When Jill Stewart decided to adopt a Golden Retriever, she did it to save a disabled dog from China’s dog meat trade. But when the North Carolinian flew to Shanghai to meet her new pup, she learned more about the grisly fates awaiting dogs in China, where canines are routinely maimed, beaten, and killed in markets, restaurants, and slaughterhouses operating under the belief that torture yields the best meat.
“At that point, I said, you know, I just don’t really want to stop there,” said Stewart, who partnered with her dog’s rescuer and raised $7,000 to rescue 5 additional dogs on a GoFundMe page. But despite this achievement, Stewart couldn’t rest easy – not when hundreds of thousands of dogs were being cruelly killed every year. “You know, I just don’t think I want to stop there,” the nurse decided again, this time resolving to start a non-profit – a decision, it turns out, that couldn’t have been better timed.
“At that same time that I was creating China Rescue Dogs, we got a phone call from my rescuer,” Stewart recalled. The rescuer said authorities were planning to burn down the pound, leaving [XXX number] dogs in urgent need of new homes.
“We’re going to take all the dogs, we’re going to place them,” Stewart assured her worried contact, even though she knew next to nothing about the complicated process of getting a dog out of China. “I really had no idea what I was doing and how to do it,” said Stewart. But the urgency of the situation demanded that she hit the ground running.
Now China Rescue Dogs, which was founded in July of 2019, has rescued more than 200 dogs from China’s dog meat trade, a success Stewart credits to her “wonderful mentors,” generous partners and donors, and committed volunteers who offered time and money to fly dogs to safety on long-haul commercial flights.
Before the pandemic, volunteers would fly out to meet China Rescue Dog partners in Shanghai, Harbin, Chengdu, or Guangzhou, then fly back to NYC, LA, or Chicago with a rescued dog in tow. “We were very blessed and very, very lucky because we’ve always had people wanting to fly for us,” said Stewart, who also found support among corporate sponsors. “I had several people actually fly for me twice, and my daughter and I would go every month and bring dogs home.”
But everything ground to a halt in January 2020, when Covid-19 stopped commercial flights between the U.S. and China, presenting unprecedented challenges for rescuers on both sides of the Pacific. “Dogs in China started piling up,” said Stewart, describing the situation in China as “catastrophic.”
Not only were Chinese rescuers scrambling to feed the surge of animals in their care, they now lacked the means to save dogs from the slaughterhouses and meat trucks that still criss-crossed the country. This devastating turn was further complicated by the swirl of misinformation surrounding the novel coronavirus, which left pet owners abandoning dogs and authorities confiscating animals under the mistaken assumption they were contagious.
The growing desperation left Stewart – whose rescuers often called her in tears, begging for help — more determined than ever to find a solution. “Let’s charter an airplane,” China Rescue Dog’s Vice President, Ryan McDonnell, recalled his colleague saying in the early days of the pandemic, even as Covid-19 thwarted their fundraising activities. “I said, you know, we have no money,” McDonnell laughed, recalling how Stewart remained undaunted in the face of this challenge. “Oh, we’ll figure it out,” the non-profit’s plucky founder had responded. And fortunately, she was right.
Initially, China Rescue Dogs partnered with Retrieve a Golden of the Midwest (RAGOM) and other animal rescues to raise $400,000 to charter a plane to fly 100 rescued dogs from Kunming, China, into Chicago. But that flight, Paws Across the Ocean, became the latest casualty of the increasingly fraught relationship between the U.S. and Beijing, despite having support from both governments. “We were so close but it’s just due to political reasons out of our control,” said McDonnell. “The crew was being shuttled to the aircraft, and we were shut down,” he said. “That’s how close it was.”
But instead of giving up, China Rescue Dogs went back to the drawing board. “So we learned how to move dogs on cargo,” said Stewart, detailing the group’s latest collaboration with RAGOM, which ended up creating a new framework for rescuers importing dogs from China during the pandemic. Transporting dogs by cargo is a “very hard, tedious” process, according to Stewart. It’s also very expensive, because a single pallet costs $50,000. Even so, China Rescue Dogs managed to fly those 100 dogs into the country on cargo flights, then shared their newfound knowledge with other rescuers, thus helping to save [XXXX number? hundreds?] of additional dogs.
“We’re all working together,” says Stewart, describing this growing collaboration as one positive byproduct of the global crisis, which has left rescuers pooling resources and pallet space to move rescued dogs. “Chinese rescuers are finally working together to get their dogs out of China, and everybody is finding a way to internationally work together, which is beautiful because we were the ones who pioneered this entire thing,” she said.
But although China Rescue Dogs has restored the flow of rescued dogs from China, conditions are still dire for those who’ve been left behind. “The situation in China is catastrophic,” said Stewart. “The meat trucks are just driving these dogs every single day to the slaughterhouses. Our rescuers are pulling dogs off. I get pleas every single day to help in some way,” she said.
But although China Rescue Dogs has moved 30 pallets since they first started flying dogs in cargo, donations have dried up lately, hampering the non-profit’s ability to do much more than send overwhelmed rescuer partners money for pet food.
This is especially frustrating because China Rescue Dogs has another 100 dogs ready to travel on the next cargo plane, but Stewart is still needs $25,000 to confirm her pallet space. (The other $25,000 will be covered by adoption fees). “These dogs are all ready to fly,” said Stewart, whose dogs are healthy, vetted, and even have adoptive families waiting for them in United States. “It’s just a matter of me sending money to my Chinese agent and booking the flight,” she said.
Please donate here if you’d like to help China Rescue Dogs give rescued dogs a better life in the United States! Every donation will help save a loving pup from China’s dog meat trade.