By WILLIAM FOREMAN,
Associated Press Writer1 hour, 23 minutes
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
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
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
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
"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
When she finally got in, she cruised the
streets in her van looking for homeless animals or asking locals if any pets
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."