Rescue groups go into overdrive in the days ahead of China's Yulin dog meat festival

The ninth annual ten-day Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat festival in China’s Yulin, Guangxi, is slated to begin on June 21, sending animal rights advocates and rescue workers in both China and abroad into overdrive to save as many helpless canines as possible.

Vendors at the yearly festival are estimated to kill up to 15,000 dogs to serve as food for the thousands of attendees from around the country. The dogs are said to be beaten, burned, boiled or skinned alive – under a draconian, superstitious guise that the fear and torture improves the taste of the meat.

In 2016, in anticipation of protests, the butchering of dogs in public was officially prohibited -- but the festival “preparations” went underground.

However, activists in China are clinging to one caveat: they say they can apprehend dog trucks en route to slaughterhouses legally, and can confiscate the animals if companies do not have paperwork explicitly proving they actually own the dogs. Rescuers then endeavor to return them to their rightful owners if they have identification or microchips, as many are often stolen household pets. Otherwise, they are taken to local rescue shelters, Newsweek reported.

U.S. rescue groups are also known to frequent the region in the days ahead, and have been credited with saving hundreds of animal lives. The contentious festival also has drawn the ire of animal rights proponent and actor Ricky Gervais, who for weeks has sought to raise awareness of the controversial festival.

Actor Ricky Gervais called the killing of dogs for the festival "the most horrendous thing I have heard of."

“I don’t get it; I can’t seem to stop it. It is the most horrendous thing I have heard of,” an emotional Gervais wrote in a social media post late last month. “People will say what’s it got to do with you? But you could say that about anything, really.”

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Yet despite the eruption of controversy that only continues to mount, efforts to cancel and ban the yearly summer-solstice chow-down have been unsuccessful so far. Still, activists have launched dozens of online petitions to bring awareness to the cause.

“Signing and sharing this petition is crucial, we must make one final push to save thousands of innocent dogs – they don’t deserve to die! Spread the word and Say No To Yulin 2018,” read one Change.org petition, which has attracted more than 150,000 signatures.

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Residents and vendors have argued the dogs are killed in humane ways and that eating them is no more or less cruel than consuming other animal products such as pork, beef or chicken. According to Chinese culture, dog meat is advantageous to cooling the human body during the summer season.

The Humane Society International (HIS) estimates that around one-third of 30 million dogs and cats slaughtered globally each year are killed in China.

Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay