Before and after: one of the dogs saved by NI rescuers from slaughter in China

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Gabrielle Gardiner – who along with her fiancee set up a group to save dogs from the Chinese meat trade – talks to GRAEME COUSINS about her passion for animals

A small but determined operation has been set up in Northern Ireland dedicated to helping dogs escape the Chinese meat trade and find new homes with families in the UK.

Gabby Gardiner with Elsa, a German shepherd rescued from a barbecue restaurant in China.

Gabby Gardiner with Elsa, a German shepherd rescued from a barbecue restaurant in China.

Such is the nature of the work of Little China Dog Rescue, that they are regularly faced with tight deadlines to raise funds to bring dogs back from China.

For example, right now they are trying to raise £4,000 in three weeks to rehome 10 dogs destined for slaughter for their meat.

Gabby Gardiner, a 28-year-old emergency nurse from Belfast who started the fundraising group which is now seeking charity status, has been to China once and has another visit planned in a few weeks.

She said: “Eating dog meat is commonplace in certain regions, and is more prevalent at certain times of the year like the Yulin dog meat festival and Chinese New Year. In other regions it would be very frowned upon.

Chris Sheehan holding rescued dog San about to go through Eurotunnel from Paris

Chris Sheehan holding rescued dog San about to go through Eurotunnel from Paris

“From being out there I’ve seen that amongst all the bad there’s a lot of good as well. When we were over we met local rescuers who have given up everything to save the dogs.”

Gabby said that dogs in China were viewed by many in the same way as cows and pigs are here at home – as a source of food and little else.

She commented: “You would get some people like the vets and local rescuers who cherish dogs dearly like a family member, but unfortunately in China there’s no animal welfare laws, which means the dogs are always at risk of being stolen for the meat trade or poisoned.

“There’s police culls as well because certain breeds are banned, like German shepherds, Samoyeds, mixed breeds.

Shakira Murray with rescue dog Muppet who has since been rehomed.

Shakira Murray with rescue dog Muppet who has since been rehomed.

“It’s quite difficult circumstances for dog lovers in China.”

Asked why such value was placed on dog meat in China, Gabby said: “The way it was explained to us when we were out there was that it’s one of the most expensive meats you can buy – the belief is the more pain inflicted on the dog before death the better the meat will taste because of the adrenaline produced before death.

“In certain regions, certain butchers will deliberately inflict pain on the dogs.”

While there are many who dedicate themselves to the rescue of dogs from the meat trade, Gabby said that most of time the rescues were not dramatic, instead they involved financial exchanges.

Old English shepherd Luna in the state she was in when local rescue group Harbin shs saved her from a breeding farm being sold for meat

Old English shepherd Luna in the state she was in when local rescue group Harbin shs saved her from a breeding farm being sold for meat

The fact that the people who sell the dogs on to the meat trade are equally willing to sell the dogs to rescuers presents an ethical conundrum for animal lovers.

Gabby said: “Sometimes the rescues are dramatic, breaking them out from the slaughterhouse, but most of the time they’re not – they involve paying to save the dog’s life.

“That’s the ethical dilemma – do you feed into the meat industry and buy a dog’s life or walk away and let the dog be killed?

“For me personally, I don’t think I’d put myself into the position of going into the slaughterhouse unless I knew I could rescue every single dog. However I couldn’t walk away without buying a dog’s life otherwise I’d be killing that dog.

“The last time we were out in China we drove past a barbecue restaurant and one of the volunteers said, ‘stop, stop, I see a dog’. We made the decision that we couldn’t leave with rescuing the dog.

“We’d asked our driver if he could go in and negotiate, unfortunately they’d already seen a mini van full of foreigners so they’d bumped the price up by three or four times because they know we’ll pay anything to save the dog’s life.”

Old English shepherd Luna in the state she was in when local rescue group Harbin shs saved her from a breeding farm being sold for meat

Old English shepherd Luna in the state she was in when local rescue group Harbin shs saved her from a breeding farm being sold for meat

She added: “A lot of the girls we work with out in China would work with local rescuers who have bought dogs off local meat trucks. They’d also work with animal activists who would actually stop meat trucks.

“The drivers are meant to have permits to say the dogs are for human consumption, but nine times out of 10 they don’t because the dogs are stolen family pets. Last year in Yulin (where the meat festival is held) they found dogs with their harnesses and collars still on.

“What the activists do is say they’re going to call the police and try to get the dogs surrendered over into rescuers’ care.

“I take my hat off to local rescuers, they just can’t do enough.

“A lot of them have pretty much dedicated their lives to the dogs. There was one rescuer we met in Harbin, she was a very wealthy well respected women who has turned the village she owns into a dog shelter.”

Gabby explained how she came to set up Little China Dog Rescue (initially called Doggy911) with her fiance Chris Sheehan: “When we set out it was as a fundraising group, we didn’t expect to be a full blown rescue operation.

“My wee toy poodle Ollie who started all this, he was used for medical testing in Harbin Medical University for four years, and when they no longer had any use for him they sold him to the meat market.

“He’d been rescued in the autumn of 2017 by a local lady from Harbin’s meat markets and taken in by Harbin SHS (Slaughterhouse Survivors) who found he had severe muscle atrophy, spinal curvature and badly deformed limbs.

“When we saw him he absolutely broke our hearts. We saw this wee dog shuffling along on his chest, with his wee tail wagging, we just had to help him.

“The girls from China could get him as far as Paris for us. We tried to fundraise to get a few other dogs out with him rather than bringing just one dog all the way to Paris.

“We got our first five rescues out of it and we haven’t stopped.

“The dogs are sent to Europe by China based rescues, at which point we take over their care and transport them to their forever homes.

“Many of these dogs are sick or disabled and would struggle to find homes elsewhere. We support fosters and adopters in meeting these special dogs’ healthcare needs until they reach a baseline level of health.

“The need is great out there in China, once you start you can’t stop.”

Ollie arrived in the UK on January 17 last year with five other dogs who flew out alongside him, all destined for homes in Northern Ireland.

Gabby said: “Since being in Northern Ireland Ollie has received veterinary care at Earlswood Veterinary Hospital that is second to none, along with other rescues.

“After an intensive two month physiotherapy and hydrotherapy plan he has been able to walk on his stumps and hop like a bunny. He has a wheelchair but gets on better without it.”

The rescue and recovery of Ollie has given Gabby and Chris the drive to ensure others dogs receive the same opportunity.

On her first visit to China, Gabby gave a home to a second rescued dog, a German shepherd, Elsa who she paid to have saved from a restaurant: “Elsa broke my heart, I had to get her home, she was the one we saw at the front of the barbecue restaurant.”

Of her own eating habits Gabby said: “I’m the first to admit that I’m not vegetarian. Being involved in this has made me a lot more conscientious about what I eat. I think for me it’s how they’re being killed, that it’s not a quick humane death.

“I know here we’re not perfect either but we do try to give the animals a good quality of life and make their death as quick and humane as possible. It’s the abuse, the torture, the burning and skinning alive – that’s what doesn’t sit well with me.

“I haven’t seen that level of abuse myself thankfully. I don’t know what I’d do if I saw it.”

Gabby and Chris are aided in their rescue operation by Shakira Murray in Castlewellan and a host of willing trustees scattered across the Province.

In two weeks the rescue group are in the process of their biggest rescue to date – part of a co-ordinated effort to bring 24 dogs back to Northern Ireland and the UK. Ten of the dogs will get new homes through Little China Dog Rescue, five in Northern Ireland.

The NI-based team helped to rescue more than 55 dogs in its first year.

Of those dogs only two remain in foster care with the rest being rehomed, including 32 in Northern Ireland.

To help raise £4,000 for the latest rescue there are a number of upcoming fundraising events including a bucket collection this Saturday in Newcastle from 10am to 6pm and a bake sale at the Lamppost cafe on Upper Newtownards Road from 4pm to 6pm on Sunday.

For more information go to www.facebook.com/LittleChinaDogRescue

Luna just a few weeks ago in her adoptive home running through the fields

Luna just a few weeks ago in her adoptive home running through the fields

South Korean animal rights activists confine themselves  in a cage during a campaign opposing eating of dog meats by South Koreans in front of the government complex building in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, July 20, 2006. July 20 is the day South Koreans eat healthy foods such as dog meat in belief it would help them survive heat during summer. The Korean sign read " Dogs feel a pain like people."  (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)

South Korean animal rights activists confine themselves in a cage during a campaign opposing eating of dog meats by South Koreans in front of the government complex building in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, July 20, 2006. July 20 is the day South Koreans eat healthy foods such as dog meat in belief it would help them survive heat during summer. The Korean sign read " Dogs feel a pain like people." (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)