March 28, 2001
BEIJING (Reuters) - The Chinese have taken a liking to a revered symbol of Switzerland -- the St. Bernard dog -- but the Swiss are not flattered.
Gentle giants famed for rescuing people in the Alpine snows of Europe, the St. Bernard's size and docile nature have become a major selling point in China, where dog meat has long been a popular delicacy known as "fragrant meat."
Driven by increasing demand to boost meat yields, dog breeders have been drawn to Saint Bernards because they are huge, resistant to disease and prolific, with annual litters of around eight to twelve puppies, double that of other dogs.
In a promotional video, a state-run Saint Bernard breeding farm in the northeastern city of Shenyang praises the big dogs as perfect for breeding because they are gentle and don't bite. The video boasts that investing in Saint Bernard farms is "more lucrative than pig farming and livestock breeding" and says that 48 breeding stations have been built in 10 Chinese provinces with a total of 5,000 Saint Bernards.
The farm cross-breeds St. Bernards imported from Switzerland with local dogs. The dogs are then sold to brokers at a cost of about $1.00 for 500 grams (18 ounces), it said.
The idea of a national symbol becoming Chinese canine cuisine has sparked strong protests from the Swiss public and from animal rights activists.
This year, a petition signed by 11,000 St. Bernard breeders and owners worldwide demanding a halt to the trade was submitted to the Swiss government by SOS St. Bernard International, a Geneva-based group.
The Swiss embassy in Beijing has declined to comment on the issue.
Animal welfare organizations, like the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), are outraged that Saint Bernards are being bred for their meat and have petitioned the Chinese government to introduce its first animal cruelty laws.
"If a Chinese cannot understand why Swiss people get so upset that they are eating St. Bernards, I would ask that same question: If Swiss people eat China's panda, how would Chinese feel?" Grace Ge Gabriel, IFAW China director, told Reuters Television.
But that sentiment has not kept diners away from the Sino-Korean "Dog-Meat King" restaurant, one of Beijing's largest dog restaurants.
From braised dog paws to stir-fried dog chops to boiled tail, the restaurant in central Beijing serves more than 50 dog dishes prepared in a variety of rich sauces and styles.
"Chinese people who own dogs would never eat their own dogs, they really love them and treat them like their own children," said customer Zhang Lei.
"But these dogs we're eating are bred specially for their meat -- they're like chickens, sheep and cows, so people don't feel bad about eating them," the 25-year-old worker said.