Rescuers rock in Sichuan
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2008:
CHENGDU–“People and bears okay although buildings damaged,”
e-mailed Animals Asia Foundation founder Jill Robinson in the first
hours after an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale struck
northern Sichuan, China.
Based near Chengdu, the Sich-uan capital, the Animals Asia
Found-ation’s China Bear Rescue Centre was far south of the
earthquake epicenter, yet still within the radius of catastrophic
damage. More than 80,000 humans and 12 million livestock died,
according to official estimates. Hitting at 2:28 p.m. on May 12,
2008, the quake was followed by aftershocks for more than three
weeks, many of them of Richter magnitude 6.0 or larger.
“The quake was felt at the sanctuary and everyone ran to the
car park,” Robinson added. “Phone lines are down and communication
by e-mail is sporadic.”
Robinson, at the Animals Asia Foundation headquarters in
Hong Kong, cancelled scheduled fundraising appearances in the U.S.,
and headed to Chengdu to lead the Animals Asia Foundation relief
China Bear Rescue Centre senior veterinarian Heather Bacon
reported that night that the buildings at the site were still
shaking. One older building used for office space and a staff
dormitory “shook a lot and is dodgy. There are cracks in the
ceiling, ground moving and building swaying, tiles missing off
roofs, and concrete has fallen down a big hole in the roof of the
bear kitchen,” Bacon sai.
The first bears rescued from bile farms by the Animals Asia
Foundation seemed to be the least troubled by the ongoing temb-lors.
“Jasper and team lay out sunbathing as if nothing had happened,”
Bacon told Robinson. “All the other bears bolted back into their
dens, panicking and jostling to get back through their den doors.”
Bacon relocated the staff housing to the rescue center hospitals.
“Four of our main buildings, including our big office and
accommodation blocks, are so badly damaged that they will need to be
completely rebuilt,” Robinson knew by June 4. “A fifth building
The Animals Asia Foundation had been busy in the interim,
initially assisting the human rescue effort. The Chengdu staff
collected donations among themselves to help the victims, then
mobilized to help carry medical supplies to hard-hit villages. The
veterinary team deployed to help treat injured humans.
“We have considered offering humane help for the dogs, but I
honestly sense this isn’t the time. We would lose much goodwill by
suggesting this when so many people are losing their lives,”
Robinson told ANIMAL PEOPLE on May 20. “We’ll keep our ears to the
ground for any opportunity.”
Yet Animals Asia Foundation rescuers had already been asked
to help animals by other first responders, as Robinson recounted in
a blog about the relief effort. On May 17, for example, two
Animals Asia Foundation workers leashed a lost and frightened dog.
“Failing to find anyone who knew the dog, they led the dog down a
steep rubble-strewn mountain for transport to the China Bear Rescue
Centre. As they were departing,” Robinson wrote, “a Red Cross
employee came running over dangling a six-week-old puppy from his
fingers and thrust him into our arms.”
Even as Robinson blogged, municipal workers in the stricken
city of Dujiangyan put up posters advising citizens that dogs seen
wandering amid the rubble would be killed. The posters cited
scarcities of food and water, the lack of sanitation, recent rabies
outbreaks in parts of Sichuan, and the chance that starving dogs
might scavenge human remains– although livestock remains were far
more abundant and accessible.
“A large-scale dog cull is in the making in the
quake-stricken area of Qingchuan county,” warned South China Morning
Post correspondent Al Guo on May 21, from the scene. “Police have
been instructed to kill dogs they encounter,” Guo wrote,
“irrespective of whether they are with their owners.”
“The order said we should kill dogs while keeping an eye on
local security,” police officer He Yusheng told Guo.
The order did not appear to be enthusiastically received.
“Officer He said he had not killed any dogs so far because he had not
seen any,” Guo continued. “The bodies of dogs and other pets like
cats and rabbits litter the remains of buildings. Some dogs are
heard desperately barking inside locked buildings, abandoned by
owners who ran for their lives.
“A People’s Liberation Army officer at the Qingchuan disaster
relief headquarters said he had heard about a dog-killing case in a
nearby town,” Guo continued, “but it was purely because the dog was
Said the army officer, “We have not heard we should assist
local governments to kill dogs. Our job is saving people and helping
them rebuild homes, not something as bizarre as killing dogs.”
The Animals Asia Foundation, the Hong Kong SPCA, the
Beijing-based China Small Animal Protection Association, and the
Beijing office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare took the
order to kill dogs as their cue to intervene. Each lobbied as many
authorities as it could contact, and sent personnel with material
aid to the scene.
E-mailed Robinson on May 23, after Animals Asia Foundation
director of China relations Christie Yang met with Qingchuan
officials, “We have permission to set up a rabies station in
Dujiangyiang, where people and animals can have pre-and-post
exposure vaccinations. This will allow us to help and feed the
animals. We are putting together a rabies fact sheet in Chinese to
distribute to the public. We are adding information about how dogs
are useful in sniffing out survivors of an earthquake, and of course
in offering comfort.”
Back in Chengdu, Robinson noted, “Qiao Wei and Qiao Na,
who run the Qi Ming Pet Rescue Centre in Chengdu, have been
overwhelmed with the number of dogs brought in and desperately need
Purina, the Humane Society International division of the
Humane Society of the U.S., and Compassion for Animals Foundation
founder Gil Michaels responded to the urgent need for dog food, just
in time, as the influx of dogs was really only beginning.
Starting on May 24, the Animals Asia Foundation was
authorized to place notices on government bulletin boards offering to
take in homeless animals, and to foster the animals of displaced
“Survivors are sharing tents, often one tent for two
families,” Robinson blogged, “and sadly there are many criticisms
that both stray and pet dogs are responsible for noise and disease.
Many officials are sympathetic to the dogs’ plight, understanding
that they can benefit a community at a time like this, but sadly
many prejudices remain and we must continue to tread carefully.
Hong Kong SPCA mainland outreach coordinator Doris Yiu had
made similar arrangements. The Hong Kong Veterinary Association “has
committed rabies vaccine and vet assistance,” Yiu told ANIMAL PEOPLE.
Yiu noted that personnel from the Chongqing Small Animal
Protection Associ-ation and a shelter called the Home of Love were
also in Sichuan helping.
Eighty percent of the people living in tents who accepted
help in housing their animals “indicated their wish to reclaim their
pet after they settle down,” Yiu said. “Some refuse to part with
“We are heartened by the eager response from the local
community in saving animals,” Hong Kong SPCA relief team leader Tony
Wong Tse-tong told May Chan of the South China Morning Post.
On May 26 the Hong Kong SPCA and Animals Asia Foundation both
became aware of “a row of pet shops that had been badly affected in
the quake,” Robinson recounted, where “the resident dogs were
still inside. We arrived to find the shutters down,” Robinson
wrote, “and heard distressed barking and crying.” Police said that
the store owners had been given until 5.30 p.m. that day to remove
the dogs, as neighbours were complaining about the smell.
“It was now 2:00 p.m.,” Robinson noted. “We talked with
the officer about why we were there and begged for his help. He told
us that he would get back to us very soon after he located the pet
shop owners. Until then, he suggested we go to a refugee camp close
by to see if anyone needed help there.”
After an hour of making fostering arrangements in the refugee
camp, the Animals Asia Foundation team were able to rescue the pet
shop animals, and returned to Chengdu with 49 dogs, two cats and
one kitten, Robinson wrote.
“Rescuing already traumatized family dogs and cats from being
shot or beaten to death in the city of Dujiangyiang is [still] our
highest priority,” Robinson added 10 days later. “We have set up a
hotline and a receiving station at a local vet clinic for earthquake
victims to surrender their dogs to us for safe-keeping until they are
back on their feet and can take them back. Many people, terrified
that their much-loved dogs will be killed in front of them, have
been hiding them in the ruins of their homes and risking their lives
to go and feed them.
“We have promised those who have handed us their pets
that we will make sure they are well cared for,” Robinson said. “If
after six months they are still unable to take their pets back, we
will continue to look after them until they can be reunited. If they
decide they can’t take their pets back, we will try to rehome the
“So far, we have rescued around 100 dogs and brought
them to the Qi Ming Pet Rescue Centre, which can take about 100
more,” Robinson recounted. “We have also rescued some cats and a
few starving dogs who have been found wandering around looking for
food. We are giving each one a health check and vaccination, and
will build a quarantine facility for the dogs at the shelter and
provide them with food.”
By then, said Yiu, the Qi Ming Pet Rescue Centre
animal population had expanded to about 1,000 dogs and cats.
IFAW, focusing efforts on the town of Zun Dao, “rushed close
to $200,000 in aid and sourced over six tons of animal food” in the
early part of the rescue effort, said IFAW rescue team leader
Jackson Zee in a June 2 prepared statement.
“Officials agreed to halt any dog culling in the area,” Zee
added, “and are welcoming IFAW’s efforts to address public health
concerns by conducting an anti-rabies vaccination and veterinary care
program. There are an estimated 4,000 owned dogs and 1,000 strays in
Zun Dao and surrounding villages,” Zee estimated. “Relief efforts
are expected to increase in the coming days.”
An animal rescue attracting national attention came in
Pengzhou on May 28, when Yiu’s Hong Kong SPCA team recovered two
temple dogs who had helped a woman to survive for 196 hours while
buried in rubble, after the temple collapsed. “Both were in
reasonable condition,” Yiu assessed. “The mongrel, Qian-jin, will
be housed by the local shelter, and the collie, Guai-guai
[identified by other accounts as a German shepherd], by a temple
worker. Once the temple is rebuilt, the two dogs will be returned to
“Wang Youqiong, 61, was stuck under giant rocks. She
survived on raindrops and the help of the two dogs for eight days,”
elaborated Raymond Zhou of China Daily. “They licked her face clean
to provide her with much needed moisture on her parched lips. They
barked vigorously whenever they sensed human movement nearby.
Eventually they were able to attract rescuers.”
Zhou noted other instances of dogs saving people after the quake.
“In a Beichuan police station,” Zhou wrote, “a pug dragged
43-year-old Li Guolin out of a fourth-floor room when the quake hit.
“Another dog was a professional rescuer, not a pet. We know
only the name of his breeder, a soldier surnamed Li. Li’s best
friend worked for several days and helped locate 35 survivors. But
he was crushed to death when a building collapsed. Li was heard
crying into the night.”
Continued Zhou, “Should humans save pets and livestock after
such a mammoth disaster? No doubt saving human lives has been the
top priority–and rightly so. There was a time,” Zhou remembered,
“when we held the value of some property–a building, even a
log–above human life. There has been a fundamental shift in
evaluating human life in the past three decades. We now have more
respect for human lives.
“To some animal lovers, pets are just as valuable as human lives.”
While Zhou argued that soldiers and volunteers should not
risk their lives to save animals, he wrote, “If a little extra
effort can bring out a pet alive, then why not? Both Aesop and Liu
Bei of ancient China said, ‘No act of kindness, no matter how
small, is ever wasted.'”