BEIJING, May 29 (UPI) -- Authorities say a battle has been escalating in China between the country's dog lovers and those who consider the animals a mealtime feature.
The controversy is more evidence of China's changing social landscape, where dog meat has been a coveted food item for centuries but pet ownership has burgeoned in recent years as a booming economy created a middle class with both money and time for four-legged friends, The Washington Post reported Saturday.
With increasing pet ownership, an animal rights movement is growing in strength in the country, the newspaper said.
Activists last month stopped a truck on a Beijing highway carrying 520 dogs destined for restaurants in northeastern China and pooled resources to pay off the driver and free the dogs, dozens of which remain in animal hospitals around Beijing.
Rescuers aren't sure how to handle the situation.
"We are a small organization. We haven't even tried to pay the animal hospital bills yet," Wang Qi, 32, of the China Small Animal Protection Association, said. "There was so much enthusiasm when the dogs were first rescued, but our worry is, what happens now?"
China has no laws against cruelty to animals, and animal activists estimate as many as 10 million dogs, some strays and some stolen pets are sold for human consumption each year.
"People are saying it's a silly thing protecting animals," Wang said. "But it is a question of civilization.
"By teaching people in this country to love little animals, maybe we can help them to love their fellow human beings better."