BEIJING, China — Animal abuse in China is not immediately obvious. It is hidden but is also not far from public view.
Tucked away in a tranquil alley near Beijing’s Houhai Lake, Grandma Ding’s courtyard is barely noticeable. But after a light knock on the metal door, dogs immediately start barking and eagerly tucking their noses under the door.
The barking continues until Ding comes to answer the door to reveal a stunning scene inside: surrounded by a sea of wagging tails and a cacophony of barking and panting, Ding can hardly move. In addition to the welcoming gaggle of canines, cats lie everywhere, some sleeping while others curiously stare at the visitors. The air is filled with a strong odor of fish and animal droppings.
The four-legged crowd follows Ding into her bedroom, where the smell becomes more pronounced. The animals settle on the floor as Ding sits on the edge of her bed. Seemingly unperturbed by the barking, even more cats squint their eyes and continue napping on the TV, under the bed, and inside the night stand.
Ding Shiying, 82, lives in her 520-square-foot courtyard with 21 dogs and more than 200 cats, most of which have been abandoned by their owners.
It was simply out of a good heart that Ding began picking up homeless and abused animals in 1973 while working as a doctor on Beijing Normal University’s campus clinic. As the number of animals steadily grew, the local media flocked to her house and “Grandma Ding,” as they called her, became an overnight celebrity.
But frequent media exposure only made her situation worse.
“They published my phone number and address and more people started dropping off animals by my door,” she says. “I can’t take in any more animals, but often in the morning, I open the door to find baskets of kittens.”
With a pension of 2,000 yuan ($300) and small donations from sympathetic volunteers, the old woman can barely make ends meet. She says the costs vary every month, and food expenses, medical care and sterilization costs can add up to thousands more than she could afford.
Yet she can’t bring herself to give up any of her pets. She even cooks food for the strays, because she doesn’t trust pet food sold on the Chinese market.
All animals at Ding’s have been neutered and vaccinated, and she only cages the sick ones and kittens.
“Looking after animals entails much more than just feeding them,” Ding said. She has visited other animal protection organizations in town and many of them keep their strays in cages and decrepit shelters, despite receiving generous donations and charging surrender fees.
“That’s just wrong; you have to let them be free,” she said.
Ding loses count of her cats sometimes because they often climb over the roof and roam in the neighborhood. But they always find their way back, Ding says, gesturing toward the roomful of animals — the dogs have now calmed down and the cats are stretching out on the window sills. Rays of sunlight stream through the window, illuminating the scars on some animals.
Ding explains that a large percentage of her animals are disabled, and some came close to appearing on people’s dinner plates. With her medical experience, Ding can cure some, but many don’t survive. And once injured or crippled, the animals become even more dependent on their new owner, Ding says as she points to a skinny white and yellow dog perched on the pillow, cautiously peering at her surroundings.
“Neighbors brought her in and she has never left my bed,” Ding said.
She shoos away a white dog trying to jump onto the already dog-filled bed. “He barks hysterically whenever I leave because he knows I’m the only one who cares about him.”
Animal cruelty has always been a problem in China, especially during the Mao era, she says.
“Generally speaking, the Chinese don’t treat animals very well,” she says bluntly and forcefully. “They are regarded more as food. Even though China has changed so much since the Reform and Opening period when people started owning animals for pleasure, some are still thrown away for stupid reasons.”
But having seen only a limited number of adopters, Ding has other worries. “I’m already 82 years old. I don’t know how many days I’ve got,” she tells her visitors. Her biggest fear is that her 200 pets will have to return to the streets when she can no longer take care of them.
Compared to dogs, cats are in even deeper trouble. Unlike dogs, cats are not licensed in China, making it difficult to track the cat population, domestic or wild. There has been no research done on the number of homeless animals, mainly cats, in Beijing and estimates range from 100,000 to millions.
The Small Animal Protection Association at Beijing Agriculture University, which consists of some 50 veterinary science students, tried to initiate the research but failed. “The city is just too big, and homeless cats migrate a lot,” former President Tan Yao says in a phone interview. “We also don’t know their reproduction rate. ”
Tan believes the majority of cats roaming in Beijing are abandoned, whose owners tired of the novelty of having a pet or moved to new apartments that forbid pets. Rescue teams made up of animal lovers often visit areas being demolished and reconstructed to find pets left unwanted in the ruins.
Grandma Ding truly loathes people who treat their animals so poorly. Even worse though, she says, are the animal abusers who have repeatedly made Chinese news headlines in recent years. She pulls out a news clipping that a friend brought her describing the discovery of 51-year-old Wang Yun and her daughter, Mo Duowen, beating cats within an inch of their lives and even hanging a strangled cat to die a slow and excruciating death.
“There are too many people committing crimes in this world,” Ding sighs. “And in China, [animal abusers] don’t even receive any legal punishment.”
Today, animal abuse cases remain uncovered by Chinese law. Many question the legitimacy and urgency to prioritize a law concerning animal rights when they seem a distant second to human welfare issues.
Although China drafted its first animal protection law in June 2009 that proposes heavy fines and detention for those found guilty, the draft has yet to be finalized. However, animal lovers say average people can indirectly protect homeless animals by being tolerant, rational and well informed about the issue.
“We respect Grandma Ding immensely, but we don’t recommend people who have no experience raising a pet or little financial resources get involved in saving unwanted animals,” Tan says.
The 700 cats that have received free sterilization surgeries from Tan’s association have all come from organizations instead of individuals, she says. “Animal protection is a hot topic in China right now, but we just hope people do what they can. You don’t have to save or own a homeless cat, but not hurting them is one simple kind of protection you can provide.”