Activists in China intercepted 68 dogs on their way to slaughter at the controversial dog meat festival in Yulin city.

The desperate dogs were rescued outside of town in the Guangxi Autonomous Region, which found that many of the animals were in poor health, according to Humane Society International.

And despite festival goers claiming that these dogs were raised for slaughter, rescuers found that the dogs were eager to offer their paws to humans – suggesting that they used to be pets.

An activist told the South China Morning Post that her group was forced to self-confiscate the dogs after it became clear that local authorities were unwilling to help with the rescue operations.

The news comes after many attempts by animal rights activists to get Yulin’s local government to ban the annual festival, which has been going on for over a decade. The event has never been approved or endorsed by local officials, but continues annually at the beginning of summer with the encouragement of tourists and some locals who have described it as a “gathering of the public during the summer solstice” – rather than a celebration of dog meat.

In May, Yulin’s Agriculture Department reportedly imposed restrictions on livestock production and transportation – an attempt to curb the trend of pet theft or sales of potentially diseased dog meat – and fines of up to 150,000 yuan (about $ 23,100) for those found in violations.

“The Yulin authorities have a responsibility to protect public health – who knows what diseases [these dogs] could transmit that could end up in the food market,” the activist said, according to the SCMP.

The Dogs rest and recover under the care of volunteer vets until they can be transported from a Humane Society International animal shelter for further recovery.

These 68 dogs are the lucky ones, said Peter Li, an expert on China policy at HSI, among the group Millions still in danger.

“Through dog theft, illegal trans-provincial transport and inhumane slaughter, the trade not only harms animals, but also endangers public health with the potential for the spread of rabies and other diseases. These are compelling reasons for the Chinese authorities to end this trade once and for all, “he told SCMP.

An estimated 30 million dogs are killed for their meat across Asia each year, with 10 in China alone, according to the HSI up to 20 million such deaths occur. Last year, the Chinese government banned the sale and consumption of wild animals (as opposed to farm animals) – at the same time as the coronavirus pandemic hit, which many experts believe could be the result of the unregulated trade in exotic animals.

While some local governments have gone so far as to ban the eating of dogs and cats, there is still no nationwide ban on the practice.

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