DATONG, CHINA - The way Zhang Weilin sees it, as the Chinese palate becomes more demanding and sophisticated, it's only a matter of time before the dog-meat industry takes off. With his 90 Saint Bernards, he's counting on being at the forefront of the revolution.
"When China opens the dog-meat market and dog-breeding industry, it will gradually become like raising cows and sheep," said the middle-aged Zhang. "As people spend more and their dietary habits change, industrialization of dog breeding will not take as long as domestication of cows and sheep."
He knows there's still a long way to go.
"It's not easy to start a new industry," he said. "Breeding dogs [for meat] has never been done on a large scale."
Zhang oversees what he says is China's largest Saint Bernard breeding center and the only one that is state-run. The famed mountain-rescue dog is mated with local dogs to produce mixed-breed dogs that can be sold for meat.
"The advantage of the local dogs is they have a lot of lean meat," said Zhang. "The advantage of Saint Bernards is they're big and grow fast and don't get sick."
So far, Zhang's farm is only breeding dogs, not slaughtering them. But he has plans to build what he says will be China's first large-scale dog-meat factory.
After launching two years ago, the breeding center has become one of the most profitable ventures of the state-owned Datong Mining Bureau, the largest employer in this gritty city of 2 million about 160 miles west of Beijing.
When the coal industry went into a slump a few years ago and started running out of money to pay workers, the government ordered certain sectors to find outside revenue streams. Zhang and a few other Datong Mining Bureau officials spent more than six months exploring possibilities before settling on dog meat.
"Through market analysis and research, we discovered there was a huge demand for dog meat," said Cui Liguo, a former coal industry planner now in charge of managing the Saint Bernard breeding center. "There are a lot of consumers of dog meat and not many breeders of dogs."
The decision to use Saint Bernards was also arrived at after much scientific research, Cui and Zhang said.
"To develop this industry you need a good breed. The local breeds are not good enough," said Zhang. "Chinese scientists have done a lot of comparative research. The Saint Bernard was their first choice."
In addition to being large - male Saint Bernards can grow to more than 200 pounds - they are also very fertile, adapt well to various weather conditions and are easy to care for.
At Zhang's farm, a pair of puppies - one male, one female - sells for $1,800 and has to be ordered months in advance. An adult Saint Bernard, which is cross-bred with other dogs to produce meat for consumption, goes for $3,600 to $6,000.
Buyers include farmers and small businessmen who come from all over China, hoping to make some money on the side by breeding dogs. They are drawn by ads boasting of a high rate of return: three times as profitable as poultry and four times as profitable as raising pigs.
Zhang said the breeding center earned back its initial investment of $324,000 after just one year.
They stress that Saint Bernards are not for eating. Gao Yuanping, head of the mining bureau's forestry division, said he knows dog lovers would howl in protest if they thought Saint Bernards were being killed.
Animal rights groups in Switzerland have tried to stop the sale of Saint Bernards to Asian countries. But Cui said Swiss dogs are too expensive anyway; most of their Saint Bernards come from Russia and Kazakhstan.
For American animal rights groups, however, the breed of the dog is a secondary issue. "Like pigs, cows and chickens, all dogs are intelligent animals that deserve respect and not exploitation at the hands of moneymakers," said Cem Akin, a spokesman for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
He said PETA is currently focused on a similar situation in Korea, site of soccer's World Cup in 2002. The group alleges that it is a common practice in Korea to consume dog meat after first beating, torturing and strangling the dog to increase its adrenaline level. It is believed that this will make a man consuming the meat more virile, Akin said.
Gao knows Americans don't eat dog meat.
"For Americans, it's very strange," he said. "Dog is man's best friend."
In the next breath, he said he welcomes investors from the United States or anywhere else to help them expand.
"They have to like dogs," he said enthusiastically.
Dog meat is thought to be nutritious and good to eat in the winter because it heats up the body. Gao said every part of a dog can be eaten except for the lungs. "Heart of a wolf, lung of a dog," is a Chinese insult meaning cruel and savage. Some restaurants offer a full banquet of up to 100 different dishes made from one dog.
"Dog skin tastes very good," Gao added.
Whereas American palates rarely venture beyond the staples, Asians are far more adventurous diners, enjoying chicken feet, pig brains and countless other dishes that would make Americans squeamish.
Still, in Beijing and many other cities in China, dog meat is not commonly eaten and is available at only a few restaurants. It is more popular in the northeast, which has a large ethnic Korean population, and Guangdong province in the south. More and more urban Chinese with disposable income are also keeping dogs as pets.
Cui, the general manager of the dog farm and once an avid consumer of dog meat, said he has stopped eating dogs after working with them.
"I feel affection for them," said Cui, who had never raised dogs before his current job. "Dogs have intelligence. They're not like livestock. This is one of the reasons dog breeding has never developed over these thousands of years. Dogs are smarter than other animals and they have feelings. They can understand people."
But for Zhang it's China today, tomorrow the world.
With technology making the world smaller, he hopes dog meat will become "globally connected."