BEIJING (Reuters) - Public outrage in China over photographs of laboratory dogs lying muzzled and abandoned on the roof of a medical school building spotlights changing attitudes to animal rights, animal welfare groups say.
The pictures and video, taken by animal rights activists in the central city of Xi'an, went viral on social media platforms this week, sparking widespread revulsion at the treatment of the animals.
Reuters could not independently verify the images, which showed more than a dozen dogs, their mouths muzzled with gauze and their bodies bearing open surgical wounds. A few remained alive, shivering in the cold, but most appeared to be dead.
In a statement, the Xi'an Medical University said an internal inquiry determined that personnel acted improperly in dealing with the animals' bodies, and promised to step up oversight and temporarily suspend animal testing.
Using dogs in experiments was legal, however, and no rules had been violated in conducting the tests, it added.
Pet ownership, denounced as a decadent and bourgeois habit after the Communist Party took power in China, is becoming popular again among the country's growing middle class.
Pet ownership and better education on animal welfare have fueled greater sympathy for animal rights among the public, said Karina O'Carroll, an official of Hong Kong welfare group Animals Asia.
"There has been a change in the past five years," she said by telephone.
Nearly half the 3,221 respondents in a survey published by the group in June felt that killing dogs and cats for their meat should be illegal in China, Animals Asia said on its website.
Dog meat is consumed as a traditional dish in some parts of China, and Chinese activists protested against a large dog meat festival in the southern town of Yulun in June.
Ministry of Technology rules ban animal torture and abuse, the official Xinhua news agency has reported, and require researchers to cause the animals "minimum fright and pain" during tests.
Hailey Chang, an official of animal rights group PETA Asia, warned that such incidents were likely to continue in China, despite growing public sympathy for animal welfare, as a lack of legal protections hampers activists' efforts.
"I think the public would also be shocked to know what happens behind closed doors in laboratories across China, where the country has no effective and enforced anti-animal cruelty law," she told Reuters.
Reporting by Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez