AP

Eating dog meat should no longer be acceptable in the 21st century, and if the Chinese public and officials eventually have their way, it won't be. But for now, June 21 still marks the first day of the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, in which thousands of dogs are slaughtered for consumption.

A large black market for dog meat in China fuels this increasingly unpopular undertaking. The ancient habit of eating dog is proving hard to kick for some in the rapidly modernizing country, just as dispelling the value of many forms of Chinese Traditional Medicine that rely on endangered species like rhinos and sharks has.

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But even as countless dogs are stolen each year by gangs and the government continues to avoid taking decisive action to stop the trade, the practice of devouring man's best friend is losing public favor as dogs become more popular pets and the public gains an awareness of animal welfare.

A recent poll commissioned by the China Animal Welfare Association in collaboration with Humane Society International (HSI) and Avaaz found that 64% of Chinese support the end of the Yulin festival and that 52% want the dog meat trade to be completely banned.

"It is embarrassing to us that the world wrongly believes that the brutally cruel Yulin festival is part of Chinese culture," Qin Xiaona, director of the Capital Animal Welfare Association, said in a statement. "It isn’t and as we see in this poll, most people here don’t eat dogs and believe that the festival damages China’s global reputation.”

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Bolstering the findings of the poll is a recent online vote by more than eight million Chinese people supporting a legislative proposal to ban the dog meat trade in China by the National People’s Congress Deputy Zheng Xiaohe.

Like many other traditional foods, people who eat dog often believe the meat possesses certain medicinal qualities. According to Change for Animals, "dog bone is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties, while dog penis and testes are believed to increase virility and cure impotence:"

A number of classical medical texts also recommend dog meat to fortify the spirit and aid in recovery from illness, classifying dog meat as a medicine as well as a food. It is still common today for doctors to recommend dog meat to patients who have undergone surgery because of its perceived curative effects.

Of course, there is no scientific evidence for any of this. In fact, research shows the opposite: That eating dog poses human health risks, such as potential transmission of cholera, trichinellosis, and even rabies, not to mention the excessive use of antibiotics in dog farms.

In an effort to build public outcry against dog eating, celebrities like Matt Damon, Joaquin Phoenix, Kate Mara, Rooney Mara, and Ricky Gervais have spoken out against it.

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The Yulin Dog Meat Festival is actually a modern tradition, having only been started in the last decade or so as an attempt to boost dog meat trade in the area, which previously didn't have a history of consuming dog.

While the festival, which local authorities deny officially exists, may promote this esoteric practice, across China dogs are much more popular as pets than food sources. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, urban Chinese care for around 27 million pet dogs and in the countryside the number approaches 100 million.

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Anti-Yulin protester, Qi Qi, told TIME that “dogs are humans’ friends. They safeguard people and even rescue people. Having dogs also helps children with autism…dogs need to be cared for and vaccinated.”

In recent years, other dog meat festivals have been banned by Chinese authorities after protesters drew attention to them. And while eating dog isn't banned in China, the Yulin festival could be stopped if laws prohibiting mass transportation of live animals without having prior laboratory quarantine were implemented.

Nonetheless, according to HSI, an estimated 10 to 20 million dogs a year are killed across China for their meat, and thousands die just for Yulin, even as that number has fallen from as high as 15,000 to just a few thousand in recent years. The dogs are slaughtered on small dogs farms that rely on stray or stolen dogs for the most part, which means dog owners need to keep an even closer eye on their pets.

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HSI undertook its own Yulin rescue mission this year, saving 29 dogs and five cats from a slaughter facility in the area.

Peter Li, HSI’s China policy specialist, led the rescue operation.

“The police presence is heavy in Yulin right now, and the atmosphere is very tense, so this was not an easy rescue," Li said in a statement. "But we were determined to save animals from their gruesome fate at Yulin, and it was such a relief to leave the slaughterhouse cages empty for one day at least…It’s shocking to think that if we had not been there, all these animals would have been beaten to death and eaten.”