“I’ve never regretted it”: How a Beijing animal shelter tried to make a difference—and what happens when they no longer can
My name is Liu Yanli, and I’m 52 years old. I am originally from the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin province, but I have been living in Beijing for about 30 years. I’ve rescued animals for 23 years, and in 2009, I founded an animal shelter named Together for Animals.
It all started with my own dogs, Huzi and Meimei. When I was raising them, I would often search for information about how to care for dogs online. That was how I discovered there are many stray dogs looking for homes. Over time I rescued six cats and three dogs from the street, and then rescued two more dogs. As I rescued more animals, I needed more space. I found a place with a yard in a rural part of Tongzhou district in the suburbs, which I paid about 10,000 yuan a year to rent. After I got a bigger place, more and more dogs started coming in.
I had an office job with a state-owned company. Because of the dogs, I regularly had to ask for leave to, for example, take sick dogs to the vet, or have them sterilized. At first, I would ask my auntie to watch the dogs for me, but gradually I felt I didn’t have enough energy to do both things at the same time. In 2017, I resigned from my stable job and became a full-time rescuer. I’ve never regretted it, because I had to prioritize what was most meaningful and important to me, and it was not appropriate to ask for leave all the time.
It was tough in the beginning. Twenty-three years ago, people didn’t have much awareness about neutering and spaying dogs. They believed it was inhumane. But at the same time, they also treated dogs like toys, things that they could abandon once they didn’t want them anymore. There were lots of homeless dogs on the street at that time. Sometimes we would rescue about a hundred homeless dogs in a single month.
Several times I tried to organize volunteer teams, but they all failed in the end. I had different ideas than the volunteers on what the purpose of animal rescue was. I thought the rescuing was temporary, and the ultimate goal was to send the animals to new families who would adopt them, instead of staying at my shelter for the rest of their lives, which was unrealistic. My values on animal rescue are centered around public education, and I advocate adoption, so the dogs were transferred very fast.
In 2009, I founded Together for Animals, and our animal rescue efforts started becoming systematic. The shelter has three staff members including me, and some volunteers who come when needed. We’ve asked artists to help us with fundraising by putting on charitable performances each year, and we rely almost entirely on fundraising to pay the rent on our shelter. Lots of artists, like the singer Pu Shu, would perform for free. We would also go to communities and schools to educate the public, and to raise money. We have given talks to schoolchildren to teach them to be compassionate toward animals. If you talk about protecting animals, not all children can understand, but if you teach them compassion they are more receptive.
The financial situation has always been difficult. Even to rescue a healthy dog, the whole process from taking them in until finding a suitable adoptive family costs at least 10,000 yuan a year, to say nothing of the ill ones. Most of the dogs we found on the street were ill to various degrees, and we would need to spend a lot on medical treatment. For example, one of our dogs, Heican, found another dog near our shelter, who’d gotten his neck caught in an iron trap in an orchard and was almost strangled to death. Another dog Qiqi was only two months old when our volunteer found her, and she was born with disabled front legs.
Dogs like these—that are old, weak, disabled, or have issues with their temperament—normally live with me at the shelter their entire lives, because nobody wants to adopt them. For the healthy ones, we normally have two systems.
For the big dogs, we often communicate with shelters abroad and send them to foreign countries, because lots of Chinese cities, like Beijing, don’t allow people to raise dogs that are taller than 35 centimeters. Most of the big dogs were rescued from the slaughterhouse, and have been abandoned and abused. It’s nice to cooperate with these foreign organizations, because they are very experienced. I only need to sterilize the dogs, get them their health and immunization certificate, and ask some volunteers who are going abroad to take the dogs to the foreign shelters. They are responsible for handling adoption and home visits in the future. The dogs are microchipped, so if I want to check up on a dog I sent abroad, I can just tell them the serial number.
For the Chinese adopters, it’s a completely different situation. If they want to adopt a dog, they need to be able to register the animal legally, and they cannot have children. I have my reasons for this requirement. In China, lots of the families have dogs because they want to buy a toy for their kids, and when their kids are done with them, they abandon the dogs. Most of the homeless dogs we rescue came from that situation.
When a family wants to adopt a dog from us, we normally ask them to simulate being a dog-owner for a week. We also give them one and a half months on probation; if they don’t want to raise the dog anymore, they can still send it back to us during this period. But I won’t return the 500 yuan they paid for the sterilization [so that they won’t make the decision to adopt lightly]. Honestly, in recent years, the popular breeds were the ones that were abandoned most. I’ve heard rumors about this one shelter that once had about 70 toy poodles.
Because we greatly value public education, our shelter has done well. This drew some attention and we became the envy of others in the animal rescue world. Someone inside our circle defamed me online, accusing me of being a fraudster who only did animal rescue for money. I don’t own a home in Beijing. I live in the shelter with my dogs. I don’t have children, and I don’t actually need to spend money. All the money I’ve raised in the name of animal rescue, I’ve used on the dogs. Because of this person, others started defaming me online. I was so angry, so in 2015, I sued one of them and in 2021, I sued the other two for slander and defamation. I won all the lawsuits. The first person was ordered to apologize to me in writing and compensate me 3,000 yuan; the second compensated me for 6,000 yuan. The third was blacklisted by the court as a debtor because he refused to apologize or compensate me.
In 2016, we moved the base to Shunyi district, because the previous shelter had gotten too small. Two years later, in 2018, we had to move again because the local government said we had been reported for disturbing the neighbors and had to move in a week. We didn’t have any neighbors.
We moved to Miyun district. But we couldn’t stay there for long, since the local government there told us the same year the shelter had to be demolished due to illegal construction. We then moved again and built another base in Shunyi. But recently, the local government told us again to move within 10 days. I don’t know what to do anymore.
Beijing does not allow large-scale animal raising, and the local government wouldn’t approve our application to become an NGO. For these two reasons, we can never become legal. I still have 100 dogs and 20 cats in my base. How can I move them, and where? I am so disappointed and frustrated at the moment. They are my children. I don’t understand why I have been treated like a rat that isn’t welcome anywhere.
I am trying to raise money to buy some shipping containers, in case one day they demolish the shelter, I can convert them into a place where we can stay. I am also waiting for opportunities to send some of the dogs abroad for adoption. The rest, the old and disabled ones, will go back to my hometown with me. I will hand this organization over to some young people and leave Beijing. Most of my energy has been devoted to dogs. I’m too old now. I don’t have enough energy to save any more dogs.
As told to Anita He