Every year the videos and images that escape Yulin's annual dog meat festival are haunting and grotesque. They are so disturbing in fact, that their reach far surpasses animal loving communities to impact the western public at large. Anger and outrage are commonplace in comment sections of the coverage, but as is a debate that arises again and again, about the nature of that outrage. Is it hypocritical? Does it border on prejudiced, even?
For vegans and vegetarians, those who oppose the consumption or farming of any animal for food, be it canine or cow, the suggestion of hypocrisy does not quite hold up. But what about westerners who do eat meat - are they hypocritical to condemn foreign diets for their inclusion of dog meat?
That dogs are the primary victims in Yulin is undoubtedly a factor in capturing the Western public’s horrified attention. Whilst we have put a distance between ourselves and those animals unfortunate enough to be labeled ‘livestock’, dogs are entrenched in our cultural mindset as companions. We grow up with them, we share our homes with them, we've seen first-hand that they feel pain and loneliness and sorrow, and our empathy is piqued by imagining such horrors happening to our own pets.
But the cultural clash isn't just about the species of the animal, it's about an underlying attitude – the belief in whether or not an animal deserves humane treatment at all. Not just what you kill, but how you kill it; and in the west we have convinced ourselves that our way of killing is better, that it’s virtually cruelty free.
In Yulin, dogs are crammed into cramped wire cages, thrust against one another, dehydrated and dying; their front legs are bound painfully behind their backs, they are bludgeoned, beaten, hung, boiled, burned and skinned alive in full view of other dogs. A pervading theory is that adrenaline increases the quality and (unproven) medicinal properties of the meat, so the maximum amount of pain possible is inflicted.
In intensive farms here in the west, animals are kept in cramped, squalid conditions; one day old chicks are put into industrial shredding machines, nursing pigs are confined in farrowing crates the exact length of their body, animals are handled roughly, transported long distances without water, castrated without anesthetic, separated from their young immediately after giving birth, stunned botchedly, and killed in full view of other animals. The pervading theory is that the minimum amount of pain and suffering possible is inflicted, but this fails, spectacularly, when so many animals need to be ‘processed’ so quickly and efficiently.
“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, then we’d all be vegetarian’, goes the quote favored by vegetarians, but this is not so in Yulin, where slaughterhouses have no walls at all, and dogs are killed in the street, blood running into the gutters. Though it’s easy to see how a cruel but historic practice can gain social acceptance (fox hunting, Foie Gras and bull fighting all spring to mind), and though a high percentage of the Chinese public does not consume dog meat and a small, brave minority within it fights tooth and nail against the trade, it would not be inaccurate to say that in China animal rights is a newly burgeoning idea, one that is yet to have taken root in the country’s legislature and cultural consciousness.
Glass walls might just bring about change in America and the U.K however, where the agricultural industry, and indeed any industry that deals in animal exploitation, is reliant on secrecy and misconceptions, on the willful ignorance of the public, on the illusions of welfare laws and labels like ‘free-range’ to soothe consumer misgivings, and on capitalistic consumption that distances people from the process of production.
So the short answer then is that yes, there is a certain hypocrisy in the condemnation that emanates from this part of the world of Yulin, and it's a hypocrisy that is present in all of western society and it's attitude towards animals, in the public's seething fury when one dog is abused, but it's willingness to consume, en-masse, a product that was experimented on several thousand of them. Still, to call it a debate about species is an oversimplification; it’s not just about the animal killed, but about the extent that it suffered, and the extent to which a culture is concerned with that suffering. The west believes that animals deserve humane treatment, and it believes in humane slaughter; it just hasn't yet realized that it doesn’t exist.
Photo - Manhhai, Flickr Creative Commons