TEN puppies have been rescued from a wet market in China where they would have been slaughtered and roasted despite their "companion status".
Animal activists saved the dogs from being sold as meat at the annual Yulin dog mean festival, which officially starts this weekend.
Horrifying images from the festival show dogs cramped and crowded in small cages beside bowls of blood and organs.
The team who inspected one cage full of dogs suspected that they were stolen pets as they had a friendly demeanour.
After they challenged the stall-holder about where the dogs were sourced, they agreed to give them up to avoid drawing attention.
Jenifer Chen, who helped liberate the dogs and sent images and footage to animal rights group Humane Society International, said: “My hands were trembling when I took the first puppy out of the cage. He kept licking my hands, and unbeknown to him I could easily have been a dog meat eater.
“People often assume that these horrific scenes are normal for most Chinese people to see, but it’s just not true.
“I was so upset to see the puppies under the sizzling hot summer sun, but I was happy that we were able to save them from the butcher’s club.”
The dogs have since been brought to an animal shelter and will be set up for adoption.
Most of the dogs killed for the meat trade in China were once pets or else guard dogs.
Others were street dogs that were grabbed from towns and cities.
Last month Beijing said it was banning canine meat from the dinner table after removing dogs from its official list of food for human consumption and giving them "companion status".
But despite the change in status, traders continue to butcher dog carcasses in defiance to the government’s new stance on dog meat.
Dr Peter Li, the China policy specialist for Humane Society International, said: “Momentum is building in China to tackle the dog and cat meat trades, and while I don’t think anyone expects Yulin’s dog meat trade to close up overnight, what the activists witnessed could indicate that things are shifting even in Yulin.
“The cities of Shenzhen and Zhuhai have hopefully started a trend by banning dog and cat meat, and the declaration by the national government that dogs are considered companions rather than livestock provides a compelling incentive for other cities to follow suit.
“With new cases of COVID-19 tied to a Beijing market, allowing mass gatherings to trade in and consume dog meat in crowded markets and restaurants in the name of a festival poses a significant public health risk.”
The 10-day festival has been running since 2009 and celebrates the summer solstice.
Over 10,000 dogs have been killed for meat in previous years.
Other animals such as cats and rabbits are butchered at the yearly festival.
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