Editorial feature: National image & the quality of compassion
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2008:
Having never won a fight in his life, despite picking many
in his youth, the longtime ANIMAL PEOPLE office cat Alfred the Great
died in 2006 after convincing generations of younger cats that his
scars from many early thrashings were evidence that he was not a cat
to trifle with. Alfred occupied a royal pillow for years after
learning a lesson about image and character from an old female cat
named Gidget, nicknamed “Devil of the Boss Cats.”
A rather small tabby, Gidget one evening turned on a coyote
believed to have eaten nine other cats, and sent the coyote racing
up a mountainside for dear life with her practiced shrieks and Aikido
rolls. The coyote never came back.
Alfred followed Gidget, practicing her growl and swagger.
But Alfred also studied the social nuances exhibited by the
Buddha-like Voltaire, his predecessor as as the ANIMAL PEOPLE top
cat, who tended to let younger tomcats beat each other up without
involving himself in pointless confrontation. Cultivating political
wisdom, Alfred reigned into frail old age, then peacefully
abdicated when he knew he could no longer present a convincing bluff.
Image and character, as almost every animal instinctively
knows, are often not the same thing–but image reflects character
often enough that rivals and predators tend to avoid risking
mistakes. The essence of successful display, whether to attract a
mate or to repel a threat, is convincing others that the brightness
of feathers, size of mane, length of horns, or jauntiness of a
strut is authentically indicative of whatever is underneath.
Image tends to be created by the combination of whatever is
deliberately offered to view with what cannot be hidden. Thus much
of image is a matter of presenting a potential defect or
vulnerability as an attribute and asset. Alfred could not hide his
scars, but he could tell hugely exaggerated war stories about them
with his cocky demeanor. Gidget could not hide being small, but her
growl hinted at the ferocity of a puma. Voltaire moved in a regal
manner ensuring that he was seen as the king of cats, not just a fat
Displays of national image and character, though the
products of cumulative human behavior, differ little in essence from
the individual displays of cats.
National character might be described as the sum of attitudes
underlying the prevailing beliefs and practices within a nation.
National image tends to be created by the choices of national
leadership about what they think the nation should put on official
Sometimes national character and national image are
strikingly at odds. Spanish citizens, for example, have turned
away from bullfighting in such numbers that bullfights are no longer
held in some major cities and are no longer prominently televised.
Yet a bullfight was the first event shown on Spanish national
television, 60 years ago, and Spain has for so long promoted and
subsidized bullfighting as the national sport that advertisements for
tourism to Spain and products of Spanish origin still often depict
bulls and toreadors. As bullfighting wanes, the time may come when
Spaniards actively resist equations of Spain with bullfighting as a
form of ethnic stereotyping and a slur–as Spanish animal advocates
Foxhunting, now banned in Britain, may likewise fade and be
rejected as a symbol of Britain, despite a resurgence of
participation in superficially sanitized fox hunts since the ban took
effect in 2005.
The French, though still world leaders in eating frogs’
legs, have long objected to being called “frogs.” In fairness,
protest against frog-eating and associated cruelties also originated
in France, encouraged by the 19th century socialist revolutionary
Native Americans of several tribes in the northern Rocky
Mountains once ate dogs, but in contemporary reservation culture the
term “dog-eater” is perhaps the worst of insults.
In truth, most people in most societies overwhelmingly
reject cruelty to animals when asked for their opinions, and when
they recognize cruel behavior for what it is.
Of particular note are MORI polls commissioned by the
International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Royal SPCA of Great
Britain, Compassion In World Farming, and One Voice, of France,
which in 2004-2005 discovered that 92% of Vietnamese citizens, 92%
of South Korean citizens, 91% of British citizens, and 90% of
Chinese citizens accept a human moral duty to minimize animal
Britain has enforced humane laws for nearly 200 years, but
South Korea has only a weak and recent tradition of humane law
enforcement. China and Vietnam have none.
The April 2005 ANIMAL PEOPLE editorial feature, “National
character & the quality of compassion,” extensively explored why
cruelty to animals–and humans–tends to be much more visible in some
nations than others, even when the citizens of each nation express
almost equally strong distaste for cruel behavior.
The defining differences, in terms of legislation, tend to
reflect political freedom. Participatory democracies tend to have
relatively strong humane laws. Totalitarian states tend to treat
animals much as they do their citizens.
But laws are scarcely the whole issue. The humane laws of
western democracies still benefit relatively few of the billions of
animals who suffer and die each year at human hands–and would
benefit relatively few, even if the laws now on the books were much
more strenuously enforced than they ever have been.
The U.S. Animal Welfare Act, for example, exempts rats,
mice, and birds used in laboratories, thereby exempting about 95%
of all laboratory animals from any protection. The U.S. Humane
Slaughter Act exempts poultry–about 95% of all the animals who go to
slaughter. More than 30 states explicitly exempt cruelty from
prosecution if cruelty is part of a standard practice in agriculture,
and every state exempts cruelties commonly involved in hunting,
trapping, and fishing.
Nearly every cruelty commonly observed and cited by some
animal advocates in appeals for a boycott of the forthcoming 2008
Olympic Games in Beijing has a parallel in the U.S., albeit taking a
superficially different form. Even when U.S. laws nominally prohibit
the cruelty, enforcement is often so sporadic that the laws serve
more to shield animal use industries from criticism than to bring
offenders to justice.
Compare the live skinning of dogs by some Chinese fur
sellers, exposed in 2005 by the state-run Beijing News, to the
live skinning of cattle at the Iowa Beef Packers slaughterhouse in
Wallula, Washington, exposed in 2000 by the Humane Farming
While the Chinese live skinning was deliberate, the Wallula
incidents were accidental consequences of slaughter lines running too
fast to enable workers to re-stun cattle who were improperly stunned
with the first shot of a captive bolt gun. Yet the numbers of
animals involved may have been comparable. HFA obtained affidavits
from 17 Wallula slaughterhouse workers who testified that up to 30%
of the cattle they killed were inadequately stunned. No one was
successfully prosecuted at Wallula, despite years of HFA efforts to
bring a case.
Lack of effective enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act was
most recently illustrated by the abuse of downed cattle in October
2007 at the now closed Westland/Hallmark slaughterhouse in Chino,
California. The abuse videotaped by an undercover inspector for the
Humane Society of the U.S. strikingly resembled practices videotaped
in the notorious live markets of Guangdong by the Animals Asia
Foundation. The victims in Chino were cattle, while the victims in
Guangdong included dogs, cats, civets, and pangolins, among other
animals, but suffering is not limited by species.
Matters of degree
In truth, what humane laws are now mostly about–in the
U.S., Europe, India, and wherever else they exist–is establishing
recognition of kindness toward animals as a culturally appreciated
value. This may be mostly clearly illustrated by comparing and
contrasting public entertainments involving animals in the U.S. and
The American Zoo Association and predecessor societies have
discouraged feeding live animals to captive carnivores since 1898,
but live feeding was still practiced by at least one non-AZA U.S. zoo
as recently as 1996, when it was closed for repeatedly flunking
Animal Welfare Act safety inspections.
This was the same year that live feeding at Chinese zoos
first came to international humane attention, coinciding with an
explosion of zoo development in China, which still has fewer zoos
serving 1.3 billion residents than the state of California has to
serve about 35 million. Live feeding was banned by most Chinese
zoos, by collective agreement, in March 2005, but continues at
several which disingenuously pretend to be preparing tigers for
potential return to the wild.
However, European-style bullfighting has never caught on in
China, despite several well-funded attempts to introduce it. An
attempt to introduce U.S.-style rodeo to Beijing in 2004 was an
abysmal flop. Cockfighting is discouraged. U.S.-style dogfighting
was illegally introduced to Guangdong in the late 1990s, but remains
a clandestine pursuit, if still done.
On the whole, despite the persistence of live feeding at the
renegade zoos, the Chinese people could scarcely be accused of
broadly enjoying or accepting violent abuse of animals as
entertainment, even to the degree that Americans do, all the while
pretending that rodeo bucking events are not typically stimulated by
“bucking straps” and electroshock, and that the cattle and horses
who crash to the ground in roping events are rarely seriously injured.
Probably the least flattering comparision of U.S. and Chinese
attitudes toward animals involves consumption of wildlife. Wildlife
consumption, especially in the southern part of China, is justly
notorious, not only for the cruelty associated with the animal
traffic, but also as a major contributor to the loss of wildlife
throughout Southeast Asia. Turtle populations are depleted as far
away as South Carolina because of Chinese demand.
But IFAW public opinion research done in 1998 and surveys of
Chinese university students done by Peter Li, Zu Shuxian, and Su
Pei-feng in 2002-2003, with support from the World Society for the
Protection of Animals, put the matter into a different perspective.
The 1998 survey found that 38% of Chinese adults had eaten wildlife;
24% of the students had.
The implied lower rate of wildlife consumption among educated
young people parallels U.S. studies–and the rates found by both
studies closely compare to U.S. research showing that three to four
times as many people eat animals shot by hunters as the 10% who
actually hunted a generation ago, the 6% who hunted circa 2000, and
the 4% who hunt as of the most recent U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The major differences in Chinese and U.S. wildlife
consumption are that Chinese wildlife consumption more often involves
reptiles than mammals, U.S. consumption seldom involves declining
species, and Chinese wildlife consumption is mostly a minor branch
of the upper-priced portion of the restaurant trade, while U.S.
wildlife consumption is the end product of a major recreational
Both hunting in the U.S. and Chinese wildlife consumption are
declining, but most U.S. states and the federal government are
actively trying to rekindle public interest in hunting, while the
Chinese government has discouraged wildlife consumption since the
Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak of 2003-2004. Edicts
introduced to keep wild mammals out of live markets have recently
been extended to reptiles and birds. Beijing has also acted to
ensure that wildlife commerce does not merely move from live markets
to the Internet.
The U.S. has no form of wildlife commerce directly comparable
to bear bile farming, practiced in China, both North and South
Korea, and Vietnam, but the confinement of the bears closely
resembles the confinement of sows in gestation stalls.
IFAW found in 1998 that only 30% of Beijing and Shanghai
residents had ever heard of bear bile farming–much as most Americans
at that time had never heard of gestation stalls. Of those who did
know about bear bile farming, 87% considered it unacceptably cruel.
Peter Li, Zu Shuxian, and Su Pei-feng discovered five years
later that 40% of Chinese university students were aware of bear bile
farming, largely through the work of the Animals Asia Foundation’s
China Bear Rescue Project. Ninety percent considered it unacceptably
U.S. voters recently banned gestation stalls in Florida and
Arizona, and will get a chance to do so this fall in California.
Chinese voters may never get a chance to ban bear bile farming, but
the polls suggest they would if they could.
Most of the meat consumed in China, as in the U.S., comes
from vast factory farms. Despite the recent rapid rise of Chinese
meat consumption, Americans still eat about twice as much meat per
Chinese meat consumption includes about 10 million dogs and
one million cats per year. About 80% of the dogs and virtually all
of the cats are eaten in the southern half of China. Many are hauled
like factory-farmed poultry, and are killed by means which
approximate what happens to the millions of pigs per year who are
inadequately stunned in U.S. slaughterhouses. The cats are often
boiled alive; however, improperly stunned pigs may go alive into a
scalding tank that facilitates removing their hair from their hides.
There is no defending such cruelty. Neither is there any
defense for the periodic dog purges that many Chinese cities still
use in response to rabies outbreaks, instead of forming animal
control agencies with properly trained staff, promoting low-cost
vaccination and sterilization, and operating animal shelters that
emphasize good care and rehoming.
Yet fairness requires noting that as recently as 1985 the
U.S. killed more dogs and cats in shelters than the sum killed in
China for meat plus those killed in purges. Only in 1985 did the
last U.S. cities to kill dogs and cats by decompression switch to
using less painful methods.
In gist, the U.S. is far ahead of China in paying legal lip
service to eradicating cruelty, especially to dogs and cats, but
the gap in animal advocates’ perceptions of the U.S. and China is
unfortunately more a matter of image than of reality.
In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing has emphasized
an improved image as regards animal welfare. Like past hosts of the
Olympics and similar international events, Beijing is striving to
rid the streets of stray dogs and cats, but has made efforts to
avoid obvious cruelty, and has introduced the beginnings of an
animal sheltering system. Chinese animal advocates, encouraged by
hints from state media, remain hopeful that a long anticipated
national anti-cruelty law will be introduced before the Olympics.
International attention to animal welfare in China has been
overshadowed by the Chinese response to demonstrations and sporadic
anti-Chinese violence by Tibetans seeking political independence. Of
note is that in this situation too, Beijing has made
efforts–including allegedly sending out disguised soldiers to pose
as rioting Buddhist monks–to avoid an appearance of responding with
Historically, Beijing has answered any hint of insurrection
anywhere claimed as Chinese territory with what U.S. military
spokespersons in Iraq and Afghanistan call a “rapid escalation of
force”–and has put the force on display as a warning to other
potential rebels. The present Tibet response may be as forceful as
any other, and western media and other potential witnesses have been
kept away, but Chinese use of force has been downplayed by state
The image Beijing appears to want to offer to the world in
2008 includes disassociation from cruelty, whether to animals or
On March 8, meanwhile, U.S. President George W. Bush
dismayed much of the world by vetoing a bill passed by the U.S.
Congress which would have prohibited the Central Intelligence Agency
from practicing overt tortures including a technique called
“waterboarding.” New York Times columnist William Safire, a former
speechwriter for U.S. President Richard Nixon, traced the origin of
“waterboarding” back to ancient China. Safire noted that then-U.S.
President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 explicitly ordered U.S. troops
to stop using “waterboarding” against Philippine insurgents, after
it was exposed by Mark Twain and a Congressional hearing.
“Torture is not a thing that we can tolerate,” Roosevelt wrote.
Though Roosevelt was a hunter, who avidly shot birds and
learned taxidermy in his teens, he refused to kill and dissect
animals needlessly as a Harvard undergraduate.
Roosevelt helped to introduce the system of funding wildlife
conservation through the sale of hunting licenses, in effect turning
over control of wildlife management to hunters. Yet he also helped
to award the New York City animal control contract to the American
SPCA, taking it away from private contractors who formerly drowned
impounded dogs in crowded cages that were dunked into the Hudson
Most famously, “Teddy bears” were named in Roosevelt’s
honor after he refused to shoot a tethered bear cub at a “hunt”
arranged for his amusement.
Books have been written about Roosevelt’s shortcomings, some
of which Roosevelt himself acknowledged, but he appears to have
understood at all times the value of maintaining an image of
kindness, especially toward animals, and even while waging war.