Don't lecture China on animal welfare

Updated: 2011-12-07 14:56

By Ellie Buchdahl (

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Dog delicacies, snake on a stick, shark fin soup and monkey brain surprise - China hasn't exactly got the best reputation for being animal-friendly.

Even when lunchtime is over, the stories of animal cruelty continue. There was a public outcry in 2010 when it emerged that at least 11 Siberian tigers had starved to death at a wildlife zoo in Shenyang, and a quick day trip to Beijing zoo is enough to induce rage among more sensitive souls, with its tiny bear pit and sad-eyed pandas.

For an even more harrowing experience, go local. A trip to your local pet shop is enough proof that the World Society for the Protection of Animals hasn't quite cracked China yet. Rabbits are stacked four abreast in a two-foot wide cage, birds are crushed against the bars, and mangy cats stare balefully out of store windows.

Yet the sheer hypocrisy of Wayne MacKinnon, the chairman of seal-oil manufacturer DPA Industries, was even more distasteful than any amount of Kung Po Chihuahua. "The Chinese eat anything," Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail quoted him as saying, according to China Daily on December 6. "And they simply don't understand why you would put one animal above another." It was bad enough that Mr. MacKinnon was allegedly using this as a reason to flog his trade in seal meat to the Chinese market. But aside from this, Westerners aren't exactly animal welfare models either.

In the EU, you can choose to buy specifically "free range" or "organically farmed" eggs - there is even the cozy-named "Happy Egg" brand in the UK. However, this betrays the other side of the story that more than two thirds of eggs laid in Europe come from battery hens. These birds – more than 390 million of them – are shackled in rows in wire mesh cages, with no room to move, wallowing in their collective filth. According to EU law, the minimum floor space each bird is allowed is less than the size of an A4 piece of paper. There are current moves by some EU countries to phase out battery farming by 2012, but experts suggest that consumer demand for cheap prices will make this very difficult in reality.

More disturbing are the circus laws - or lack of them - in countries like Britain. There are currently no laws regarding circus animals in the UK. According to the WSPA in 2010, there were 38 animals being used in four traveling circuses across the UK. Licenses for possessing exotic animals are issued by local municipal governments, and are bizarre documents, often with no expiry or renewal date. All this means that people - like one Ekram Alam, a student from University College London (UCL) - can get hold of a host of exotic animals including snakes, crocodiles and even, he claimed, a baby tiger. In fact, Mr. Alam managed in May this year to plan an "Animal Fayre" where patrons could “tickle a baby tiger”. He went so far as to sell tickets on the website Groupon. The same Alam had managed to bring a collection of snakes to a UCL student kitchen for a private showing in 2010, and planned another in the UCL cloisters.

Thankfully the whistle was blown on both these events. But in neither case was it a very high-profile whistle; the stories made the pages of a local newspaper and the UCL student paper. It was hardly the stink you’d expect to be cooked up by a country that prides itself on animal welfare.

China's protection and preservation record is poor, but that is no reason for other countries to feel smug. We might want to clean up our own abattoirs and cages before we start casting too many stones.

Ellie Buchdahl is an editor on 21st Century newspaper. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily website.