October 21, 2015
Matriarch of a Movement
Advocate in China among the first to fight for stray animals living in Beijing
Wu Tianyu was among the first: Decades before Chinese activists confronted the dog meat trade, she would visit food stalls in Beijing markets and quietly buy the live wildlife for sale—turtles, birds, civets and raccoons—to release them back into the wild. At that time, there was no government animal protection—the earliest law, aimed at the wildlife trade, would be published in 1988. Wu saw police officers beat stray dogs wandering the streets of the capital city. She felt very much alone.
“There was nothing,” she says. “Nothing.”
In 1987, she founded Animal Rescue Beijing and rallied intellectuals to speak out against the trade of wild-caught birds. Today, the retired civil servant’s solitary rescues have given way to a communal effort to care for a portion of the capital’s stray animals and to promote spay/neuter.
Helped by donors and volunteers, Wu’s group built a shelter on a parcel of gifted land. It’s at the end of a subway line north of Beijing, where the city’s many miles of high-rises suddenly give way to what remains of countryside. Rows of large, clean indoor-outdoor kennels open onto dirt courtyards planted with trees, providing space for 110 dogs. A few extra animals stay with Wu, who takes them in her lap to kiss them and treats those suffering from skin problems with herbal ointments.
Some of the dogs have been hit by cars, some saved from the meat trade, some given up by owners. The shelter is a rare resource in a country where most rescue efforts are unofficial operations—animals cared for in individual homes. Animal Rescue Beijing adopts out around 40 dogs and cats each year.
Wu is still hoping for a national animal cruelty law. But that won’t happen, she says, until attitudes toward animals change. That’s why her group is working with educators and students at universities and elementary and middle schools. “Rescue is just a very small part of the work,” she says. “Our final target is education.”
Beginnings: In the 1950s, when Wu was a student, the prevailing attitude toward animals was harsh. The government ordered people to kill rodents and birds as pests who spread disease and devoured harvests. She remembers: “There was no sparrow seen in Beijing. You could hardly see a flying bird in the sky.”
Watershed Victory: For decades, pet dogs were unofficially banned in Beijing—registration fees were out of reach for most residents, and unregistered dogs could be seized and killed by police. So people hid their pets. Wu helped lobby the city government to change the law in 1994 to allow one small dog per household with a modest registration fee. This made an estimated 200,000 pets already in the city legal.
Student Power: Animal Rescue Beijing has about 100 university student volunteers. Wu has influenced people all over China, says Irene Zhang, an animal activist in the capital and Humane Society International consultant. “Many young people who are now active in animal protection used to be her volunteers.”