DONGLING, China — Xu Keju’s two dogs were her friends and co-workers, keeping her company and guarding her goat and chickens before an anti-rabies squad arrived with orders to kill every dog.
She lost her canine companions and more; she felt compelled to sell the goat for fear it would be stolen without the dogs to guard it.
“I was very sad when they said I had no choice but to give them up,” said the 44-year-old Xu. “After all, I had developed feelings for them after keeping them for three years.”
Authorities in two areas of China have ordered the killings of tens of thousands of dogs in recent weeks following rabies outbreaks, prompting anguish for owners and an outcry by animal lovers.
Others, however, expressed relief at the effort to protect the public in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of rabies infection.
3 percent of dogs vaccinated
The Chinese Health Ministry reported 2,375 rabies deaths last year nationwide. Researchers writing in a journal published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in December said China had the world’s second-highest infection rate. Only India reports more cases, with some 30,000 deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization.
Rabies attacks the nervous system and usually kills humans within a week of the development of symptoms, though the disease can be warded off by a series of injections.
The number of cases in China has soared as newly prosperous families buy dogs as pets. The government says 70 percent of rural households have dogs, but just 3 percent are vaccinated against rabies.
Even in Beijing, the capital, some 69,000 people sought treatment for rabies last year, according to state media.
In Dongling, on the outskirts of the city of Jingling in Shandong province, teams of men arrived two weeks ago and beat dogs to death with wooden poles and pitchforks, then trucked away their bodies, villagers said.
The area around Jingling has suffered 16 human deaths from rabies over the past eight months, and authorities ordered all dogs destroyed within three miles of a fatality.
News reports say the area, with a population of 8 million people, has about 500,000 dogs.
‘Only way out of a bad situation’
In the crowded southern province of Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong, more than 300 people died of the disease last year, the highest toll there in a decade, according to news reports.
The dog slaughter prompted an outcry on Internet chatrooms and even criticism from China’s government press.
The newspaper Legal Daily called it a “crude, cold-blooded and lazy way” to respond after authorities failed to prevent disease. But the Xinhua News Agency said that once rabies was detected, the slaughter was the “only way out of a bad situation.”
In Dongling, some villagers expressed sorrow while others were relieved.
“Losing my dogs has affected my livelihood because now I have no one to guard my home when I’m away,” said Xu. “What’s the use of rearing goats if they could easily be stolen now?”
But her neighbor, a 33-year-old farmer who would only give his surname, Kong, said he felt his daughters, age 2 and 8, would be safer.
“It’s better without the dogs,” Kong said, as he bounced the toddler in his arms. “I’m less worried now when my daughters are playing outside, because I’m not afraid that they may get bitten by the dogs and get rabies.”
Paid $1.30 per dog
Another villager, Li Xiaolian, said her 8-year-old nephew died a month ago, probably from rabies. Li said that although her family has always kept dogs she would support the killings if they could prevent other deaths.
Villagers said they were paid $1.30 for each dog, a price many called unfairly low.
In other towns, owners have been ordered to register dogs and vaccinate them, which costs $25 per animal — several times what a farmer might pay for a puppy.
Dongling was quiet Sunday afternoon, a time when visitors to Chinese villages usually see puppies chasing barefoot children.
Not every family, though, cooperated with the anti-rabies squad.
Through the cracks of a backyard wall, a visiting reporter could see a small black dog that apparently was hidden during the crackdown. It whined forlornly for attention but got no response.
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