On Shanghai’s bird & insect market & the plight of China’s animals

On Shanghai’s bird & insect market & the plight of China’s animals

Please note: This post is not at all in keeping with the usual tone of this blog. It contains upsetting images and information which, although not new to anyone, is a blow to the gut every time you hear it again. Click on the “more” button at your own discretion and please note that some of the links provided contain disturbing graphics.

Caged kitten

I mentioned a few days ago that we went to the bird and insect market in Shanghai last weekend, but only caught the end of it. Yesterday, after a lovely morning strolling through the Former French Concession area I took a deep breath and went back, hoping we had somehow caught it on a bad day. We hadn’t. I am shocked that so many travellers have described the market as “an interesting place to take photos” on the net. It is not interesting. It is horrifying and a heartbreaking confirmation of humanity’s misguided and self imposed superiority over those creatures we believe are there purely to serve us.

Crickets in jars at the bird and instect market in Shanghai

It is probably an indication of how acceptable the vendors think it is to keep animals in these conditions that they all smiled when I took photos (all but one guy who had what I’m sure were probably threatened – if not endangered – turtles, endlessly swimming to nowhere in little tubs behind a glass door, and with whom I then had a heated monologue about what he was trying to hide, to which he just nodded his head and smiled).

While there is the odd stall holder that provides large cages and adequate food and water, most of the birds and animals are kept in tiny, overcrowded cages. More than half of the kittens had rheumy and infected eyes and there are sometimes so many shoved into a cage that they have to lie on top of each other. There was a cage with rabbits in that was crammed so full that I cannot believe the ones at the bottom could survive the day in there.

Rabbits stuffed into cages
Many of the animals at the bird and insect market in Shanghai showed signs of illness.
Many of the animals at the bird and insect market in Shanghai showed signs of illness.

Birds are kept in tiny, filthy cages and many of them are missing tail feathers. Almost all the birds I saw – hundreds of them – were hyperventilating due to stress. One parrot was so stressed that he had plucked out virtually every feather on his body. Another sparrow was not caged, but was tied to a perch from which he frantically kept trying to fly away as the passersby frightened him. There were hundreds of larks, thrushes, mynahs and other wild birds. It is worth noting that it is estimated that one of these tamed birds is equivalent to ten deaths among wild birds.

Song birds in small and filthy cages. Can you say bird flu?
Song birds in small and filthy cages. Can you say bird flu?

Grasshoppers and crickets are kept in tiny jars, often without food and water and many were dead. The crickets are kept both for their stridulation and for cricket fights, and while owners expend huge amounts of time and money on getting the best singers and fighters, vendors are less concerned about the condition these insects are kept in. 

Crickets, bunnies, chicks, squirrels and budgies for sale on a sidewalk in Shanghai.

Like everywhere on the street, turtles are kept in small bowls of water, and in my travels I have found more than a few that have flipped upside down, and then drowned because they couldn’t get back up.

Between the bars
A bird tied to a perch at the bird and insect market in Shanghai

Live crickets and grasshoppers in boxes.
Live crickets and grasshoppers in boxes.

I know that there are worse cruelties being inflicted on animals not only in China, but in the rest of the world too, but what disturbed me the most is that this was not a dog and cat meat market where the slaughtering practices are hidden from the general public or a bear bile farm in the middle of nowhere. This is a pet market on a busy street in the biggest city in China. A cosmopolis where China’s increasingly affluent, growing, pet-loving middle class can purchase dog food and aquarium plants and cat baskets and generally SEE what is going on there. And yet, despite the growing number of pet owners in China who clearly love animals and who one would think must be outraged at what is happening in these pet markets, the animals are still kept in appalling conditions. And it’s not just here. It is in your face on the sidewalks of Shanghai every day. Turtles, bullfrogs, ducks, quails, pigeons and chickens are shoved into nylon bags and left on the sidewalks in the sun without food or water all day. The lucky ones are sold and hopefully killed quickly, but more often than not they lie like that for hours before being shoved into a plastic bag (some, after having a leg cleaved off so they’ll sit still while being weighed) to be taken home. Now I love my pork chop as much as the next guy, but there is a way of treating animals – whether they have been bred as companions or for human consumption – in a way that does not only take cognisance of our impact on the environment, but that is humane and ensures that these animals are taken care of responsibly.

A woman sells turtles out of nylon mesh bags on Xizang Lu, Shanghai.
A woman sells turtles out of nylon mesh bags on Xizang Lu, Shanghai.

Dog eating festivals have caused worldwide outrage in recent years, highlighting the plight of these animals and leading to the cancellation (but not ban) of some festivals. But many Asians have claimed that we should not enforce our Western ideas of what is acceptable to eat on them and I cannot disagree. If intelligence was a factor in determining what we are prepared to eat, we would no longer touch bacon. I am not saying that the Chinese or Koreans or Vietnamese or whoever else chooses to do so should not be allowed to eat dog meat. Just because a cow has never wagged its tail when I walked by or looked for affection from me doesn’t mean I can condone the eating of one, but not the other. But companion animals are bred to depend on human care and form bonds with their human owners, and the dogs at these festivals are reportedly often stolen and arrive in the trucks with their collars still on. We have bred these animals to be our companions, to protect our homes, to play with our children, so to then turn around and eat the very animals we have demanded (and received) undeserved loyalty from for twenty thousand years seems like the worst betrayal. And even where they have been bred purely for meat, as they reportedly do (although some claim stray dogs of all breeds are mostly eaten) with the Nureongi in Korea, the consumption of dog meat should be done in a humane way both in the treatment of the animals while they are being raised and the manner in which they are slaughtered. The dogs arriving to be eaten at these festivals are crammed into tiny cages without food and water, and sometimes travel in these conditions for days. It is reported that dogs are purposely slaughtered in front of other dogs to increase their fear and stress level, as this is supposed to enhance the flavour and increase the adrenaline in their meat, which according to Chinese folklore, boosts virility. Dogs are also hung upside down, beaten and then left to hang and bleed out slowly or cooked alive for the same purpose.

Caged puppy

The Chinese government has the monumental task of ensuring economic growth and the supply of food to its over 1.3 billion inhabitants, so ethics, morality, social responsibility, environmental impact, labour rights and animal welfare are often ignored. Chinese authorities are understandably not motivated to tackle the problem of animal cruelty as this could lead to a downturn in economic growth and threaten the livelihood of a large portion of the population.

Caged birds

China is the world’s biggest animal farming nation and farmers are adopting Western farming practices such as gestation crates, battery cages, ear-clipping, beak-trimming, early weaning for calves, castration, tail-docking for pigs, and the force feeding of ducks and geese for weight gains and foie-gras production faster than European Union and other Western nations are phasing out such practices. Humane slaughter is still a largely new concept and is yet to become a requirement of slaughterhouses in the country. Production intensification and the sheer number of animals needed to feed a country that is considering phasing out their one-child policy means that the world’s greatest number of farm animals are raised in welfare compromised conditions. Even 10 000 of China’s state-protected species (yes, you read that right) –  the Asiatic Black Bear – are still kept for life in cages too small for the bears to even turn around in, in order to extract bile from their gallbladders through an open wound cut in their stomachs.

Quails, chickens, ducks and pigeons are often squashed into nylon mesh bags and left in the sun without food and water.
Quails, chickens, ducks and pigeons are often squashed into nylon mesh bags and left in the sun without food and water.

It is said that more than three quarters of the Chinese population have indicated a desire for improved animal welfare protection and an end to the dog meat industry. So why are animals still being treated like this? Because Mainland China’s animal welfare laws are virtually non-existent. Animal abuse is not a punishable offense. Authorities prefer to create a production environment that is obstacle free – read, free of all those pesky animal rights requirements that could slow down the process. Therefore neither authorities or the average animal lover on the street has any way of taking appropriate legal action or making a stink about the inhumane practices they see around them. According to Peter Li, Associate Professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown and China Policy Specialist of Humane Society International, China is at the bottom, if not the very bottom of the global report card in terms of its animal welfare track record. And while many Chinese, especially the older generation who grew up under Mao (it is estimated that up to 60 million people starved during the Great Famine, when I’m sure you didn’t care how what you’re eating lived or died as long as you survived) are indifferent and insensitive to animal suffering, there are many young Chinese people today who are active in the fight against animal cruelty and have stopped seal product imports from Canada, rodeo shows and dog slaughters and protested against the live boiling of cats , not without opposition from less progressive locals. While the overall political environment is against activism for animal protection, there is a perceptible shift among those that did not grow up under Mao Zhedong – driven by rising incomes, urbanization and increased pet ownership – to regard and respect animals as feeling, sentient beings.

And while I realise that this little pet market is a drop in the ocean, we cannot just throw our hands in the air and shout “But what about force fed ducks? Or the gorillas?? Or starving kids in Ethiopia???” and then go and sulk in a corner while we fail to do anything at all. In 2011, a 600 year old dog eating festival in Qianxi, China, which commemorates a battle fought in the town after an invading army killed all the dogs to prevent being exposed by barking (like then eating 15 000 of them every year makes sense!) was stopped by the Chinese government for the first time in its history because of pressure from netizens after information about the festival went viral. Sadly, the Yulin dog eating festival in the Guanxi province is gearing up again for this year’s festival, where dogs are often skinned and cooked alive, and at the time of this post, the Chinese government was not interested in stopping it. 

Just so much garbage.
Just so much garbage.

So if the Chinese government won’t listen to their own people, maybe the rest of the world should start making their voices heard. Before the Beijing Olympics, the government made restaurants in the city remove dog meat from their menus so as not to offend Western sensibilities. The Chinese government wants to present themselves as a progressive society. It matters to their economic growth. It’s not true that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Bad publicity is bad publicity.

So what can you do to help?

1). Sign online petitions. Add your voice by virtually only lifting a few fingers. These are just a few current petitions (not all China related). If they have expired, simply search for the latest ones. NB!! The Yulin festival in Guangxi province is set for mid June! Please act now!

Stop the Guangxi province dog eating festival

Stop animal abuse in China

Stop animal abuse at Wenling Zoo

Stop shark finning

Stop puppy mills

Boycott China  

 2) Support organizations, such as One Voice, Animals Asia, Chinese Animal Protection Network, and the Humane Society International, which all work to end the animal cruelty and abuse in China and around the world.

3). Support local animal shelters and local animal welfare laws and initiatives.

4). Become an informed individual and stand-up for animal welfare and for your beliefs.

5) Put pressure on your own government to pressure the Chinese government to introduce animal welfare laws. In 2012, the USA alone imported $425,643,000,000.00 in goods from China according to the United States Census Bureau

6) Put pressure on local companies to pressure the Chinese government to introduce animal welfare laws. Walmart alone is responsible for 15% of the total amount of goods imported to the USA from China.

7) Spread the word. Share the information you have read here today so that others can take action. Get your community involved not only in animal welfare in China, but in your own community. The East is (sadly) constantly looking at emulating the West. What will they see when they look at us? Collective outrage can help bring change.

8) Boycott China and those companies that sell their goods. This one will be tricky. Have you ever considered how many Chinese products you use on a daily basis and what your life would be like without them? This one would require extreme dedication and a thorough knowledge of the origins of your consumables.

9) A great little tip from The Petition Site:Compile receipts from Non-Chinese items purchased instead and send them to your country’s Chinese Ambassador with a “Revenue Lost” boycott letter.

10) Don’t buy faux fur items unless you are completely sure that the product really is fake.

And most importantly, be kind. “For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” – Milan Kundera

 *If you want to go over to the Bird & Insect Market in Shanghai and make a massive fuss, without actually being understood or just to give a bit of love to the animals there (it will break your heart, because despite their condition, a few of them still respond to human affection), take Line 10 to Laoximen station and exit through exit 1. The market is a 5 minute walk to the north.

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