YULIN, CHINA (AFP) - International groups and celebrities, backed by millions of foreign petitioners, have rallied against an annual dog meat festival in the Chinese city of Yulin. But the protests may have backfired, residents say, spurring more people to eat man's best friend.
"My store's dog-meat sales are much higher than before, last year was up more than 50 per cent," the owner of Yulin Number One Crackling Dog Meat Shop told AFP.
The city, deep in the poverty-stricken southern Chinese region of Guangxi, has drawn international fury for the beating and boiling alive of animals in the belief that the more frightened the dogs, the tastier the meat, activists say.
More than 10,000 animals are killed for the summer solstice festival, which has drawn the notice of celebrities such as British reality TV star Simon Cowell who denounced it as "barbaric".
This year's event is scheduled for June 21, but tensions are already growing.
Last month, activists from China's nascent animal-rights movement stopped a Guangxi-bound van carrying 400 dogs and cats, some still wearing pet collars.
But campaigners' efforts have had a perverse effect, locals say.
"Because of the protests, more people know that Yulin has a dog meat festival, so everyone comes and tries it," said the dog meat seller, surnamed Lin.
"As we get closer to the dog meat festival, all Yulin's hotels are completely full." Lin has opened a dog meat delivery service because "large numbers of people are placing orders online", she added.
Even dog lovers in Yulin say that protest tactics have backfired.
"I used to think our enemy was the dog meat lovers," said the operator of a new dog shelter, who asked not to be named. "Now I see our enemy is the activists from outside."
He fiercely opposes the dog trade and has adopted a retriever rescued from a market, but believes that international protests are "sabotage" that drive people to ferociously defend their custom.
Local patriotism and cultural pride make outsiders bad messengers for change, the shelter operator said.
Foreigners often encounter hostility in Yulin, with butchers known to knock cameras out of visitors' hands.
"When foreigners come to China and say China has this or that problem, people get disgusted with you and won't listen," he said. "Because of media hype, more and more dog meat is eaten."
To reduce the number of slaughtered dogs, the shelter operator has built a pet centre to demonstrate that the animals can produce more income as consumers of clothing and pet paraphernalia than as meat.
"Our local centre is purely commercial," he said. "Our goal is not to abolish all eating of dog meat, but to give this city an antibody, to resist... this virus."
Andrea Gung, the Taiwanese-American founder of California-based Duo Duo, a group that organised a 2.5 million-signature petition against the festival, says that the fury she has encountered forced her to change approach.
"Everyone hated us," she said of last year's festival, noting that dog-lovers receive such animosity in Yulin that they no longer identify as activists.
Now her group is sponsoring animal welfare programmes in schools, hoping to turn the next generation against dog eating by making it "uncool".
"We want to come up with some slogan like, 'Cute girls don't date dog eaters,'" she said, adding that most afficionados in Yulin are men, who believe the meat increases virility.
China has no laws to protect non-endangered species.
Although the protests focus on Yulin's festival, canines are butchered and eaten year-round in many places in southern China without attracting international outrage.
In Yulin, a humid city pockmarked by empty factory lots, sidewalk vendors slice meat from dog carcasses on hooks and feed them to men around low tables crowded with beer.
City markets have sections dedicated to selling the meat and restaurant adverts show images of well-groomed retrievers.
The Humane Society International (HSI) has sent researchers to tour slaughterhouses and estimates that an average of 300 dogs are killed in the city daily.
This is despite the fact that pet ownership has grown rapidly in China over the past decade, with almost 30 million households now owning a dog, according to research group Euromonitor.
Washington, DC-based HSI protested at Yulin's Beijing office Friday and mailed an 11 million-signature petition to President Xi Jinping.
The #StopYulin campaign has become one of HSI's "biggest" campaigns now, the group's China specialist Peter Li said.
But the idea that the protests might drive a backlash in Yulin and fuel dog consumption, he said, was "hugely exaggerated".
"A backlash for the short term, yes. But in the long term, I don't worry."