets are ideal for breeding a dazzling array of infectious bacteria.

Moreover, there’s another problem: Animal rights activists charge that the dogs and cats sold at Yulin are often stolen companion animals, and they have the evidence to prove it, including photographs of animals still wearing collars and tags. Participants in the trade hotly insist that their animals are acquired through legal means, from farms that breed dogs and cats for slaughter, but activists have documented a systemic pattern of trapping strays and kidnapping pets to feed the demand for meat. They also haven’t found evidence of the “breeding farms” that vendors claim to use.

These critics believe that even if the festival does represent a cultural and culinary tradition that should be respected, the conditions for the animals involved are so horrific, and so dangerous, that it should be shut down. The lack of regulation and oversight endangers human and animal health alike, and the uncertain provenance of the animals slaughtered each year is cause for deep concern, as no one should have to suffer the heartbreak of losing a companion animal.

Others believe that the festival is unethical under any circumstances — as one Chinese woman put it in the VICE documentary, if China can put an end to foot binding, surely it can put an end to killing companion animals for their meat.

Within China, activists and celebrities from all over the nation have spoken out against the festival. On an international level, celebrities of all stripes – including Ricky Gervais, a particularly colorful and outspoken advocate on the issue – have also called for the festival to shut down.

This year, Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-Florida) even introduced a resolution condemning it and encouraging the Chinese government to act. Humane Society International, a leading animal welfare organization, is working to investigate the festival and bring it to an end. With enough pressure, perhaps Yulin will consider shelving this terrible practice.

If you’d like to help put pressure on the Chinese government, please sign and share the Care2 petition demanding an end to the Yulin Dog Meat Festival!

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