100 quake dogs rescued by Chinese woman

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

CHENGDU, China - The white short-haired mutt was found dragging his crushed hind legs through rubble-clogged streets after the massive earthquake devastated China's Sichuan province.

The shy terrier mix was lucky to live through the May 12 quake that killed nearly 70,000 people. He was even more fortunate to survive the squads of police and soldiers who were gunning down homeless canines for fear they would spread disease in the disaster's aftermath.

But his luckiest day was when he was picked up by Chen Yunlian.

Now he's among some 100 "quake dogs" rescued by the former businesswoman, who has created something extremely rare in China: a private animal shelter.

For 11 years, the 60-year-old Chen has been rescuing strays off the streets. She now cares for about 900 dogs and 100 cats in her shelter built among rice paddies on the southern outskirts of Chengdu, the provincial capital.

"I think that dogs and humans have the same right to live. They're equals," she told The Associated Press as a brown brindle hound missing a front leg jumped up on her and snuggled his snout in her lap.

Chen's views about animal rights are radical in a country where dogs can just as easily be a pet or the main ingredient in a spicy hotpot. Although dog ownership has grown in popularity as the Chinese become wealthier, many people don't have the strong emotional attachment to the animals that's common in the West.

Chen is also on the vanguard of a new movement in China of citizens who start their own groups to deal with social problems that were once mostly handled — or ignored — by the Communist Party-led state.

The government and party — wary about anything that might challenge their monopoly on power — is still trying to figure out how much of a role it wants people like Chen to play.

She was reluctant to discuss the matter. "I love my country and government. I want it to become even stronger and more prosperous," said the soft-spoken woman, dressed in a baggy white T-shirt and black pajama-like pants with white polka dots.

Chen calls her shelter "Ai Zhi Jia" or the "House of Love." A tall metal fence surrounds the facility off a narrow tree-lined road about a 45-minute drive from downtown Chengdu. From the street, a cacophony of yelps, barks, growls, whimpers and whines can be heard. The air is filled with the smell of dry dog food, fur and the faint scent of urine and feces that's constantly being scooped up by a staff of eight.

The main building in the shady complex is a concrete U-shaped structure divided into rooms that serve as kennels. Each has a large front concrete patio that's enclosed by a knee-high wall and wire fencing. Dogs and cats are also kept in a network of recently built cages and dog runs. Dogs with a history of good behavior are allowed to roam the wide square-shaped walkway within the complex.

There are poodles, a couple of collies and an elderly, forlorn-looking Afghan hound named "Ah-foo" with clumps of missing hair and large polyps growing on his chest and legs. But the majority of the dogs are classic Chinese mutts: terrier-Pekingnese-pug-poodle mixes with squatty bodies, short legs, curly tails and pointy ears. Most looked healthy, with few signs of skin disease or digestive problems common in such conditions.

"Chinese people prefer purebred dogs and the mixes probably won't be adopted," said Chen, adding that she cares for every dog until it dies. "But mutts are the most intelligent and the most affectionate. They really appreciate you."

One of her superstar mutts from the quake zone was a small, brown, short-haired terrier with alert brown eyes named "Qianjin," or "Forward." Rescuers said Forward and another dog — a shelty named "Guai Guai" — belonged to an elderly woman who was partially buried in rubble at a Buddhist temple that collapsed in the city of Pengzhou. The dogs stayed with their master while she was trapped for 196 hours.

"The rescuers told me the dogs were drinking rain water, then they would lick their owner's lips to help keep her from getting too dehydrated," Chen said.

When the 7.9-magnitude quake struck, Chen said she wanted to race to the hard-hit cities — most an hour or two away from Chengdu — but she had to wait 10 days because of road closures and restrictions on traffic.

When she finally got in, she cruised the streets in her van looking for homeless animals or asking locals if any pets needed rescue.

In the city of Guangyuan, she found the white terrier mutt with the mangled legs. Like other dogs with crippled hind legs at her shelter, the dog — whose name was unknown — now walks with the aid of a wheelchair-like device made of PVC pipes. It's a design a shelter worker copied from an American Web site.

Only a few of the quake dogs were injured and the rest were in good health, she said.

A month and a half since the quake, Chen still gets calls from people with quake strays. During an AP interview, Chen's cell phone began ringing. It was someone from the hard-hit town of Beichuan.

"Our van is broken now so we can't go far," she told the caller. "How many dogs do you have? We can take them in if you can help us arrange a vehicle."

Chen said her shelter is close to full capacity and her budget isn't big enough for many more dogs. She said she spends $8,743 each month on dog food, salaries and supplies. She takes donations but pays for much of it from her own pocket, she said.

Chen, who made a fortune as a distributor of cosmetics and other consumer goods in the 1990s, was on her way to see a client in 1997 when she saw a stray dog in the street. The dog made eye contact and something clicked, she said.

"He looked so sad. I said to him, 'Are you lost you silly little dog?'" she said. "I decided to take care of him and I missed my meeting. I named him Ben Ben."

She started taking in other strays, and her obsession with caring for homeless animals eventually eclipsed her interest in business and she retired. She sold her cars and properties to finance the expanding operation. She moved the shelter to the current location, which she rents, two years ago.

"I started down a road," she said, "and I couldn't turn around."


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