Yulin Dog Meat Survivor's Happy New Life in U.S.: 'Endless Treats and Toys'

A dog that was saved from a slaughterhouse ahead of the notorious Yulin Dog Meat Festival in China is now living a happy life as a beloved pet in Maryland, according to his new owners.

The dog—a 10 year-old cross-breed collie mix named Little Ricky—found his forever home after being saved by an official from animal welfare non-profit Humane Society International (HSI) before the 2015 festival.

Every year, over 10 days starting June 21, thousands of dogs killed to be eaten at stalls and restaurants across Yulin, a city located in southern China's Guangxi region.

Thousands of visitors flock to the festival to eat dishes like dog meat stew and crispy dog meat. But the slaughter of dogs and animal welfare practices at the festival have faced heavy criticism, both from within China and abroad.

China's dog and cat meat trade relies heavily on the illegal activity of stealing animals to sustain itself, Peter Li, the individual who saved Little Ricky and HSI's China policy expert, told Newsweek.

Little Ricky
Little Ricky, the dog that was saved from a slaughterhouse in Yulin, China. The city hosts the annual Yulin Dog Meat Festival, during which thousands of dogs are killed for their meat. Ronald Johnson/Chauntell Hawkins/Humane Society International

"No-one will ever know how Ricky came to be in Yulin at that time but like most dogs caught up in the meat trade in China, he will either have been a stolen pet or a stray grabbed from the streets," Wendy Higgins, HSI's director of international media, told Newsweek.

"There are no intensive dog farms in China or anywhere else in Asia apart from South Korea," she said. "When HSI found him, he had ended up at a horrible slaughterhouse with many other dogs all crowded together for comfort."

The large slaughterhouse in question, which also housed cats, was located in one of Yulin's backstreets, according to HSI.

"Large numbers of dogs and cats were kept separately in large link chain pens, huddled together and meowing and barking mournfully when HSI arrived," Higgins said. "Directly in front of where the terrified animals were being held, there was a makeshift kitchen area set up with pots and pans, a de-hairing machine, and a pile of boiled bodies and entrails."

The animals housed in the facility will have witnessed their cage mates being slaughtered right in front of them, according to Higgins. "The facility was absolutely filthy, the pens covered in animal waste, the floor of the slaughterhouse wet from being hosed down to disperse the blood and bits of flesh," she said.

Little Ricky and Tom
Images showing Little Ricky and Tom in the slaughterhouse and after being rescued, alongside the two cats that were also saved by Peter Li. Humane Society International

"The slaughter-man worked stripped to the waist with a cigarette hanging from his lips as he entered the pen, caught a dog or cat around the neck with iron tongs, beat them repeatedly over the head and then cut their throat to bleed them out."

Together with its partners in China, HSI helped to rescue hundreds of dogs and cats from being killed at Yulin in 2015.

But Ricky's rescue came as the result of a visit Li made to a slaughterhouse prior to the start of the festival that year for research purposes and to observe preparations for the event.

"Part of HSI's work is to expose the reality of the trade, and to do that we often meet with and interview those involved," Higgins said.

Little Ricky, who was rescued from Yulin
Little Ricky is now living with his new owners in Maryland. Ronald Johnson/Chauntell Hawkins/Humane Society International

Li had arranged to visit the slaughterhouse and talk to the workers there with no intention of rescuing any animals. He had expected the slaughter for the day to have finished and the cages to be empty upon his arrival.

"But he was distressed to find the opposite, the cages were bursting with animals," Higgins said. "At the end of the interview, with the slaughter-man preparing to get back to his killing, Peter told him that he couldn't leave without taking at least some animals with him.

"The slaughter-man allowed him to take two dogs and two cats only, and to make his choice really quickly because he was getting impatient and wanted Peter to leave. Peter was suddenly faced with the impossible choice of who should live and who should die, but if he didn't make it, none of them would leave alive."

In the end, he picked two cats from one pen and two small dogs that were huddled together in another—Ricky and his brown companion, called Tom.

"If [Ricky] had not been saved that day he would certainly have been killed the next morning for market sale. So he had a lucky escape for sure, but it's incredibly hard to think of all the poor souls who didn't make it," Higgins said.

"Sadly, although we got Tom out, he never recovered from the trauma of his ordeal and he passed away shortly after."

After being rescued, HSI published a news story about Little Ricky's ordeal and how he had been relocated to a shelter in Washington D.C. This story was seen by the dog's current owners—father and daughter Ronald Johnson and Chauntell Hawkins, who reside in Laurel, Maryland.

"We went to see him at the shelter—it was love at first sight and we began the adoption procedure," the pair told Newsweek.

Ricky's new owners said the dog was initially very quiet and reserved: "Mentally he was sometimes uncomfortable meeting new people and dogs. He would bark at them."

But Ricky, who is named after comedian Ricky Gervais—a notable supporter of HSI's campaign to end the dog meat trade—soon made himself at home and over the years his encounters with people and dogs have improved.

"He now lives a stress free spoiled life, that involves endless treats and toys lounging around all day and chasing squirrels when he's outside," the new owners said.

"His favorite thing is to go hiking. He loves the great outdoors. He loves attention to get butt scratches and belly rubs but he's also quite a private dog who can disappear from sight to seek some privacy just to chill out. We love his vitality, his playful personality."