A video taken with a hidden camera by a Chinese journalist on September 14 shows a man posing as a vet and cutting out dogs’ vocal cords in a procedure known as "debarking". The shocking images were taken in a street market in Chengdu, in southwestern China. For our Observer, the online outcry over the video shows how attitudes towards pets are changing in the country – but also how there’s still a lot to be done for animal welfare.

The photos show a street littered with bloody bits of vocal cord and cotton swabs, while nearby unconscious dogs are lined up on a step waiting for their anaesthetic to wear off. A report by the local Chengdu Business Daily exposed the gruesome practice in an article published on September 17. According to the paper, a man proclaimed to be a vet and set up shop in Chengdu's Qingbaijiang market to carry out "devocalisation" operations on dogs. A video and photos of the procedure went viral in China.
   
Photo showing bits of vocal cord and bloody cotton swabs on the ground. Photo by Chengdu Business Daily.

Devocalisation is a surgery that removes the vocal cords from the animal to stop it making noise. It’s a risky procedure that can lead to the animal having difficulty breathing and eating. In the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, it is classed as a form of mutilation.
 
Dogs put on a step while the anaesthetic wears off. Photo by Chengdu Business Daily.

Photos taken by Chengdu Business Daily’s reporter show the man sat at a table in the market and performing the operation on at least six different dogs. The dogs are laid on the table in front of him on their bellies and anaesthetised. His assistant uses a red cord to hold open the dog’s jaws while the man uses unsterilised and bloody scissors to reach into the animal’s throat to cut out the vocal cords.
 
First the assistant injects the dog with anaesthetic and holds the dog's jaws open, then the "vet" cuts out its vocal cords. Stills from the video taken by Chengdu Business Daily.

According to Chengdu Business Daily, the operation costs between 50 and 100 yuan [between 6 and 13 euros], and can be done in a matter of minutes.

The man told the undercover reporter, who was posing as a potential customer, that he was not licensed to carry out the operation, but had learnt how to do it from copying others. He said that he set up his stall every Wednesday and Sunday in the market   although under Chinese law, it is illegal for veterinary operations to be carried out on the street, in unsanitary and dangerous conditions for both the animals and the public. The police have since shut down his business.

Despite the poor conditions, the images show that the man had no shortage of customers.
 

“People love pets but don’t know how to look after them: they keep them on their balconies or in a cage”

Ruby Leslie is a dog trainer and animal welfare professional who also trains up Chinese vets and dog trainers about force-free handling and animal behaviour. She lives in Chengdu where she runs her business Welfare For Animals. She has been living in China for six years, and explains why pet owners would want their dogs to be “debarked”.
 
The background to this story is that if your dog barks a lot at home in China, your neighbours can call the police and report your dog, and your dog can be taken away by the police. You may have to pay a fine to get it back. In some places in China, they even cull the dogs if they haven’t been registered with the authorities [because it would qualify as a stray in this case].

There’s also the risk that the landlord can evict you, because having a dog is seen as a public nuisance. Landlords might not even let to you if they know that you have a dog.
 
People are living here in densely populated urban areas, and dog ownership is on the rise, but responsible ownership hasn’t gone with it. People love pets here, but they don’t know how to look after a dog. Lots of people keep dogs in apartment blocks; they’ll keep them on the balcony or in a crate or a cage. Of course barking is a problem. And dog training and animal welfare are new concepts here.
 

“Debarking turns the dog into a ticking time bomb”

There are no laws on animal welfare in China. The population is not educated about what is good or not for animals. They don’t know what to do if their dog is barking. They don’t know that you can train your dog to be quiet.

Debarking is hugely traumatising for the dog. Before a dog bites, it growls. If you take the growl out of a dog, you are creating a ticking bomb. You are taking away the dog’s ability to communicate that it is not comfortable in a certain situation.
 
A dog under anaesthetic. Photo by Chengdu Business Daily.

Leslie also traces the lack of awareness of animal welfare in China back to the country’s history with rabies. China suffered a series of deadly rabies outbreaks in the 1980s, with over 5,000 people dying annually between 1987 and 1989. Even now, China has the second highest number of reported rabies cases in the world, according to the World Health Organisation, and dogs are the primary carrier for the rabies virus.
 
However, pet ownership is on the rise in the bigger cities, particularly among younger people. China is now only behind Japan and the United States when it comes to the number of pet owners in the population. As a result, some Chinese cities (including Chengdu) have even started imposing a “one-dog policy”, fearing more rabies outbreaks. But as part of this rising trend in ownership, people are becoming more accepting of animals as pets, says our Observer.
 
“Everyone here said the video was inhumane”

Attitudes to companion animals are changing substantially. The video went viral here, and my WeChat feed [WeChat is a Chinese social media app] was inundated with Chinese people speaking up against it. Everyone opposed it, from vets and NGOs and dog trainers to normal citizens. Everyone said it was wrong, cruel, and inhumane.
 
People certainly want to care better for their animals, but they don’t always know how. I have only respect for the Chinese trainers and vets I work with, who are doing what they can to bring international welfare standards to China.

 
Article written with
Catherine Bennett

Catherine Bennett , Anglophone Journalist