In China’s Yulin City, a custom with roots possibly as old as the Ming Dynasty has fired up critics across the globe — including celebrities like Pamela Anderson, Matt Damon and Joaquin Phoenix — as well as scores of local protesters. The dog-meat festival, which began Tuesday and annually coincides with the summer solstice, has attracted controversy since its late-aughts revival. During the festival, about 10,000 dogs will be killed so humans can eat the meat, traditionally consumed along with the fruit lychee.

This year, it seems, the demonstrations have permeated the festival to a deeper degree than in the half-decade before. “Business is especially bad this year. I could sell over 30 dogs every day in previous years, but now I can only sell five at the most,” a butcher, who gave his name only as Zhong, told Shanghai Daily. (Earlier reports indicated that the controversy in fact buoyed the demand for dog meat, thanks to the added attention.)

To the Associated Press, the Humane Society International’s Wendy Higgins said festival observers noted fewer killed than typical at the start of the event.

Earlier in June, animal rights advocates delivered a petition bearing 11 million signatures to end the festival.  The Washington Post reported, representing a joint Chinese-international effort.

On Tuesday, scattered protests took place across the United States, including at the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles:

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Animal activists, and their dogs, also took to the streets of New York City’s Chinatown. But some Asian American observers decried the tactic as “misguided,” noting that the majority polls of public opinion in China indicate an opposition to dog meat. As The Post reported earlier in June, though Communist China did not hold pet ownership in high regard, a burgeoning middle class has changing attitudes toward animals. In Yulin, too, the local government took pains to distance itself from the event.

“The so-called dog-meat eating festival has never been officially recognized by government or by any regulations or laws,” one official told the Associated Press.

Overzealous Western condemnation of the festival itself has become a thorny issue. Actor Ricky Gervais — PETA’s 2013 “Person of the Year” —  made the case on Facebook that there is no moral distinction “between eating dogs and eating cows.”

“I don’t eat either,” he added, “but if you do surely torturing them first is mental.” Gervais is referring to reports that many dogs slaughtered in the festival are neither raised on farms nor humanely killed. According to an April investigation by the Humane Society International, dogs are delivered to slaughterhouses by the truckload; some are still wearing collars, which, as the Humane Society writes on its website, is an indication the animals were stolen pets. Once at Yulin, witnesses say dogs may be bludgeoned to death or cooked while still alive, the BBC noted.

There may also be a generational divide between support for the festival, as the butcher, Zhong, told Shanghai Daily. “My son, a high school student, used to eat dog meat with us,” Zhong said, “but he decided to never eat it again last year under pressure from his friends.”