• Share to Facebook
    • Twitter
    • Email
    • Print

July 7, 2009

Tackling the Root Cause of China's Dog Culls

Humane Society International

by Peter Li

On June 28, 2009, Humane Society International (HSI), Act Asia for Animals and three other Chinese organizations held a forum in Beijing on "Scientific, Effective and Humane Rabies Prevention and Control" in response to an indiscriminate dog cull conducted in Shaanxi’s Hanzhong City earlier in the summer.

That government-ordered massacre was launched to control an alleged rabies epidemic after three human deaths from the disease were reported. Officials killed more than 38,000 dogs, many of whom were registered, vaccinated household pets. As a result of the slaughter, indiscriminate dog culling as a policy instrument for dealing with rabies was once again questioned by animal protection groups in China and abroad.

The aim of the forum, attended by officials, experts, activists, representatives of international NGOs and reporters, was to reach a consensus on the need to urge Chinese authorities to adopt a scientific, effective, and long-term rabies prevention policy.

Comments by Chinese officials

Hanzhong’s mass dog culls were a focus of criticism at the forum. “Why can we not solve the problem of rabies scientifically? Why do we have to resort to extreme measures?” asked Li Zonghao, Secretary General of the Medical Rescue and Assistance Association of China.

"Dog management calls for scientific methods. Mismanagement would adversely impact humans," commented Guo Ziheng, former deputy Minister of Public Health.

 “The Hanzhong dog cull, reported by the domestic and international media, has made China, a civilized nation, look like a barbaric country. This is very troubling,” said Mr. Jia Youling, Director of the Bureau of Veterinary Affairs of the Ministry of Agriculture and China’s Chief Veterinarian Officer.

Qing Xiaona, Director of Beijing’s Capital Animal Protection Association, argued that government-orchestrated indiscriminate dog culls, first implemented during the Korean War years (1950-1953), should be abolished as a measure against rabies.

All agreed that dog culls were ineffective, wasteful, and counterproductive.

Examining the facts

The forum placed long-held misperceptions or biases under expert scrutiny. Does China have a rabies epidemic? Is rabies preventable? And, are healthy dogs carriers of the rabies virus? These questions were tackled head-on.

Despite China’s ranking on the list of countries with the most cases of rabies, the estimated 3,000 Chinese cases in 2006 accounted for only 5.45 percent of the world’s total of 55,000 cases that year. Experts pointed out that incorrect information about rabies in China had long been left unchallenged.

"The incidence of rabies is not directly correlated with the rising number of household pets," remarked Tang Qing, researcher with China's National Center for Disease Control. “Unvaccinated dogs are the rabies threat.”

Zhu Junjie, chief veterinarian of Beijing municipal government’s Veterinarian Station, added, “Science at the present time is fully capable of preventing rabies. Rabies has been wiped out in Beijing in the last decade or so. Vaccination of all dogs is the first priority, followed by regular health checkups and limited culls of diseased dogs only.”

Zu Shuxian, Professor of Epidemics of Anhui Medical University, refuted the widely publicized misperception that healthy dogs also carry rabies virus as irresponsible and wrong, based on test results obtained using questionable methods.

China does not have a rabies epidemic. Bai Xiaorong, a doctor and senior researcher with Hunan Provincial Disease Control Center, confirmed China's identification as a country with a high incidence of the disease as a misperception. Hunan, according to her, is considered a major location for outbreaks; yet, only 67 cases of rabies had been reported in 2009 as of the conference—not even one case per county. (Hunan is a province of 67 million people in 120 counties.)

And some officials are handling the problem properly: In 2005, for example, when 20 Yongding citizens out of 400,000 became ill with the disease, the city government did not resort to culling dogs indiscriminately. Instead, it adopted scientific preventive measures against future outbreaks. Importantly, Yongding had more rabies cases than did Hanzhong (the site of the latest dog slaughter) and a much smaller population.

Obstacles to change

Attendees of the forum acknowledged that roadblocks remain. The biggest is the fact that China does not have national dog management legislation that could include articles against indiscriminate dog cull as an instrument of rabies control. Another is the confusion regarding responsibility among the many agencies charged with rabies control and prevention, with the result there is no one agency that is really on top of the task. Thirdly, while dogs in urban areas are mandated by the government to be registered, dogs in the vast rural area are ignored by local authorities. Finally, the Chinese government has yet to commit to funding mass dog vaccination efforts. According to Jia Youling, this is why dog culls, though controversial, were conducted based on relevant laws and disease control regulations.

Results of the meeting

“This gathering of the nation’s top experts is aimed at reaching a consensus on the need for our country to adopt a cost-effective, scientific, workable, and humane method of rabies control,” Madam Qing stated at the beginning of the forum. By the end of the meeting, attendees agreed that:

  • Dog culls should be abandoned an instrument for rabies control.
  • Dog management cannot be handled reactively as a campaign. A scientific, effective and long-term system of dog management must be in place.
  • Specifically, mass vaccination of dogs must be pursued and made a compulsory government policy.
  • National dog management legislation must be adopted to centralize dog management in the hands of one agency, and a uniform dog management policy must be implemented in both urban and rural areas.

The forum also touched on important issues of philosophical significance. “Whenever animals suffer,” said Zhang Yue, a reporter with China’s national CCTV, “that suffering can be traced to human moral degradation.”

To Madam Qing, a dog cull is not just a simple question of disease control. “It is a more important question of what social values we are shaping," she said. "When we chase and brutalize a nonhuman species on the streets and throughout the village, what are we demonstrating to the people, particularly the young children?” She continued, “We are telling these children through our actions that as long as they are powerful, they can do anything unethical to other living beings. If this is the message we are sending the younger generation, we will fail miserably.” Her message—in fact, the message of the forum, is: let’s stop dog culls and adopt a science-based effective rabies prevention mechanism.

Next steps

A document summarizing the consensus and recommendations of the forum will be submitted to relevant Chinese government offices.

Those involved in the most recent dog cull, the Shaanxi provincial government and the Hanzhong city government, were invited to attend the forum but declined. The forum's findings will also be sent to them in an effort to convince them of the need to avoid outdated rabies control methods.

Humane Society International is proud to have co-sponsored this useful forum. Despite the remaining political, institutional and societal obstacles, we are optimistic that efforts spearheaded by Chinese activists will produce the desired results. Importantly, this forum demonstrated to attending officials that domestic and international NGOs can be important allies for a common objective. HSI stands ready to help speed up policy change on the Chinese mainland.