Pets, People, and Civilization
It is interesting to contrast the religiously sanctioned abuse of dogs in the Muslim world with recent movements to remove dog and cat meat from its time-honored place on Chinese and South Korean menus. Part of the new concern with animal welfare in China is attributed to a growing demand for pets among the burgeoning fluent urban population. (Query? Is the one child policy also a factor?) Western attitudes towards dogs and cats also seem to be playing a role. A segment of the population in both China and South Korea seems particularly keen to make sure the rest of the world understands that they are as likely to eat dog meat as their counterparts in the West are to dine on a roadkill opossum.
In a rare example of a successful protest, last April Chinese activists prevented a shipment of dogs intended for slaughter from reaching its destination.
A group of animal activists and dog lovers in China have rescued hundreds of dogs headed for the dining table. Last Friday, about 200 people blocked a truck on a high way near Beijing. The truck carried 430 dogs bound for the northeastern province of Jilin where they were to be slaughtered and sold as meat.
After a 15-hour standoff, the truck driver agreed to hand over the dogs in return for $17,000 U.S. dollars. Animal activist Wang Qin says they had to pay for the dogs to save them.
[Wang Qin, China Small Animal Protection Association Activist]: "In the end, the police announced through a loudspeaker that what we were doing was against the law. That what they were doing with the dogs was legal and that if we were to keep holding them up they would have to take necessary measures against us. So we had to negotiate with them, since they were not breaking the law but we were, and in the end we had to buy the dogs to save them. It was the only way."
A month later, a Washington Post story described the protest in terms that in August 2011 we might call a flash mob. A very upscale flash mob that was able to come up with all that cash to buy the dogs.
News of the confrontation hit the Chinese blogosphere, sending more than 200 animal activists flocking immediately to the highway. Traffic on the road slowed to a standstill. Dozens of police officers were called in. Animal activists, however, kept arriving with reinforcements, carrying water, dog food, even trained veterinarians for a siege that lasted 15 hours.
The Post story also reported that the above incident ignited a very intense debate inside China between the urban elite and often struggling peasantry.
In online debates, many have noted the symbolic nature of the confrontation: a working trucker "forced off the road by a black Mercedes-Benz whose driver was on his way to a resort hotel with his girlfriend."
The issue comes with historical baggage as well, notes Jiang Jinsong, a philosophy professor at Tsinghua University. "During the Cultural Revolution, having a pet was seen as a capitalist activity. Only the rich and arrogant had dogs and allowed them to bite poor people," he said. "So there's this implication that if you treated pets well, you will treat those who are weaker badly.
The animal welfare activists are quick to counter that impression:
...dog activists have defended their fervor as a necessity. China does not have any laws against cruelty to animals, and by some estimates, as many as 10 million dogs - some vagrant, others stolen pets - are sold for consumption each year and are often kept under horrible conditions.
"People are saying it's a silly thing protecting animals," said Wang, the activist. "But it is a question of civilization.
"By teaching people in this country to love little animals, maybe we can help them to love their fellow human beings better."
The Chinese government has been struggling with this issue for several years. In January 2010 there was a draft proposal of legislation to ban dog and cat meat introduced, including a measure to jail people who eat dog for up to 15 days. This was popular in some circles and sneered at in others.
In a June 2011 followup on the April incident, the Chinese government seems to have looked into the matter again:
The Guardian reports that drafters at The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences had been consulting on the matter with Britain's Royal society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the US-based International Fund for Animal Welfare.
That isn't discouraging the traditionalists. A few years back a dog meat festival was begun in Yulin, a city of 3.4 million in Shaanxi province. This June it is reported that 15,000 dogs were slaughtered for this year's festival crowds.
A similar festival in South Korea didn't come off as planned due to social pressure.
The Korea Dog Farmers' Association was to have an open-air market in the city of Seongnam (South of Seoul), but after numerous protesters spoke out against such practices, the market was canceled.
"This is making our country an international laughing stock, and making the whole world mistakenly believe that all South Koreans eat dogs," said Park So-Youn, head of Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth.
"Canines are the animals emotionally closest to humans. You can't just publicly celebrate killing and eating them," Park said.
The above pattern mirrors the development of attitudes towards animal welfare in the West. Indeed, blood sports that pit animals against each other in mortal combat were seen as respectable entertainment until the Victorian era when social mores began to change. An increasingly urban upper-middle class began to see such practices as barbaric. The attitude spread and soon laws started to be passed in Western nations eliminating most blood sports as well as mandating the humane treatment of all animals, including those being raised for slaughter.
In recent years law enforcement has become more vigilant in identifying and prosecuting animal cruelty cases because of scientific evidence that abuse of animals is often a precursor of acts of violence against other humans.
I believe the dog is God's wonderful gift to us: a social animal with remarkably plastic genes that allow us to shape the species as needed. Man has bred dogs down to the two- to six-pound Chihuahua and up to 200-plus-pound Mastiffs and Danes. We have bred Greyhounds to accelerate almost as rapidly as cheetahs and to sustain that speed over a much longer distance while the once-ferocious Bulldog is nowadays almost as loath to move as a sloth. We have so tamed some breeds' natural instincts to kill that they can be asked to retrieve a live bird without leaving a tooth mark on it. The older shaggy members of the toy breeds are said to have been developed both as a portable heater and in the hopes that the fleas endemic in the straw- and animal hair-stuffed furniture of earlier eras would find the dog a more accommodating host than its owner. Because of those plastic genes today dogs not only still assist hunters and safeguard our flocks, families, and warriors, but they also allow the impaired to live independent lives, help console the traumatized, and give hope to the depressed. Indeed there is much research that owning a dog helps reduce blood pressure, alleviate social isolation, and encourage the owner to get more exercise, thus helping the owner life a longer, healthier life. Such a marvelous gift needs to be respected rather than stigmatized and exploited.