From Meat Market to Miami: Golden Retrievers Get a Second Chance


Angie Jaramillo

Tipsy, a golden retriever rescued from a Chinese meat market, takes a break from frolicking at a local dog park. She was found on the streets of China, dirty, malnourished and missing a leg. Golden Retrieve Rescue South Floirda made sure she got a second chance at life.

Bryannah Azim

Angie Jaramillo, Editor

At 1:30 a.m., Nicole Spoto loaded up her two children, Sarah, 7, and Bryan, 9, into her Honda SUV. Her husband Dave at the wheel, the two parents maneuvered their car onto Interstate 95 and headed south down to Miami International Airport, where they waited for four hours outside a warehouse to pick up their cargo. 

“They open the bay door. My husband starts yelling: ‘They’re coming! They’re coming!’” said Spoto.

In a chaos of fur, barking and whining, 21 golden retriever’s spilled out onto the asphalt and into the arms of their adoptive families.

“She was just so happy. It was incredible to see,” said Spoto of her newly adopted female retriever. “She just started jumping all over me, and then we ran over to the car and she immediately wanted to jump in.”

It’s an unusual way to adopt a dog. But, that’s how it is done when the dogs come from China.

Spoto and her family were among the 55 people that gathered last Sunday in the wee hours of the morning in a cargo area near the airport to adopt the latest batch of golden retrievers rescued from a meat market in China. 

“Yup. In China they eat dogs. And for some reason, golden retrievers are on the top of the menu,” said Kristine Minerva, volunteer coordinator for South Florida’s Golden Retriever Rescue. “Maybe it’s because they are so friendly and easy to get along with. I guess they don’t cause any problems.”

For the past nine months, Minerva has been coordinating rescues of golden retrievers with the organization and necessary paperwork for customs and permits. She also contacts local small businesses to help with any donations for goodie bags that they give to their adopters. 

“This is the second rescue we’ve done from China,” she said.

A special-ed teacher by day, Minerva and other members in her group started rescuing dogs from China two years ago, in an attempt to save them from a meat market.

The dogs had arrived from Twaiwan after a 42-hour flight that stopped in Alaska before landing in MIA.

“The kids mostly were dozing on and off,” said Spoto. “But, we could hear them barking behind a big garage door.”

According to the Humane Society International (HSI), 10 to 20 million dogs are killed annually for human consumption. China is notorious for eating these K9s and for their Yulin Meat Festival, which is a annual festival dedicated to the live-torture and consumption of dogs and cats.

Even worse, the HSI maintains that the animals are even tortured to death because of a misguided belief that torture results in better-tasting, adrenaline-rich meat.

One way China gets its supply of dog meat is through farming of certain breeds, like golden retrievers. The other way is through animal abandonment. About 40 million stray dogs are abandoned on the streets of China every year. A sixth tone article, “Dogs’ Lives: Rescuing China’s Growing Pack of Strays,” about a dog rescue, about 100 million dogs and cats are left behind, up 8.4% compared to a statistic in 2018.

“We have owner surrenders [from China], as well as off the meat truck crammed into small cages,” said Mirnerva. 

Tipsy is one of those dogs.  One of the first 20 rescue dogs that came from China in December, he was living on the streets of a big Chinese city, hobbling around on three legs. He was able to survive a vicious attack and a surgery to amputate his leg, and still came out a happy energetic dog. 

“His resilience makes him so special,” said Tipsy’s owner, Vicky Rotunno. “It still brings to me to tears when I look at the picture of him on the street with his bone sticking out.” 

So far this year, Minerva’s organization has managed to rescue 60 golden retrievers.

“Last Monday, completed 60 Goldens saved and 60 families lives changed,” said Minerva. “If you also take into account, another 60 at the shelter in China that’s a total of 120 saved.”

It is unknown how these dogs are taken from the slaughter houses. “Some information needs to remain confidential,” said Minerva.

It’s an arduous trip. After being rescued, they are quickly loaded into crates and sent to Taiwan. There, they wait 11 hours in their crates before they are sent to Alaska, where they wait an additional six to seven hours before they are loaded onto their final flight to MIA. 

Despite the long journey, the dogs arrive healthy and overall in good condition.

“[They] might have some skin irritations, eye infections, but most importantly are extremely tired, hungry and thirsty,” said Minerva.

Not only is it a long trip, it’s expensive. The cost for 20-22 Golden Retrievers is about $60,000. Minerva raises the money by funding from fundraisers, donations, and support from their followers. On Instagram they have about 3,200 and Facebook, over 18,000. They are a small organization and not very known, so it’s hard to raise large amounts of money. The average donation to their organization is $25.

“Since we are such a small rescue we are constantly looking at fundraisers and other ways to raise money,” said Minerva.

Prospective adoptees can expect to pay a starting donation adoption fee of $1,500 to Minerva’s organization to get one of these China rescue dogs. All of the money goes towards supporting her organization and future rescues.

Many families like Spoto found their website through Instagram and Facebook. Spoto previously had two rescue dogs that passed away, a German shepherd and a border collie. She currently has one golden retriever that was bought from a breeder and was wanting another dog because she felt guilty.

“Because we rescued before and because of my mixed feelings about having gone to a breeder, I wanted to rescue any future dogs,” said Spoto.

From initial contact to actually getting their new dog in their hands, it took about one month. She first contacted Golden Retriever Rescue in January and after that Spoto had many applications to sign and several home visits to happen. Then the wait for the goldens to get out of Beinjing, China and the fact that the arrival was delayed twice. Then, there was the pre-dawn trip to meet the dog. But, it’s all been worth it.  

“I knew what was gonna be involved,” said Spoto. “We got pretty lucky with the dog we ended up with. She already seems well adjusted and doesn’t seem to have any issues at all.”