Matt Damon, Rooney Mara Lead All-Star Plea to Stop Brutal Dog Slaughter in China

The celebrities get emotional over the Yulin Meat Festival, an annual Chinese event in which 10,000 dogs are tortured and killed for feasting.

It begins with Joaquin Phoenix peering into the camera, his sea-green eyes filled with tears. A similarly distressed Matt Damon appears next, followed by Rooney Mara, looking even more ashen than usual. What has rendered Hollywood's biggest stars so distraught? In a season fraught with senseless gun massacres and racially charged political upheaval, the source of their torment, believe it or not, is a food festival held halfway around the world.

But this is no ordinary food festival. The Yulin Dog Meat Festival is an event held annually in the southern Chinese city of Yulin. Timed to the summer solstice — which begins this year on June 21 — the fest involves the slaughter of approximately 10,000 dogs. The animals are cooked and served as stews, typically accompanied by lychee fruit, in hundreds of restaurants throughout the region. 

The proliferation of internet video has changed things for the town's celebrations, however. Footage of the dogs being beaten and slaughtered — often using torturous methods in which they are skinned, gutted and boiled alive — has reached all corners of the planet. The torture is not merely for convenience: According to local belief, inflicting as much pain on the animals as possible renders the meat tastier and imbues it with health benefits.

The brutal methods have drawn fiery protest from animal lovers around the world. Two weeks ago, the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society International presented a petition containing 11 million signatures to the Chinese embassy in London, demanding the festival be banned. Defiant locals, meanwhile, cry hypocrisy. "Why do people always pick on Yulin?" one diner asked the New York Times. "Haven't you seen how the Japanese eat live bullfrog sashimi?"

Unlike bullfrogs, however, canines occupy a unique place in the animal kingdom as loyal companions and nurturers. That is the case in Western countries, where dog-eating is generally taboo, but especially so in the dog-crazy U.S. Case in point: Golden Retrievers from seven states were recently flown to Orlando, Fla., to provide comfort to those traumatized by the attack at Pulse nightclub that killed 49.

But attitudes about dogs, which have been historically eaten throughout Asia — and parts of Europe, the Americas, Australia and Africa, too — are changing in mainland China. The Times cites a recent commentary in China's Communist Party newspaper that notes that 64 percent of Chinese citizens now oppose the consumption of canine meat.

The celebrity-filled Compassion Project video, which features disturbing images of the slaughter, was spearheaded by Marc Ching, who owns and runs The PetStaurant, a pet nutrition business with locations in Sherman Oaks and Van Nuys, Calif. Ching also runs the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation, a self-funded animal welfare organization, and has traveled to Asia multiple times on dog-saving missions.

He is currently in Yulin on his seventh and most ambitious trip to the region, where he is literally paying restaurants to keep their doors shut throughout the 10-day festival. The offer proved more successful than anticipated: As a result, Ching suddenly finds himself in possession of more than 1,000 dogs spared from slaughter.

Chinese law dictates the animals must be removed from Yulin by 5 p.m. on June 21, sending Ching on a mad scramble to secure the dogs in time. Humane Society International has agreed to take 200 of them, while Ching will be responsible for the rest. The dogs will be transported to a safe house in Naning, approximately three hours outside Yulin, where they will be tended to by a team of veterinarians flown in from Indonesia, the U.K., Hong Kong and Los Angeles.

After a 60-day quarantine, Ching will attempt to place the dogs in loving homes. As many as 200 could make it to the U.S. at "ginormous expense," according to Valerie Ianniello, director of operations for Animal Hope and Wellness. Anyone interested in adopting one of the spared animals can apply at www.animalhopeandwellness.org. (Only a modest adoption fee will apply for approved households.) Ching and Ianniello also encourage the public to get involved by tweeting #thecompassionproject and posting the video to social-media feeds.

It was Ching's introduction to another dog lover, Hollywood power publicist Jennifer Allen, that led to the involvement of her biggest client, Matt Damon. Ching positioned his pitch as similar to the campaign mounted by NBA star Yao Ming. In 2015, the China-born Ming used his celebrity to protest the hunting of endangered sharks for shark-fin soup, resulting in a 50 percent drop in poaching in his home country.

An owner of three rescue dogs, Damon felt compelled to participate. He filmed his portion of the public service announcement in L.A. in early June during a brief hiatus from his busy filming schedule. Another Allen client, Kate Mara, signed on several weeks later.

Meanwhile, another top-tier Hollywood publicist, Christine Tripicchio, enlisted her own client, Rooney Mara — with some encouragement from sister Kate — to lend her voice to the effort. Various Hollywood animal-rights channels led Ching to other famous faces, including Phoenix, Bill Maher, Minnie Driver, Kristin Bell, Pamela Anderson and — speaking from behind a black-and-blonde wig — the pop star Sia.

"Marc is the saint and all the attention should be on him," Tripicchio says. "Anyone who has a heart, a conscience and compassion can see why many are compelled to speak out against the barbaric sadistic torture of these animals."

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