“There are two most mysterious places on earth,” one Chinese activist wrote not too long ago. “And these are North Korea and Yang Xiaoyun’s shelter in Tianjin, China.” Why is Yang Xiaoyun’s shelter considered a mysterious place next to Pyongyang? The answer is simple: Yang’s shelter is not open to the public, not even to donors who want to take a look at the dogs they have made financial and material contributions.
Who is Yang Xiaoyun?
Yang Xiaoyun, also called Yang Aiyun, is the so-called “dog rescue hero” of China or the alleged “symbol” of opposition to the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, as she was referred to by Western media.
In 2014, a photo showing Yang on her knees reportedly begging to save a dog went viral in China and globally. Unknown to most donors in the West, this photo was not really “authentic.” The young man was in fact walking his pet dog on that day. Seeing reporters around, Yang kneeled down all of a sudden in front of the young man and started to shout for the dog. Startled, perplexed, and disgusted, the young man shouted back: “I am just walking my own dog and happen to walk by here.” “And, I am no dog meat trader,” he told everybody around. Yet, the highly theatrical scene of Yang on her knees was captured in photos and videos. A “hero” was born. This photo earned Yang global name recognition and opened further the floodgate of donations to her bank account.
There is nothing wrong for animal rescue groups to fundraise to help animals. Yet, whoever raises money from the public must stand by the principle of operational transparency and financial accountability to fulfill her promise to the donors. Yang herself admitted to a Beijing journalist that she has problems in managing donations over the years, an admission that was interpreted by critics as a way to deflate the rising suspicion that donations received by Yang had been diverted to purposes other than the dogs.
Never once has Yang revealed to the public how much she has raised over the years. She has however repeatedly claimed that her “rescue” was solely sustained by her own money made from selling two apartments. It is important that worldwide donors stand out to say “Wait a minute. Didn’t I wire $100 or $500 to you, Ms. Yang?” Yang’s never giving credits to donors is not surprising. Claiming she sold her own properties to rescue dogs does help tear apart the hearts of those who come across her “story” for the first time.
I was a donor to Yang. In June 2015, I sent a check of $10,000 to her. Like many others, I was at that time touched by her words, her poems, and the story lines she has repeated for years to most donors. Yet, never has she disclosed my donation in any way. Four of my friends donated to her since 2009 over 150,000 yuan (close to $150,000 in purchasing power in China). She has never acknowledged the help. Instead, she continues to claim to this day that she is spending money from her property sales. Refusal to be transparent is not the worst case scenario. A shelter that has long been maintained like Hitler’s concentration camp, in the words of a friend who visited her shelter twice in the past, is the worst nightmare of compassionate people around the world.
According to “Mr. X” who volunteered not too long ago at Yang’s shelter, donations Yang received have been diverted to purposes other than helping the dogs. She hires no workers. A Beijing actress who wired her biannually money specifically for hiring workers was never used for this purpose. The result is a shelter filled with garbage and dog waste, an absolutely filthy environment that a true animal lover would never tolerate. And this filthy environment partly explains the massive and oppressive skin problems on the dogs in her shelter. It also explains why Yang’s shelter has been constantly driven to different places over the years. The smell of her shelter has turned her erstwhile sympathetic neighbors against her.
Yang refuses to spend money on vets. “I am the best vet,” she was heard saying so to reject suggestions that a vet is necessary to care for the dogs. Some 85% of her dogs had skin problems of various degrees according to a report released by the four activists who paid a visit to Yang’s shelter in September. And, there was no vet supply room in that shelter they visited. A Tianjin activist who has known Yang for many years confirmed Yang’s refusal to seek vet help when new dogs arrived, a time that vet service is critical to evaluate the conditions of the newcomers. The result is mass dog death. “I can pinpoint the locations inside her shelter where dogs were buried amass,” said Mr. X.
Dog are constantly hungry. “She does not feed the dogs on a daily basis,” the volunteer said. “Once she was leaving for a conference and wouldn’t return for five days, she dumped four sacks of chicken skeletons on the ground and filled four basins with water before locking up the shelter,” Mr. X confirmed a practice that has been suspected by local activists for a long time. “When she returned, the dogs were on the verge of revolt out of hunger,” he sighed with anger. In July, one other erstwhile volunteer jumped into Yang’s shelter and recorded in video hungry dogs dying on the ground next to a headless dog covered with maggots. “The dogs had not been fed for days,” he pointed out.
“Is Yang really lack of money for dog food?” as many supporters have believed? “She asked us volunteers to send dog food requests to donors instead of spending money she receives from donors on food,” Mr. X revealed. Fearing that Mr. X may reveal her secrets to the public, Yang slapped a stack of cash for him to shut up. Obviously, Yang would rather spend money to “shut up” others than to feed the dogs.
In January 2014, Yang travelled overseas to Singapore to attend the Asia for Animals Symposium on her “own” money. She arrived at the event on the last day leaving her dogs locked in the shelter hungry. Travelling to Singapore is not cheap. Who was paying for her trip? Donors, without knowing that their money was used to subsidize Yang’s Singaporean trip that turned into a personal leisure tour for Yang having nothing to do with help to the dogs. Apparently, while she had no problems paying for sightseeing in Singapore, how can she have money difficulty feeding the dogs?
Whether Yang is a “hero” or a hoarder or an abuser is no subject of rocket science. Yang may vehemently defend her claim that her shelter is a “paradise,” a term she used to describe her shelter. But, her shelter conditions and the dogs’ physical and mental conditions won’t lie. “What we saw are dogs having coats that show signs of malnutrition, dogs with emaciated looks, and shocking skin problems and signs of other illnesses,” said Mr. Chen of Chongqing Small Animal Protection Association, who was a member of the team that visited Yang’s shelter. “One dog has an external injury so serious that it was followed by several other dogs,” he added. Mr. X once saw a dog in Yang’s shelter lying on its stomach for days and with an offensive smell. “When I lifted him out of the cage, I saw under its belly a huge wound filled with maggots swimming in blood and pus,” he revealed. “Yang paid no attention to this poor dog and let him die slowly,” he said.
There are no perfect shelters in the world. Chinese shelters all have problems of various kinds. Yet, most Chinese shelters are striving to improve conditions. The Home of Love in Chengdu has about 4000 dogs and cats. The shelter is open to the public. It implements vaccination, sterilization and rehoming programs, things never done by Yang. The Home of Love is also an education facility for school children to learn compassion and love for our animal friends. Ping An A Fu in Nanjing also has thousands of dogs that are cared for by hired workers and volunteers. These two shelters both spend large amounts of the donations on workers, vet bills, shelter maintenance, dog and cat food, and other necessary items. “I cannot believe she could starve her dogs like this,” commented Ms. Chen, founder of Home of Love. Ms. Chen also joined the fact-finding team in September.
Yang’s shelter has long been off-limits to the public, thus earning the “honor” to be the second most mysterious place on earth next to North Korea. In 2014, a Guangdong activist who arrived in Tianjin to visit Yang’s shelter was refused admission. Yang’s explanation was that the road to the shelter was flooded. A Canadian charity never got a response from Yang when the charity intended to send somebody to visit her shelter for adoption purposes. When journalists and others visit Yang’s shelter, only certain areas were accessible. Yang claims that hers is a private shelter and she has the right to deny access to strangers. “I agree that the public has no right to ask for a visit only if Yang has never received donations from the public,” commented Yue Yue, a Beijing activist.
Mrs pYang has a lot to explain to the donors and the public in general. She is known around the world as a “retired teacher.” It is revealed recently that she retired from a factory producing auto parts or the like. Yes, teachers are a respected profession in China. Yet, a blue-collar worker can also help animals. She does not need to “cook” her professional history.
Until very recently, Yang had claimed publicly that she had 4200 dogs, 3800 dogs, and 3500 dogs on different occasions. No visitors have ever seen that many dogs in her shelter. “She has no more than 300 dogs at any time,” said Mr. X who once was trusted by Yang. Inflating dog numbers has been a fundraising tool used alongside with sick dogs on her lap in an effort to attract more donations from the compassionate public.
She claimed on Tianjin TV that her sacrifice for animals was rooted in her belief in vegetarianism and that she was a vegetarian herself. The truth is that Yang is a great lover of seafood. “I had dinner with her at least twice in the past and she ordered meat,” said an activist who was with her to at least two conferences. And finally, until very recently, the true identity of a “loyal volunteer” had been hidden from the public. And this is her daughter-in-law known for years as “a volunteer” who helps Yang contact with donors overseas and handle donations for her.
Abusing the compassionate people around the world for donation that never benefits the dogs is unacceptable and potentially criminal in nature. I appeal to Yang’s supporters to send a team of donor representatives, animal welfare experts, veterinarians, accounting specialists, and shelter management experts to visit Yang’s shelter to do an independent evaluation. To get a balanced perspective, this team can also consider visiting a few other Chinese shelters to have a signpost of comparison or reference to see if Yang’s shelter meets the minimum welfare standards of average Chinese shelters. We will all know if Yang is a “hero,” “a symbol,” “a dog lover,” and if her shelter is a “paradise” as she herself claimed on Shanghai TV.
No compassionate people should be misled by false claims. No public resources should go to a hoarding situation that is harming the animals. No donation should go to a shelter that is closed to the donors, run without hired workers and vet service, and one that is not accountable even to the donors. No reporters or critics who question Yang are harassed and threatened. Mrs Yang threatened the New York Times Chinese language website journalist that she would hunt him down and that she would rather poison all her dogs than to surrender her dogs to other shelters).
As a disadvantaged class member in a country that favors the rich and the powerful, Yang is a great actor and has amazing survival skills. Dogs are used as a tool to achieve her goal of “getting rich.” For this purpose, she recites poems, exaggerates her sacrifice, inflates the number of animals in her shelter, threatens critics, deceives and abuses donors worldwide, displays sensational body languages when cameras are rolling around, and brings controversy wherever she appears.
“How can she survive this long as a nuisance and a boarder?” is the question many have asked. “Well, I guess many people choose to ignore her not because she is doing anything right but because she is nasty,” commented Beng. “Didn’t she once fall to the ground and play dead?” Beng added. Playing nasty has helped her get what she would otherwise be denied in a society whose resources are increasingly tilting towards the rich, the successful and the powerful.
There are reputable shelters in China that are open and transparent to the public. These shelters strive to provide the best care to the animals rescued from abuse or the dog meat trade. These shelter managers are low key, have nothing to hide. They have no time writing or reciting poems but devote their time and efforts to the dogs. They seldom mention their sacrifice though they invest time and income on the animals. They acknowledge their donors and are thankful for their support. Most importantly, these shelters vaccinate, sterilize, and try hard to find loving homes for their dogs.
Let’s be compassionate with vigilance. Let’s ask for accountability and transparency. Just as North Korea is no paradise for its own people, Yang Xiaoyun’s shelter is no safe haven for the dogs.
Donors around the world, you have the right to go and visit Yang’s shelters to see for yourselves, her ‘show’ shelter and the others. If you do take this risk, please do visit other Chinese shelters as well to see what a decent and reputable shelter should be.