There was no sink, no bed, no toilet. The walls of the Chinese jail cell, in which US animal rights activist Wayne Hsiung found himself, were painted a bright blue. The lights were never turned off.
“I thought I could be held indefinitely, particularly when they claimed we were spies from the US government,” Hsiung said during an interview.
In early May of this year, six Chinese interrogators took turns going at him for 15 hours. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t sleep. Hsiung, co-founder of the international animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), faced questions about why he had planted hidden cameras at a slaughterhouse in Yulin, China, now infamous for its annual Yulin Dog Meat Festival.
Meanwhile, his activist colleague, Julianne Perry, an MBA student at Dartmouth, faced her own interrogation in the same jail.
“I thought of the suffragettes jailed dozens of times, freedom riders sending dozens of students to be jailed,” Perry said. “I took comfort that I would be in good company if I was kept in jail for speaking out against social injustice.”
Hsiung, a lawyer who had taught at Northwestern School of Law, was worried about what would happen not only to Perry, but the third member of his investigatory team, Chris Van Breen, a deeply compassionate activist from San Jose whose day job is working as a plumber and who was waiting for Hsiung and Perry at their rented apartment in downtown Yulin. Just as pressing on Hsiung’s mind was the fate of the three dogs they’d rescued a week earlier from a Yulin dog meat farm.
“My main concern was the safety of the dogs,” Hsiung said.
A week earlier, on April 25, 2016, Hsiung and the other two DxE members had arrived in China to investigate the dog meat trade.
“It was partly redemption,” Hsiung said, explaining one of his reasons for the investigation. “I remember seeing dogs suffering [in China] when I was 9 years old. I wanted to save some because I couldn’t when I was a child.”
The Yulin Dog Meat Festival is where more than 10,000 dogs and cats are killed for meat. It has received international condemnation by everyone from celebrities Matt Damon, Joaquin Phoenix and Ricky Gervais to the US Congress and the Chinese people themselves. A hundred thousand Chinese activists marched in the streets to end the dog meat trade earlier this year.
With its brutality and its filth, the festival, begun in 2009, has become symbolic of China’s now declining, mostly unregulated dog meat industry, which is responsible for killing between 10 and 20 million dogs for food annually. Dog meat eaters in China number only about eight percent.
Although some of the dogs are raised on dog meat farms, most are companion animals or strays stolen off the streets according to a four-year investigation of China’s dog meat industry by Animals Asia. Some of the dogs are still wearing their collars at the time of slaughter.
Last year, following protests, the Yulin government distanced itself from the festival. Still, the festival went on this year.
As a Chinese-American who speaks fluent Mandarin and has been investigating farms, breeding facilities and slaughterhouses for 15 years, Hsiung was perfectly suited to penetrate the dog meat trade.
His queries after living dog-meat dogs eventually led him to an outdoor market. Although there were few live animals, Hsiung (with Perry and Van Breen tailing him by about 200 feet) followed the barking of a dog to the back of the market. There he found two small white puppies chained to a poll and a group of seven men, dressed in dirty clothing, sitting around smoking and talking.
“I told them that people in Taiwan all have dogs now, and that my girlfriend wanted one from China,” Hsiung recalled. “I said that I thought it would be really cool and interesting to buy a dog from the dog meat trade.”
The oldest of the group, a sullen man who appeared to be about 50 and who, Hsiung said, was clearly “the ringleader,” said, “There are no dogs here.”
Hsiung tried to ingratiate himself into the group and get the members to show him a dog meat farm. The men, suspicious, put him off. But eventually a younger man agreed to take Hsiung to his farm. The younger man got on a rusty bicycle and the older man, the ringleader, walked to his motorcycle and said to Hsiung, “Get on the back.”
For Hsiung, this was a critical moment. He had no idea where he would be taken, and was worried about leaving Perry and Van Breen on their own. Still, this was his chance to visit a dog meat farm – possibly his only chance.
“Let’s go,” he told the ringleader.
The dog meat farm turned out to be a former pig farm. For Hsiung, it was ironic because DxE had recently investigated one of Hormel’s Farmer John farms and documented the horrific conditions.
The owner told Hsiung he had to switch to dogs after he was essentially driven out of the pork business by huge multi-national companies like Smithfield and Hormel. But the owner also told Hsuing that whether he raised pigs or dogs made no difference, to him they were all the same. As Hsiung later said, this was one thing they could both agree on.
While Hsuing said that farms in the US are much worse that the dog meat farm he saw; but it was still a hellhole of a place: filthy and dilapidated with piles of old wood and other garbage scattered about and a rusty gate leading inside, where Hsiung’s found seven dogs confined in cement-walled pens.
Hsiung returned to the farm with Perry and Van Breen the next day to rescue three dogs, who are brothers and who they later named Pao, Lao and Xiao. “This was death row,” Van Breen said. “Every animal there was born to be murdered.”
The three dogs were covered with fleas and ticks, their skin was red, they were losing their fur and their bellies were distended. The DxE team took the dogs to a vet where they were de-fleaed and de-ticked. With Van Breen and Perry caring for the dogs at the apartment, Hsiung began part two of the investigation at a slaughterhouse in Yulin.
The window of a bathroom in the slaughterhouse faced the area where the dogs were beaten and killed. Hsiung lay on the floor, hearing their screams, what he calls “the sounds of evil,” and waited for an opportunity to climb up on a six-foot fence to position small video cameras to document the slaughter. As he lay there, he kept repeating the names of the three brothers, Xiao, Lao, Pao. Xiao, Lao, Pao. It was, Hsiung recalled, “the only way I could maintain my sanity.”
For four nights, the cameras recorded the slaughter. Footage shows a slaughterhouse worker urinating on a dog. Another worker grabs a dog by the throat with huge calipers and then, as he holds the dog, kicks it repeatedly until stops struggling. Another dog, apparently driven crazy by its situation, spins around and around and around. Dogs are crowded together so tightly they have to walk or sleep on piles of sick, lame or dead dogs. Sick dogs are collapsed in a blood and urine filled latrine. Dogs are beaten until they don’t move, and then their throats are slit.
“The violence itself was so shocking, it just numbed me,” said Hsiung, who, along with Perry and Van Breen, viewed the footage on Hsiung’s laptop at their rented apartment. “But when a dog was screaming in terror it hit me like a knife into the gut.”
On the fifth night of the DxE investigation, a woman spotted Hsiung. He was soon surrounded by 12 men who beat him until the woman insisted they stop. The next night, with Perry standing guard, Hsiung headed into the slaughterhouse for the last time to retrieve the cameras. Before he got there he received a text message to get out immediately from Perry, who had been caught by a group of dog meat traders.
“Even when I thought I might be killed — as I was sitting in front of a mob of 16 people, some holding metal poles — the feeling I had wasn’t fear,” Perry said. “It was calm because I knew the cause was worth suffering for. I understood that whatever they did to me would not be as bad as what the animals I was fighting for were going through and I knew we had hundreds of activists back home who would make our death a huge issue to call attention to animal exploitation.”
Soon the police arrived, and took Hsiung and Perry to the Yulin jail to be interrogated.
For one six-hour stretch of questioning, Hsiung kept repeating, “Thank you sir, but I would prefer to speak to the embassy before answering the question.” He refused to tell the police where the rented apartment was located, but eventually they figured it out and brought Hsiung and Perry there. Van Breen answered the door and the police ransacked the place, confiscating their laptops, cameras and other items. To the DxE team’s surprise the police had no interest in the dogs. They told Hsiung, Perry and Van Breen they were taking them back to the jail.
“We can’t leave the dogs here,” Hsuing said, and asked if he could see if the landlord would care for them. This was a long shot. The landlord didn’t allow dogs in the apartment. The team had been sneaking the dogs in and out so that the dogs could be walked. Amazingly, the landlord agreed.
Back at the jail, the police forced Hsiung to unlock the laptops. The police deleted all the footage and photos — even footage of the dogs playing in the apartment — and installed an app to shred everything on the hard drive. Eventually the three were released and told they needed to fly back to the US immediately.
Like it or not, the investigation had ended.
What the Chinese police didn’t know was that each night except the night of the arrest, Hsiung uploaded the footage to cloud storage. Back in the US, the deleted files and footage on Hsiung’s laptop were recovered.
In late June, video footage taken during the DxE investigation aired on ABC Nightline. It showed dogs in captivity at the dog meat farm in Yulin, but ABC wouldn’t show the footage of dogs being beaten with metal rods at the slaughterhouse before their throats were slit because, according to Nightline, it was “too disturbing to be broadcast under ABC standards.” They did include an interview with Hsiung and Perry talking about the brutality they videoed.
More than a month since their return to Berkeley, CA, Hsiung, Perry and Van Breen seem in shock from their experiences in China. “It left a tension and fear and anxiety in me that still hasn’t gone away,” Hsiung said. “I wake up sometimes with my heart pounding and sweat pouring off my face.”
Hsiung believes the dog meat trade will end. “It will take concerted domestic action backed by a powerful international coalition [to end the dog trade],” Hsiung said. “The problem in China is domestic activism is very risky. This might be a campaign that is won or lost by international activists.”
Michael Goldberg is a former senior writer for Rolling Stone. He is an animal rights activist and a member of DxE. His first novel, True Love Scars, was published in 2014; his second, The Flowers Lied, was published in March 2016.