A few months back, I went to an animal market. Some of you will remember the posting; it was one of my most popular, full as it was with the pictures I seem to be making a point of depriving you of. I enjoyed seeing the market, but it was the beginning of my awareness of a massive incongruity between Western and Asian culture.
It isn't unheard of in the west for people who sell animals to be, if not necessarily cruel, then neglectful to the animals they sell. But it is not the rule. It is uncommon and frowned upon. If you were to walk into a pet store and see countless animals in cages too small for them to turn around in, you wouldn't take it all that well. You would, if you're anything like me, be taken over by an impulsive need to purchase all the animals and liberate them. Look at this parrot from that day at the market:
I wanted to buy him. I couldn't believe the vendor would let this bird get to such a point. It's not unhealthy, but it's not being taken care of. It deserves better. In the hour or two that I was in that market, I saw crates full of turtles, cages with hundreds of hamsters crammed together, stacks of cages with rabbits, cats, and dogs, and birds in cages where the droppings of both birds present and past were piled high enough to form hills.
As it turns out, this mentality doesn't stop with vendors. The Chinese as a whole do not seem to view pets in the same way that we do. For the West, pets are a part of the family. A dog is as well-cared for as your children, and in many cases, from a proportional viewpoint, it's likely getting a better deal than your kids. The same is true for birds, cats, even fish. One of the girls who bought a dog that day in the market carries it around in a bag. Not a purse, but an actual bag. Like the ones you get at the checkout in Wal-Mart. When she bought the dog an outfit that looked vaguely like Superman's, another coworker took to throwing the dog, "to see if it could fly." There is a girl who works at my school who has lost her last two dogs. Just plain lost them. She doesn't know where they went. On two separate occasions, she took a dog out for a walk, and when she got home, it was gone. That leash laws are nonexistent in China supports my theory that the dog got wise and ran away, figuring that a life fending for himself in the food markets like this fellow would be preferable to being treated as a toy. What's truly incredible about that is that, for the whole walk, she didn't notice.
I started, internally at least, to get on a bit of a soap box about the whole thing. Maybe not out loud, but I was certainly feeling superior. The Chinese have no sense of empathy with other living things. How foolish are they?, I asked the rhetorical audience in my mind. It came to a head the other night, when I saw a girl playing with her pet rabbit while I was ordering food.
She was four or five years old. It started when I saw her taking the rabbit out its cage. In the West, this is usually accomplished by tilting the cage so that the animal comes out, if not of its own volition, than at least with some sense of gentility. This girl reached in and pulled the rabbit out by its face. It was terrible to watch. I wanted to tell her she was hurting it, but I don't know how to say that in Chinese. Then she kept pestering it, picking it up by its ears or trying to force its mouth open so she could look. She even forced its nose down against the concrete and then would look at it. I'm not sure what, exactly, she was looking to have happen with that. Young children inherently have no empathy, but her parents, who were right there, weren't saying anything to her either. To them, there was nothing to say. I fought several urges, the most powerful of which, ironically, was to step on her fingers as I walked by or to grab her face and ask her "Do you like that? No? Neither does he."
As I quietly fumed about it, and talked to the other teachers who were there, as we'd all noticed, a few interesting points were raised. My roommate said that empathy for animals is a luxury for the wealthy, and while I do think that has a bit of merit to it, that's his explanation for everything in China. "Waiting in line for things is a luxury of wealth". "Clean air is a luxury of wealthy". I believe some of that, but the poorest farmer in the U.S. is going to take the best care he can of what animals he has, whatever is in his means. Even the ones that aren't directly related to how he earns his living. Then another teacher raised what seemed like a daft point at first, but has slowly grown to be, for me, the answer to the whole thing.
Consider, in America, that cruelty towards a dog is in most cases viewed as worse than cruelty towards a human; there's almost no chance that dog has done anything to warrant it, and certainly hasn't done so with the conscious knowledge that he was doing something reprehensible to begin with. It is, within society, thought to be as bad as cruelty to an infant. You simply can't get away with it. But then what about chickens? What about veal? What about lobsters? When you eat something, your attitude towards it will fundamentally change. We don't eat dogs, and so we can afford to feel this attachment towards them. We don't eat cats. We don't eat parrots. It goes on and on. There are, of course, many exceptions to this on an individual basis; Vegetarians who don't eat meat for moral reasons, people who don't eat veal or non-farm-raised beef, etc. That dog is consumed in China doesn't feel like an excuse for the incident of throwing the dog to see if its Superman cape works. That rabbit is consumed in China shouldn't excuse that girl playing with her rabbit in the same manner I once played with G.I. Joes. But it does, doesn't it? While none of us may like that chickens are kept in coops the same size as the chicken when confronted with the issue, and many of us buy products that tell us, rest assured, that no such chickens were treated in this manner, it still happens. And most of us are still okay with it. Because we eat them. And, while you can love what you eat, you can't eat what you love.