Video: Meet the Belfast couple spending their spare time rescuing dogs from menus in China
We were driving past a restaurant and we saw a live dog... we just had to go in and get it out
A Belfast nurse has just returned from China - bringing home 18 dogs that were once destined for the dinner table.
Gabby Gardiner worked in partnership with Chinese volunteers to rescue the dogs from the meat trade - where many locals believe the more an animal suffers during slaughter, the better it tastes.
The lucky mutts have now been rehomed with local families across Northern Ireland.
A&E nurse Gabby and her doctor fiance Chris Sheehan got involved after agreeing to rehome a severely disabled dog, Ollie, earlier this year.
He became one of the first dogs ever to be rescued from the Chinese meat trade and brought to Northern Ireland.
They are now in the processes of gaining charitable status for their group, Doggy911 Rescue, and spend every spare moment fundraising to give even more canines a second chance at life.
Gabby explains: "It costs around £600 to fly a dog over from Beijing, and then there's the cost of the vaccinations, paperwork and vets' bills. But when you see the horrific conditions out there, every dog we can save is worth it."
As with so many things these days, it was an appeal on social media that changed Gabby's life for ever.
The A&E nurse and Chris, of Lisburn Road, Belfast, were huge animal lovers and already had two dogs; border collie Charlie and Sam the German shepherd.
But when Gabby saw a Facebook post last November about a severely disabled toy poodle called Ollie who was in desperate need of some TLC, her heart melted.
There was just one problem; Ollie was in China, in the care of a small animal charity called Harbin Slaughter House Survivors (SHS). He'd been destined for the dinner table.
"Ollie's story was heartbreaking," explains Gabby. "He'd been used for animal testing, spent his life in a laboratory, and then when he was no longer useful he'd been sold into the meat trade.
"Thankfully Harbin SHS volunteers rescued him, but he had severe disabilities, including front limb deformities, a curved spine and muscle atrophy.
"With our medical background, Chris and I felt we would give him a good home. But we'd have to bring him over from China first."
Gabby, who works locum shifts in A&E departments across Northern Ireland, began researching the Chinese meat trade.
The Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, often known as the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, is an annual summer event, during which its thought 10,000 to 15,000 dogs are eaten.
Dog meat also features on many restaurant menus year-round.
"What I discovered sickened me," she says. "In China, a lot of people believe that the more an animal is tortured and suffers prior to and during slaughter, the better its meat will taste.
"Some of these dogs are bred for meat, but others are stolen family pets or laboratory cast-offs like Ollie.
"The Harbin SHS volunteers explained to me that dogs destined for consumption need the right paperwork, but many don't have that. Animal rights activists are able to stop the meat trucks and call police, who then oversee the surrender of any unregistered dogs."
Gabby and Chris decided that if they were going to fly Ollie out of China, they might as well bring a handful of other dogs back for rehoming too.
They formed a fundraising group called Doggy911 Rescue and spent three months raising the £600 per dog needed to fly the animals from Beijing to Paris.
Thanks to the powers of Facebook, they also found five other families in Northern Ireland willing to adopt a dog.
They included Rebecca Boyce, who works in the Boucher Road branch of Pets at Home. She was one of the first volunteers to get involved with Doggy911 after Gabby took some fliers into the store.
Gabby says: "On January 26th Rebecca and I drove a van over to Paris to meet Ollie and the other five dogs selected by the Harbin SHS volunteers as the most suitable for us to rehome.
"It was pretty surreal as they were signed over at the airport. We stayed in a dog-friendly hotel in Paris before making the journey home via Dublin."
Back in Belfast, Gabby and Chris took Ollie to the vet for an orthopaedic review and he began physiotherapy. Meanwhile, the other five rescued dogs - Casey, Jake, Roxy, Freddie and DeeDee - settled into their new homes.
But not content with this first rescue, the couple decided they wanted to help even more dogs, so began fundraising to rescue a second batch.
And this time, Gabby wanted to go out to China herself to see first-hand what the animals were facing.
She and two other volunteers self-funded their trip, and on August 19 the trio flew out to Harbin to spend two weeks at the rescue centre before bringing 18 dogs home.
"It was certainly an eye-opener," she says. "So many restaurants had signs outside advertising dog meat, with pictures of labradors. It was horrific.
"One day we passed a restaurant and we could actually see a live dog inside, so we asked our driver to stop.
"We'd always said we wouldn't buy dogs directly from the meat trade because that will only fuel it. But once we'd seen the two dogs in the restaurant, a golden lab and a black retriever, we just couldn't walk away.
"We ended up paying about £300 to rescue them. It was such a tough moral decision to have to make."
Again the dogs were brought back to Northern Ireland via France, with Chris heading up the Paris Run Team to collect them from the airport in a van.
They returned on September 2 and 16 of the dogs have already been rehomed; with two others being fostered by volunteers because they need ongoing veterinary treatment.
Despite their busy lives, working long shifts and with Chris, 35, in the final year of his training at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital, the couple are now in the process of applying for charitable status for Doggy911 Rescue.
They hold regular fundraisers and are hoping to bring another batch of dogs back to Northern Ireland from China in October.
"I'm hoping to go back to China myself early next year," says Gabby. "If someone had told me a year ago that I'd be running a dog rescue, from the other side of the world, I wouldn't have believed them!
"But now the dream is to one day be able to open our own small centre over here to rehabilitate the dogs before rehoming them."
Isobel Hyde (59), from Crossgar, was one of the first people to rehome a Chinese rescue dog from Gabby. She adopted Casey in January and says it's one of the best things she's every done.
"Casey settled into her new life straight away - she's such a gentle and loving wee dog, you'd never know she had such a tragic past," she says.
"She's nervous of strange men and she hates big lorries, she really panics whenever she sees one.
"But my husband Martin and I dote on her. The first time she set foot on the beach near our home the joy in her eyes was plain to see.
"When I think of how close she came to being slaughtered for meat, my heart breaks.
"Gabby and the team at Doggy911 are doing such an incredible job. The Yulin Dog Meat Festival needs to be stopped."
Gabby and the team at Doggy911 Rescue are looking for fundraisers, volunteers and adoptive families for their rescue dogs. For more information, visit www.doggy911rescue.com or find them on Facebook.