Culture vs. Cruelty

Controversy over the treatment of live animals in urban Asian markets rages on. Asian-American leaders have accused animal-welfare activists of racism, and the activists call the merchants callous animal torturers. A new bill in California aims to end the battle once and for all.

| Sat Mar. 4, 2000 3:00 AM EST

For years, animal-welfare activists and merchants in urban Asian markets across the US and Canada have been at loggerheads over the treatment of turtles, fish, frogs, and other live animals the markets sell for food.

To a visitor accustomed to neatly-packaged supermarket flesh, some of the markets' wares are undeniably disturbing. Fish flop desperately in a thin layer of water. Skinned amphibians are stacked up like frog-shaped globs of pale pink jelly. But is it really cruelty?

Market owners say efforts to change their traditions smack of racism; animal-welfare advocates say culture isn't an excuse for cruelty. And local leaders take the politically expedient position of doing essentially nothing.

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After a string of legal and political victories for markets in San Francisco, where the war has raged hotter than anywhere else, one California legislator has introduced a bill which would, if passed, clearly define what constitutes animal cruelty in such markets. Although activists' hopes have been buoyed by the Feb. 24 introduction of Assembly Bill 2479, the bill and the case against the markets still face some major hurdles -- as does the vexed cause of protecting the market animals.

Meanwhile, many liberals (and now some state politicians) seeking to pick an easy side are befuddled. Who wants to be called a racist? Who wants to see animals suffer?

Animal-rights activists contend the battle is not just about compassion; the live-animal trade, they say, poses dangers also to public health and the environment.

For five years in San Francisco, home to America's biggest Chinatown, animal-welfare organizations have been sponsoring legislation, filing lawsuits, and browbeating market owners in an effort to get San Francisco's live-animal trade shut down altogether. But early on, public opinion quickly turned against the activists when media-savvy Asian business owners charged them with cultural insensitivity.

Pius Lee
Pius Lee, San Francisco port commissioner
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"It's unfair to the Asian American [community]. Why don't [animal activists] go down to Fisherman's Wharf, where they boil crabs live?" says Pius Lee, the city's port commissioner and owner of the buildings where two markets are housed. Activists say they have, but that conditions in live-animal markets are much worse.

San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Nathan Winograd doesn't buy the racism charges. "Using the culture card was a strategy they used publicly," he says. In private meetings with the merchants, though, Winograd claims, "We never heard ... that displaying a turtle with its organs exposed was any kind of heritage."

Even Chinatown isn't united on the issue. Vicky Lynn of Asians for Humans, Animals and Nature vehemently refutes any cultural-insensitivity arguments. "People used to bind their feet," she says. "Do you want to keep that kind of culture?"

The animal advocates insist they are just trying to make the markets obey the same animal-cruelty laws that everyone else follows, regardless of cultural heritage. "My personal feeling is that the cruelty-to-animals law is being violated all the time," says Richard Schulke, director of SF's Animal Control and Welfare.

Eric Mills of San Francisco's Action for Animals said he has observed frogs killed by placing several in a paper bag at once, after which, "the butcher would take a hammer and go whackety-whack-whack." Those still alive were skinned with the others.

Michael Lau, a spokesman for Chinatown's Sun Duck market, describes the standard way to kill a turtle: "First we try to get it to stick its head out, and then when it does, we chop it off right there and then. But if we can't, we'll break the shell and then take his head off, which usually takes a minute and a half." Schulke said a turtle's head can live for an hour after being severed, exacerbating the cruelty when the head isn't killed directly with a brain pith. It's grisly, but experts like the University of California-Davis's Joy Mench say there's no better way.

The State Fish and Game Warden Dan Andreen told the MoJo Wire that his agency suspects there are other violations of state law, such as trade in illegal species, on a regular basis in the markets. "A lot of the time we go in the front, and the stuff's going out the back door in a hurry," he says.

Mills contends that the willingness of local legislators to look the other way has much to do with financial contributions from Asian business owners and the quickly growing Asian voter base.

He's not alone. David Lee, executive director of the Chinese-American Voter Education Committee observes that the lack of action by city leaders "speaks to the power of the Chinese-American vote and community."

Public and ecological health
Animal advocates say it's more than an issue of compassion; it's a public health problem. The animals are kept in cardboard boxes and buckets of dirty water. Parasites and bacterial infection are not uncommon for the animals displayed in such conditions.

Caption here too
Frogs are often kept in crowded cages and buckets, and are never fed.
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Mills, for one, has called the market owners themselves racists for selling their Chinese clientele allegedly dangerous food. "Most of the market clientele are Asian Americans. Their health is being put at tremendous risk. Neither Safeway nor Albertson's would be allowed to sell these diseased, parasite-ridden, and dying animals for food. This smacks of racism, in my view," Mills wrote in a local paper.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, while turtle meat is prone to salmonella (as is chicken) and should be handled carefully, cooking eliminates any danger. San Francisco Health Department spokesman Jack Breslin says while the animal-welfare groups put a "health label" on their mission, they exaggerate the health risks -- that some question the meat's safety simply becasue it lacks a supermarket's "antiseptic appearance."

Appearances aside, there's more than salmonella at issue here: California veterinarian Lexie Endo examined more than 200 turtles taken from live markets in 1996. She said that 30 percent of the usually long-lived creatures died within 10 days, even in her expert care, because they were so diseased and malnourished.

Furthermore, even the animals that don't end up in markets may suffer. Demand for certain species also depletes wild populations of turtles in the American South and East. According to Craig Hoover of the World Wildlife Fund's TRAFFIC program, "We're seeing a dramatic increase in adult softshell turtles going out of the [US]."

Virginia Handley of the Fund for Animals says the frogs and turtles, both of which can find their way into the wild when some animal-liberation groups "rescue" them, are destructive to California's ecosystem, as the turtles displace and the bullfrogs eat native Western pond turtles, garter snakes, and smaller frogs.

What's in store
A 1998 lawsuit filed by an animal rights coalition to ban the sale of live animals for food was perhaps the most dramatic episode, and the hardest lost, for the animal welfare camp. An activist coalition sued a group of 12 markets on charges of animal cruelty and violations of public health and safety. But the activists were unable to pin any specific instances of animal cruelty on the markets. What the plaintiffs cited as a routine and especially inhumane method of slaughter -- peeling the shells off of live turtles which refuse to stick out their heads -- was not ruled as cruel. Turns out that turtles, with their natural armor and heads which remain alive for an hour after decapitation, are just incredibly difficult to kill. Neither animal experts nor the activists could suggest a quicker or more humane method of killing the beasts.

The trial was certainly a setback, but the animal-welfare camp hasn't given up yet. At the moment, Mills and Handley are focusing on opposing another state bill, California AB 238, which would permit local governments to regulate live-animal markets instead of the state.

The latest bill has a long way to go before it becomes law, if it ever does. It will, at the very least, help distinguish between what constitutes acceptable cultural tradition and what crosses the line into animal cruelty. Of course, simply defining what constitutes cruelty does not necessarily make the law any easier to enforce. Even if the animal advocates see the new bill become law, this looks like one battle that will rage on for years to come.

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