When night falls on Tanghekou village, a parched farming community in the mountains north of Beijing, the darkness is pierced by the invaders’ gaze, tiny luminous disks dancing through the shadows.
“Their eyes glow green,” said Liu Changjun, 58, a goat farmer who is among those who have witnessed the sudden and mysterious incursion that has catapulted this once anonymous hamlet into the headlines.
The intruders in question are foxes and raccoon dogs that, since late March, has been launching deadly nocturnal forays into the area to terrorise its chicken pens and duck enclosures.
According to reports in the Chinese press, hundreds of the unwelcome omnivores have “overrun” Tanghekou in recent weeks, for reasons that have yet to be fully elucidated.
“There are a lot of rumours,” said one stony-faced villager who refused to give his name for fear of retributions from the still unidentified people behind the animal invasion. “A lot of people say different things.”
On Monday, residents of this normally sleepy community, which is a two-hour drive from Beijing through dramatic rocky outcrops and hilltops studded with crumbling sixth century watchtowers, were cautious about attributing blame. The most likely culprits, however, appear to be Chinese Buddhists.
Villagers and local newspaper reports suggest the creatures were liberated on the nearby Liangnan mountain as part of “fangsheng”, a centuries-old Buddhist ritual by which devotees release captive animals into nature to boost their karma.
The practice – which literally means “to set life free” – has boomed in recent years as more and more Chinese have sought spiritual succour at a time of dramatic social change.
One Buddhist group, the Guangdong fangsheng association, boasts of releasing more than 100 million animals since 1989, according to a 2014 article in the China Economic Review.
Each weekend, coaches carrying fangsheng fans and a veritable Noah’s ark of animal life pour out of Chinese cities and into the countryside for karma-cultivating ceremonies that involve snakes, turtles, mice, hedgehogs, frogs, squirrels and fish, as well as foxes and raccoon dogs.
Believers see freeing caged creatures as a good deed, but authorities and animal rights activists say there are dangers for rural communities, nature and the animals themselves, who are often bred in captivity and unable to fend for themselves in the wild.
“The road to environmental destruction is paved with good intentions,” the Shanghai Daily newspaper noted last year in an article on the dark side of China’s fangsheng craze.
Tanghekou residents believe the results of fangsheng reached their community towards the end of last month.
At about 10pm on 30 March, a female chicken farmer, who also declined to be named for fear of reprisals, was the first to notice the interlopers.
“I heard the dogs barking and our chickens and ducks flying around the yard,” recalled the woman, whose farm sits at the foot of the Liangnan mountain. “I was so scared.”
The woman jumped out of bed and successfully chased away the animals but the damage had been done. Three chickens were killed and two others injured in the assault. “The next day I called the police,” she said.
The police inquiry did little to solve the problem. The following days saw repeat attacks, as the newly released creatures – apparently unable to find food in the region’s arid mountains – continued their incursions into the village. By the following Monday, more than 20 of the woman’s chickens had been killed during the nocturnal raids.
Her four dogs, including one supposedly ferocious Alsatian, had done nothing to stop the carnage. “I unleashed the dogs,” she said. “But they just went up to the foxes and sniffed them and then backed off. I was furious.”
Liu, the goat farmer, appeared to have taken more kindly to Tanghekou’s furry newcomers and pointed sadly to the rotting corpse of one that had died in one of his fields.
He grew animated as he recalled using tattered duvets to capture two trespassing creatures, striding across his farmyard to a small metal cage in which he had imprisoned them.
Liu said he was unsure of their exact species, speculating that they might be a cross between a fox and a raccoon dog. “They are not your typical foxes,” he said. “They are gentler.”
The farmer said he had been feeding his captives meat, rice and pieces of corn and planned to adopt them as pets “for fun”. “It’s so unusual to find a wild animal around here,” Liu explained, smiling. “They are friendly. I give them food so they are nice to me.”
On Monday, Chinese media said police had caught about 80 of the creatures, some of which had died, and were hunting the people behind their release.
“According to the relevant laws, anyone who releases wild animals without notifying the authorities has the responsibility to take remedial action,” the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper reported.
Liu was upbeat about the village’s new fame. He said he was looking forward to showing his pets off to his son and granddaughter when they next visited and shrugged when asked who he thought was to blame.
“Probably someone religious released them,” he said. “That’s what I heard.”
Source: The Guardian