Woman Adopts A Dog To Save Him From China’s Dog Meat Trade. Then She Goes Back To Rescue The Whole Pound

When Jill Stewart decided to adopt a disabled Golden Retriever from China, she did it to save an unwanted dog who’d been dumped in the streets outside Shanghai. But when the North Carolinian flew out to meet her new pet, she was even more inspired to help dogs like Meeso, who had been cared for by monks wanting him to have a better life. This resolve only grew as Stewart learned more about the terrible fates awaiting dogs in China, where pups are abandoned, beaten, starved, neglected, and packed onto meat trucks to be savagely killed in China’s brutal dog meat trade.

China Rescue Dogs founder Jill Stewart and her daughter meeting their new dog, Meeso, a disabled Golden Retriever saved from China’s dog meat trade. Photo: China Rescue Dogs

“At that point, I said, you know, I just don’t really want to stop there,” said Stewart, who promptly partnered with her dog’s rescuer and raised $7,000 to save 5 additional dogs on a GoFundMe page. But despite this achievement, the nurse couldn’t rest easy – not when hundreds of thousands of dogs were still killed in China’s meat trade each year. So she decided to start a non profit, China Rescue Dogs – a decision, it turns out, that couldn’t have been better timed.

China Rescue Dogs saves pups from slaughterhouses, meat trucks, police impounds, and hard lives in the streets. Photo: China Rescue Dogs

“At that same time that I was creating China Rescue Dogs, we got a phone call from my rescuer,” Stewart recalled. The rescuer said authorities were planning to burn down the pound, leaving more than 150 dogs in urgent need of new homes. “We’re going to take all the dogs, we’re going to place them,” Stewart assured her worried contact, even though she knew next to nothing about the complicated process of getting dogs out of China. “I really had no idea what I was doing and how to do it,” she recalled. But the urgency of the situation demanded that she hit the ground running.

A rescued dog before and after he was flown to the United States. Photo: China Rescue Dogs

Now China Rescue Dogs, which was founded in July of 2019, has rescued more than 200 dogs from China’s dog meat trade, police impounds, and abandonment in the streets, a success Stewart credits to her “wonderful mentors,” generous partners and donors, and committed volunteers who offered time and money to fly dogs to safety on long-haul commercial flights.

Before the pandemic, volunteers would fly out to meet China Rescue Dog partners in Shanghai, Harbin, Chendu, or Wuhan, then fly back to NYC, LA, or Chicago with a rescued dog in tow. “We were very blessed and very, very lucky because we’ve always had people wanting to fly for us,” said Stewart, who also found support among corporate sponsors. “I had several people actually fly for me twice, and my daughter and I would go every month and bring dogs home.”

Jill Stewart flying back and forth from China. Photo: China Rescue Dogs

But everything ground to a halt in January 2020, when Covid-19 stopped commercial flights between the U.S. and China, presenting unprecedented challenges for rescuers on both sides of the Pacific. “Dogs in China started piling up,” said Stewart, describing the situation in China as “catastrophic.”

Now Chinese rescuers were scrambling to feed the surge of animals in their care, and they also lacked the means to save dogs from the slaughterhouses and meat trucks that still criss-crossed the country. This devastating turn was further complicated by the swirl of misinformation surrounding the novel coronavirus, which left pet owners abandoning dogs and authorities confiscating animals under the mistaken assumption they were contagious.

Before he was rescued and flown to a better life in the U.S., Murphy was simply known as “Number 1 Male.” Photo: China Rescue Dogs

The growing desperation left Stewart – whose rescuers often called her in tears, begging for help — more determined than ever to find a solution. “Let’s charter an airplane,” China Rescue Dog’s Vice President, Ryan McDonnell, recalled his colleague saying in the early days of the pandemic, even as Covid-19 thwarted their fundraising activities. “I said, you know, we have no money,” McDonnell laughed, recalling how Stewart remained undaunted in the face of this challenge. “Oh, we’ll figure it out,” the non-profit’s plucky founder had responded. And fortunately, she was right.

JIll Stewart with rescued dog Madison. Photo: China Rescue Dogs

Initially, China Rescue Dogs partnered with Retrieve a Golden of the Midwest (RAGOM) and other animal rescues to raise $400,000 to charter a plane to fly 105 rescued dogs from Kunming, China, into Chicago. But that flight, “Paws Across the Ocean,” became the latest casualty of the increasingly fraught relationship between the U.S. and Beijing, despite having support from both governments. “We were so close but it’s just due to political reasons out of our control,” said McDonnell. “The crew was being shuttled to the aircraft, and we were shut down,” he said. “That’s how close it was.”

Ryan McDonnell started working with China Rescue Dogs after adopting Murphy in 2019. Photo: China Rescue Dogs

But instead of giving up, China Rescue Dogs went back to the drawing board. “So we learned how to move dogs on cargo,” said Stewart, detailing the group’s latest collaboration with RAGOM, which ended up creating a new framework for rescuers importing dogs from China during the pandemic. Transporting dogs by cargo is a “very hard, tedious” process, according to Stewart. It’s also very expensive, because a single pallet costs $50,000. Even so, China Rescue Dogs managed to fly those 105 dogs into the U.S. on cargo flights, then shared their newfound knowledge with other rescuers, thus working behind-the-scenes to save additional dogs.

Meeso, the disabled Golden Retriever who inspired China Rescue Dogs, enjoying the perks of a loving home. Photo: China Rescue Dogs

“We’re all working together,” says Stewart, describing this growing collaboration as one positive byproduct of the global crisis, which has left rescuers pooling resources and pallet space to move rescued dogs. “Chinese rescuers are finally working together to get their dogs out of China, and everybody is finding a way to internationally work together, which is beautiful because we were the ones who pioneered this entire thing,” she said.

But while rescuers have helped restore the flow of rescued dogs from China, conditions remain dire for those who’ve been left behind. “The situation in China is catastrophic,” said Stewart, who has already moved 30 pallets of dogs in cargo, but in lieu of new funding, can’t do much more than send her rescuers money for pet food. “The meat trucks are just driving these dogs every single day to the slaughterhouses,” she said. “Our rescuers are pulling dogs off. I get pleas every single day to help in some way.”

Rescued dogs undergo thorough health check-ups and vaccinations before they embark on their freedom flights. Photo: China Rescue Dogs

This is especially frustrating because China Rescue Dogs has another 120 dogs vetted and ready to travel, but each dog costs between $2,500 and $3,500 to ship. “These dogs are all ready to fly,” said Stewart, who hopes to fly the first 26 of those 120 dogs this December, where adoptive families are eagerly awaiting their arrival in the U.S. But this all depends on whether or not China Rescue Dogs can raise the money. “It’s just a matter of me sending money to my Chinese agent and booking the flight,” Stewart said.

Please donate here to help China Rescue Dogs give needy animals a better life in the United States!

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J. Swanson is a writer, traveler, and animal-enthusiast based in Seattle, an appropriately pet-crazed city where dog or cat ownership even outweighs the number of kids. When the weather permits, she likes to get outside and explore the rest of the Pacific Northwest, always with a coffee in hand.
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