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Chinese animal abuse: Grandma Ding to the rescue

Chinese pet abuse has left millions homeless, hundreds of whom call Grandma Ding's apartment home

BEIJING, China — Animal abuse in China is not immediately obvious. It is hidden but is also not far from public view.

Tucked away in a tranquil alley near Beijing’s Houhai Lake, Grandma Ding’s courtyard is barely noticeable. But after a light knock on the metal door, dogs immediately start barking and eagerly tucking their noses under the door.

The barking continues until Ding comes to answer the door to reveal a stunning scene inside: surrounded by a sea of wagging tails and a cacophony of barking and panting, Ding can hardly move. In addition to the welcoming gaggle of canines, cats lie everywhere, some sleeping while others curiously stare at the visitors. The air is filled with a strong odor of fish and animal droppings.

The four-legged crowd follows Ding into her bedroom, where the smell becomes more pronounced. The animals settle on the floor as Ding sits on the edge of her bed. Seemingly unperturbed by the barking, even more cats squint their eyes and continue napping on the TV, under the bed, and inside the night stand.

Ding Shiying, 82, lives in her 520-square-foot courtyard with 21 dogs and more than 200 cats, most of which have been abandoned by their owners.

It was simply out of a good heart that Ding began picking up homeless and abused animals in 1973 while working as a doctor on Beijing Normal University’s campus clinic. As the number of animals steadily grew, the local media flocked to her house and “Grandma Ding,” as they called her, became an overnight celebrity.

But frequent media exposure only made her situation worse.

“They published my phone number and address and more people started dropping off animals by my door,” she says. “I can’t take in any more animals, but often in the morning, I open the door to find baskets of kittens.”

With a pension of 2,000 yuan ($300) and small donations from sympathetic volunteers, the old woman can barely make ends meet. She says the costs vary every month, and food expenses, medical care and sterilization costs can add up to thousands more than she could afford.

Yet she can’t bring herself to give up any of her pets. She even cooks food for the strays, because she doesn’t trust pet food sold on the Chinese market.

All animals at Ding’s have been neutered and vaccinated, and she only cages the sick ones and kittens.

“Looking after animals entails much more than just feeding them,” Ding said. She has visited other animal protection organizations in town and many of them keep their strays in cages and decrepit shelters, despite receiving generous donations and charging surrender fees.

“That’s just wrong; you have to let them be free,” she said.

Ding loses count of her cats sometimes because they often climb over the roof and roam in the neighborhood. But they always find their way back, Ding says, gesturing toward the roomful of animals — the dogs have now calmed down and the cats are stretching out on the window sills. Rays of sunlight stream through the window, illuminating the scars on some animals.

Ding explains that a large percentage of her animals are disabled, and some came close to appearing on people’s dinner plates. With her medical experience, Ding can cure some, but many don’t survive. And once injured or crippled, the animals become even more dependent on their new owner, Ding says as she points to a skinny white and yellow dog perched on the pillow, cautiously peering at her surroundings.

“Neighbors brought her in and she has never left my bed,” Ding said.