45 dogs rescued from Chinese meat market by Northern Ireland couple charity
A Belfast rescue organisation set up to save dogs from China's meat markets and medical testing industry has helped 45 animals in its first year.
Nurse Gabby Gardiner (28), who co-founded Doggy 911 with her fiance Christopher Sheehan (35), says the lifesaving initiative has gone from strength to strength in the past year.
The voluntary group works in partnership with Chinese sister organisation Harbin Slaughterhouse Survivors (SHS) to free animals living in horrific conditions.
"We have rescued around 45 dogs this year. We brought them back to their new lives in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK," said Gabby, who works nights as a nurse and spends her days saving animals.
"All of the rescues from China are from the meat market or medical testing. There are mixed breeds, but there are also a lot of pedigrees: German Shepherds, toy poodles, corgis.
"Dog breeders try to sell puppies at five weeks, but if they can't they are sold to the meat trade.
"Then you have people where it's no longer a fashionable breed of dog, so they sell them to the meat traders.
"At breeding farms, once it gets to about three or four years, they clear out the 'old stock' and sell all the dogs to the meat trade. It is heartbreaking."
Many of the rescued animals were living in squalor, and suffer from a range of disabilities.
"One of the dogs we have rescued is Carly, a four-year-old Shar Pei, who was kept in a wire cage on a breeding farm," she explained.
"She had spent her whole life in that wire cage, and they were clearing out 'old stock' and selling it to the meat trader when local activists saved them and took a lot of dogs to the shelter.
"They contacted Harbin SHS and Carly came over to Northern Ireland at the end of August or start of September.
"Carly had distemper, and when she was first rescued she couldn't stand, she was on her tummy. She has gone from that to being able to walk on three legs, and we are looking at her other leg, which has a bit of damage.
"She has been getting rehabilitated at Earlswood Veterinary Hospital in Belfast."
Another dog who made the long journey from China is young Labrador Ludi, who was found abandoned in a box by Harbin SHS and suffering from spinal trauma and paralysis of his back legs at just eight weeks old.
Sadly, he had to have a leg amputated when he got here, but is receiving rehab and Gabby says experts hope in future he will be able to use his remaining three legs.
Then there is retriever-cross Bee Sting, who at around nine years old is one of the oldest dogs rescued from a consignment of 300 animals bound for the infamous Yulin Dog Meat Festival.
It is estimated that up to 15,000 dogs are eaten at the annual 10-day event, which has been slammed by animal rights organisations.
Gabby says that, barbarically, some in China believe that "the more pain inflicted on a dog before death, the better the meat is", leading to some being skinned or burnt alive.
"Bee Sting was rescued with more than 300 dogs in a meat truck stopped by activists which was bound for Yulin," she explained.
"He was crammed into a very small cage with 10-15 other dogs.
"His face was swollen up as though he had been stung by a bee, which is how he got his name. He is now being looked after in Newtownards.
"He is an older boy, but he has a lot of love to give."
One of the rescues that particularly touched Gabby's heart was Elsa, a German Shepherd with a severe bone deformity and stunted growth who was saved from outside a barbecue restaurant.
She adopted Elsa who, was "very depressed" when she arrived in October.
"I have always said that dogs find us. She was a very shut down dog," she said.
"I had to get her home, and she is still getting used to things here.
"She has a pram and a wheelchair ordered for her to get about.
"When we got her here we were told she had a grade six heart murmur, one of the arteries is severely damaged.
"She has been given a maximum of three years to live, and she is at huge risk of sudden death syndrome.
"I just want to make sure she has a great life with us."
The rescued animals are flown from China to Paris, where volunteers meet them in vans and drive them to the Eurotunnel in Calais to make the crossing to England.
When they reach Folkestone the animals bound for this side of the Irish Sea are driven to Liverpool and then taken by ferry to Belfast.
Doggy 911 is currently seeking charitable status, and continues to rely on the public to donate the funds needed to bring the animals here and to rehabilitate them.
Gabby says the organisation's long-term goal is to set up an animal shelter.
"We want to keep doing what we're doing and increase our network of foster carers and adopters,' she added.
"At the end of the day, all these lives wouldn't have been saved if it wasn't for the generosity of the public. It is so worth it when you see these dogs living their best lives."
For more information about Doggy 911, including dogs looking for homes or to make a donation, visit: www.doggy911rescue.com.