BEIJING — The mutts were destined for the dinner table — all 520 of them crammed onto a truck hurtling down a Beijing highway toward awaiting restaurants in northeastern China.
Then, fate intervened in the form of a passing driver, an animal lover who spotted the truck and angrily forced it off the road.
From there, things began spiraling out of control. News of the confrontation hit the Chinese blogosphere, sending more than 200 animal activists flocking immediately to the highway. Traffic on the road slowed to a standstill. Dozens of police officers were called in. Animal activists, however, kept arriving with reinforcements, carrying water, dog food, even trained veterinarians for a siege that lasted 15 hours.
Weeks later, those who were there still talk in disbelief at how quickly things escalated. But in many ways, it was a battle that has been brewing for years between the rural and the urbanites, the poor and the rich — between China’s dog eaters and its growing number of dog lovers.
The standoff last month has sparked the widest-ranging discussions to date in China over animal rights. Pictures and videos from the incident have spawned endless arguments on e-mail groups and blogs, Web polls and news stories delving into each side’s points.
And the debate is the latest sign of China’s rapidly changing mores and culture. For centuries, dog meat has been coveted for its fragrant and unique flavor; it is an especially popular dish in the winter, when it is believed to keep you warm. But pet ownership has skyrocketed in recent years as China’s booming economy produced a burgeoning middle class with both money and time for four-legged friends. And with the new pet stores, a once powerless animal rights movement is slowly gaining traction.
The highway incident has been its biggest success thus far. The mob of dog lovers finally won the standoff by pooling together more than $17,000 to pay off the truck driver. But their victory was quickly eclipsed when they soon realized they had no idea where to house the hundreds of loud, wild and decidedly not housebroken canines.
Even after combining forces, the handful of animal rights groups in the region had trouble handling the overflow from the truck. Most of the dogs they unloaded were strays, and many were dehydrated, malnourished or suffering from deadly viruses. Several have died since the rescue. Dozens this week remained under treatment at animal hospitals around Beijing.
“We are a small organization. We haven’t even tried to pay the animal hospital bills yet,” said Wang Qi, 32, who works at the China Small Animal Protection Association. “There was so much enthusiasm when the dogs were first rescued, but our worry is, what happens now?”
The trucker, Hao Xiaomao, has not fared any better in the aftermath. Reached by phone in his home province of Henan, Hao said he lost a small fortune, more than $3,000, after being forced into the deal. Worst of all, because he failed to deliver, no one has been willing to hire him since.