Article by Natalya Benjamin

Standing on the roof of the dog kennels, surrounded by eleven large dogs, we looked down at the patio, watching as the other dogs relaxed and played below in the warm afternoon sun. In this quaint countryside village, bordered by corn fields and dirt roads, we had finally tracked down the infamous “Dog Lady of Xi’an”. Spoken about amongst expats like some sort of urban myth, the story of the elderly woman with hundreds of stray dogs was one I could not let lie, but after months of trying to find someone who knew where to find her, I’d almost given up thinking it was true.

Then last month, following a WeChat rant I’d posted, I was introduced to Yang Kai, a young volunteer who helps at a few animal shelters set up around Xi’an. He confirmed the existence of the “Dog Lady” and was happy to take my husband and me to visit her the following weekend.

In reality, the “Dog Lady” is not just one woman with a bunch of dogs squashed into her home but an organised shelter that’s split between two locations. The rescue centre, which was set up by a group of dedicated animal lovers, began saving dogs twenty years ago from butchers and poachers. They have since rescued over one hundred dogs and relocated to Wei He in the north of Xi’an.

On the way to the dog home, Yang Kai told us about the incredible work he does; rescuing animals from testing labs and butchers, and that a little way out from the rescue home we were going to, there is a huge animal sanctuary re-opening this month that houses over a thousand animals. We were shocked to learn that a large number of people dedicate their lives to saving animals in the city, as China has a bad reputation regarding animal rights.

It was clear from the moment we pulled up the dirt track to the entrance that we were in the right place. The sound of forty barking dogs greeted us as we prepared to enter the first house. It was hard not to feel intimidated by the sheer volume of the noise awaiting us on the other side of the door. We hadn’t known exactly what to expect before we arrived. Would we come across a pack of scarred, vicious animals untrusting of humans? Would we find a horde of terrified, shattered souls? A number of worrying thoughts had crossed our minds, but luckily what we found was an enormous relief.

An elderly man who cleans and cooks for the dogs let us in and four beautiful, curious dogs immediately sniffed and licked and jumped on us. With wagging tails they followed us through to an outside patio area where the other dogs stay. There we were met by another sixteen healthy, clean, and well looked-after dogs. Most of the dogs had been rescued from butchers and had visible scars. Some were very nervous, taking a bit more time to find the courage to come up and be stroked. Three of the largest dogs were fighting to be the Alpha, keeping the others in line every so often with a growl or snap. The dogs are separated by breed to reduce the risk of fighting, as the larger dogs tend to attack the smaller breeds; this home was for the larger dogs.

We spoke to one volunteer named Mei Mei, a middle aged woman who has been helping the group for over four years. She showed us scars from where dogs had bitten her and told us about a time she got in the middle of a dog fight and was hurt as she pulled the dogs apart.

Considering the number of dogs and limited space, the area was very clean and we could see that the workers spent a lot of time keeping the home in order. Mei Mei said it was very hard for them to keep it all going with such limited resources, and most of the volunteers are in their fifties. She explained that they are desperate for new volunteers to come and help either by donating supplies or by cleaning and feeding.

We asked if the dogs were up for adoption and she said that she would only allow someone to take a dog after a very thorough inspection, as most of the dogs have suffered through terrible experiences and, thus, require special care and devotion.

After an hour we went to visit the second, larger home, which was just a two-minute walk away. We were warned to be more careful because there were around eighty dogs at that facility and many had acute behavioural problems due to severe trauma and stress. That is where Tian Jie, a sixty-year-old woman and the manager, lives in a tiny, run down room and devotes her entire pension towards funding the shelter. She is the legend people know about, but the legends don’t do justice to how incredible she really is. She spends all of her time taking care of the dogs, turns none away when more are brought to her and she has fought against the police and angry butchers to keep her dogs safe.

When we were let in, most of the dogs had been put in cages for our protection. Usually the dogs roam free, but with strangers it apparently wouldn’t have been safe. The dogs there were definitely less comfortable and showed visible signs of stress at our presence. A lot of the dogs had terrible injuries and scars; many were missing eyes or had been blinded; a few had been maimed and some left partially disabled.

Tian Jie took us in to one of the kennels and we spoke about the dogs she had saved. She told us that on a few occasions she had been attacked by people who intended on eating the dogs she had rescued and that some locals had attempted to shut the home down. She said the police had gone there several times to try and remove the dogs as well, and as she spoke about the horrific things she’d seen she broke down in tears. She took us into her small room and showed us photos of tortured dogs and cats she had found.

After an emotional hour at the second home we returned back to the first building and prepared to help feed the dogs. Usually the dogs are fed dry food but on occasion they are given a mix of meat and mantou. It was a touching experience which left us both feeling in awe of the people running this operation and we definitely will be visiting regularly to take food and supplies. If anyone is interested in helping, donations of food, bed sheets, toys or even money are all welcome and those wishing to visit and volunteer can arrange to visit.