Zhang Xingguo has been sacked numerous times
due to his "green cooking" principles

As the grandson of a shaman from the northeast province of Liaoning, Zhang Xingguo has a natural respect for wildlife. But this has come at a price for the 32-year-old's career as a professional cook - 12 sackings and 20 resignations in the past eight years due to his refusal to prepare wild animals for the table.

Mr Zhang's commitment to wildlife was sealed when he was six years old. He heard strange, baby-like cries and followed them to a nearby house where he saw a neighbour skinning a hedgehog alive for dinner. The experience left an indelible mark on his young mind.

"It was so astounding that I have never forgotten it. And I swore to myself that I would never do that to any animal," he said.

Two years later, his animal protection instincts came to the fore when he rescued an injured turtledove from his classmates. The youngsters were planning to make a meal of the bird, but Mr Zhang wrested it from their hands and the turtledove spent the next five years nesting in a tree in front of his house. A scar near his left eye inflicted by a stone-throwing classmate is a permanent reminder of the incident and the cost of standing up for animal rights.

"I didn't know I would pay for being good to wild animals," he said.

The story did not end there. After graduating from high school in 1991, Mr Zhang went to Fushun city in Liaoning to master the art of cooking.

His professional life was uneventful until five years later when restaurants in the northeast of the country attempted to outdo their rivals in wildlife-based cuisine. One day his boss forced him to present a table of dishes made from crane, pangolin, snake and hedgehog.

"I couldn't believe my eyes. My boss ordered a truckload of wildlife from Guangdong and asked me to cook the animals," he said.

"The two hedgehogs were trembling in their cage, while the crane was shedding tears as if it knew what awaited it. So I told the boss I couldn't do it."

Mr Zhang was fired and his pleas for the release of the two hedgehogs were refused.

Since then, he has worked in spells ranging from two days to three months, each time being fired for not cooking wild animals.

He makes his principles clear before he takes on a job, but restaurant bosses try to persuade him to do otherwise.

"The late 1990s saw a mushrooming in the demand for wild food in Liaoning restaurants. They learned from popular cuisines in Guangdong, while rich businesspeople used expensive dinners to flaunt their wealth. Government officials were using state funds to get an exotic experience and restaurant owners didn't want to miss the chance," Mr Zhang said.

He seemed to be the only cook going against the tide and his beliefs even led to an attack by a gang-backed restaurant boss in 1998.

Frustrated and tired of continually looking for work, he quit cooking. In 1998, together with his new wife, Mr Zhang sold underwear in the street, making a profit of 50 fen for each pair sold.

Mr Zhang returned to the kitchen in 1999 when he moved to Dalian , which he believed to be a more civilised city. It proved to be a good move and he was hired by a restaurant manager who never asked him to cook wild animals.

"It was the best time of my life. And I started calling on other cooks to boycott wild animals."

He made banners and convened meetings in city parks to encourage chefs to stop cooking more exotic fare.

The Sars outbreak in 2003 gave Mr Zhang the chance to move his campaign into high gear. He went to Huludao , a Liaoning city famed for the variety of its birdlife, to persuade people to stop eating wild animals for the sake of their health. He printed pamphlets and gave speeches promoting his idea of "purifying the kitchen, purifying life and purifying the soul".

"Some people call me a fool. Some say I want to be famous. Some think I'm strange. So far I've not had much encouragement, either from cooks or ordinary people. The government has not voiced opposition to my campaign, nor has it given any support," he said.

Undeterred, Mr Zhang has received support from non-governmental organisations for his nationwide "green cooking" publicity campaigns.