THERE IS AN ETHICAL DILEMMA that some compassionate progressives find themselves facing when confronted by certain cultural practices that are inhumane. Who should the compassionate person have greater sympathy for, the Makah in Washington State, for example, an indigenous people trying to maintain their cultural heritage, or the endangered whales they will kill in order to resume an ancient tradition? How do we weigh the interests of one against the other? These are vexing questions particularly for individuals who want to have clear consciences in the arena of political correctness.
As an animal and environmental advocate, and someone who considers himself sensitive to cultural and social issues, I see too many problems with cultural cruelty to be influenced or intimidated by PC pressure that is based on a lack of real enlightenment.
When considering the domestic problem of immigrant cultures that bring with them cruel practices, and the imperative of allowing them preservation of their traditions, should we not also recognize that we are all immigrants in this country? Even the Native Americans, who came here from Asia some 12,000 years ago? There are multitudes of traditional and cultural practices throughout the world that are illegal in the United States: bull fighting, dog fighting, cock fighting, female genital mutilation, slavery, cannibalism. We have accepted that these practices are to be prohibited here, yet we still resist "interfering" with the way things have always been for other peoples. We get mixed up with cultural relativism. Because something is traditional, it must, perforce, be good. In my experience, a bad thing cannot be transformed into a good thing because of circumstances. Cruelty is no less cruel because an ancient civilization chose to practice it.
In my own backyard, charges of cultural intolerance and prejudice have been flying over the issue of live animal food markets in the San Francisco area. Live animal food markets are found throughout California, primarily in metropolitan areas with large Asian American communities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento and San Diego. Those so inclined may choose from a broad spectrum of live fare: fish, chicken, duck, quail, pheasant, dove, frog, turtle, crab, eel, even the occasional armadillo (which, at least, is dead—road kill, perhaps?).
These picturesque markets, visited so avidly by tourists, involve great cruelty and are not for the squeamish. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions prevail, as does a lack of humane slaughter methods, dangerous for animals, workers and the general public alike. Tanks of dirty water with dead and dying fish and crustaceans abound. Other fish asphyxiate slowly on beds of ice; frogs and turtles are stacked in waterless boxes, four and five deep, crushing those at the bottom of the pile. Birds and frogs are routinely crammed into plastic bags in which they slowly suffocate, and turtles are often butchered while fully conscious. Federal laws require that USDA-approved slaughterhouses render the animals unconscious prior to slaughter. In fact, under the general anti-cruelty laws in the Penal Code, these cruelties are illegal. Yet city and state agencies generally look the other way out of a false sense of political correctness, or for fear of antagonizing their Asian constituency, their votes, or their money.
This culturally-sensitive issue has, from some quarters, produced bogus charges of racism and perceived attacks upon Chinese culture and traditions. However, as Asian Week columnist Emil Guillermo (himself Asian American) and Chinese American Vicky Ho Lynn, founder of Asians for Humans, Animals and Nature, have rightly pointed out, this is not a cultural issue, but an issue of animal cruelty and environmental protection. Even the concept of cultural immunity rings false, as Professor Ron Epstein of San Francisco State University has noted:
"I am surprised that the Chinatown animal sellers have been able to get away with claiming that what they are doing is universal Chinese cultural practice. The most widespread religion in traditional China was Buddhism, which opposed such practices. When the Chinese Buddhists were unable to stop them, they often raised money to buy the animals from the markets and released them in a 'Liberate the Living' ceremony. It is too bad that a small constituency in the Chinese community has been able to convince the media that they alone represent Chinese culture."
Although this issue has been around for decades, it was only four years ago that the live animal market controversy made headlines, largely as a result of well-publicized hearings in San Francisco before that city's Commission on Animal Control and Welfare. After two years of often contentious, continuous hearings, the Commission recommended to the full Board that most live animal sales be banned. Caving in to political pressures, both real and imagined, the Board refused to hold hearings, though most in private expressed sympathy for the animals.
A lawsuit was subsequently filed by the Coalition for Humane Business Practices against a dozen of the San Francisco markets. Unfortunately, the Coalition, led by The Fund for Animals, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Humane Farming Association, and other groups and individuals, did not prevail. In April of 1998, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Carlos Bea ruled against the plaintiffs, citing Scripture, and ruling that no "unnecessary" cruelty was taking place in the markets.
In addition to the cruelty issue, there are issues of species endangerment, environmental considerations, and risks to public health. California, to our credit, boasts some of the most progressive wildlife protection laws in the nation. We do not allow the commercialization of most of our wildlife (and certainly not frogs and turtles). It seems highly inconsistent, then, that we should import it by the ton from other states. One Oakland importer recently testified that she imports four tons of bullfrogs every week, about a million frogs a year. The Fund for Animals has approached the State Fish and Game Commission for a ban, for environmental reasons, on the importation of frogs and turtles for the live animal markets.
All of the market turtles are taken from the wild, wiping out local populations. There are no commercially-raised market turtles anywhere in the United States. Only two species of turtle are legally sold in the markets: the red-eared slider and the spiny softshell. Both species have been recommended for Threatened Species status by CITES (Convention in Trade in Endangered Species). Local turtle populations are disappearing world-wide at an alarming rate due in large part to this exploitation. They are imported by the hundreds of thousands into California annually and thousands of others are shipped overseas. The Department of Fish and Game keeps no records of actual numbers of animals bought and sold in these markets.
Other environmental consequences relate to the practice mentioned by Professor Ron Epstein of buying and releasing these animals into the local environment, common occurrences often related to religious conviction. Other well-meaning but uninformed people buy and release the market animals in the belief that they are "rescuing" them. But this can cause environmental havoc. Neither the bullfrogs nor the turtles are native to California, and they tend to displace, out-compete, and prey upon our native species. The non-natives also introduce exotic diseases and parasites into the local ecosystem. Bullfrogs are known to eat other frogs, tadpoles, the young of gamefish, even baby ducks and baby turtles, ample reasons why the proposed ban has such broad support within the environmental and sporting communities. Other regions have already moved ahead. The State of Oregon forbids the importation of these turtles and frogs, as does the European Union. Australia and New Zealand have also recently banned the importation of red-eared sliders for similar reasons.
The Fish and Game Commission has received more than 1500 letters in support of the ban, with fewer than twenty-five favoring the status quo (and most of those with vested financial interest). More than 4,000 signatures for the ban have been collected since the first of the year, with more coming in daily, not a few of them from Chinese Americans. Practically every humane organization in the state, plus others from outside California and the U.S. have also weighed in.
And if cruelty and environmental issues aren't persuasive enough, recent veterinary reports and necropsies document the presence of a large variety of diseases and parasites in the market frogs and turtles, some of them life-threatening to humans. Consider the prospect of a meal containing salmonella, pasturella, blood parasites, giardia, pin worms, round worms, and even, in one case, malaria. The animals, soon to be dined upon, also suffer from stress, starvation, dehydration and shell-rot. New York City has already banned the sale of these animals after the U.S. Food Administration told the city in 1991 that the sale of live frogs and turtles does not meet the criteria for an approved food source.
In California, Assemblyman Mike Honda (D-San Jose) has just introduced Assembly Bill 238 at the request of the live market supporters. As written, AB 238 would, in effect, validate the current untenable market conditions and practices. The bill fails to address any concerns about the environmental, public health or animal cruelty issues. It also prohibits the Commission from banning frog and turtle importation in the future. (California legislators may be written c/o State Capitol, Sacramento, CA 95814). Last year, a San Francisco SPCA-brokered humane agreement with a majority of market owners fell apart before implementation. An appropriate solution would be to put real teeth into the California bill, or create a state-wide ballot initiative, and make the stalled humane agreement into a city ordinance, with powers of enforcement under the Department of Animal Control.
There can be only one standard of decency, regardless of the impressive array of cultural influences in the United States. We can work together to agree on right and wrong. We must have the courage of our convictions in declaring that practices that are harmful, destructive and cruel are unacceptable?in any language.
In a letter I received in December, 1990 from Cesar Chavez, he writes, "Kindness and compassion towards all living things is a mark of a civilized society. Conversely, cruelty, whether it is directed against human beings or against animals, is not the exclusive province of any one culture or community of people. Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cock fighting, bullfighting and rodeos are cut from the same fabric: violence. Only when we have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well ourselves." ###
For further information about this issue and what you can do, contact Eric Mills at Action for Animals, PO Box 20184; Oakland, CA 94620; (510) 652-5603.
Eric Mills is coordinator of Action For Animals and the field representative for the Fund For Animals. He has been an animal and environmental advocate for fifty years.