A string of recent incidents has refocused China’s attention on animal abuse. In April, a university student in the eastern Shandong province was expelled amid an uproar after posting videos of himself torturing and killing stray cats on social media. In February, at the peak of the country’s COVID-19 outbreak, many owners abandoned their pets after rumors spread of animal-to-human transmission. And even though the National People’s Congress banned eating wildlife later that month, wild animals continue to be exploited as entertainment, pets, and ingredients for traditional medicine.
China’s lack of a law against mistreating animals makes these problems harder to address. Although scholars and legal experts renewed calls for an animal welfare or animal cruelty law at this May’s “two sessions” legislative meetings, public misunderstandings regarding the term “animal welfare” have slowed progress. A draft law on the prevention of animal cruelty has made little progress since being proposed by legal scholars in 2010, and mention of “animal welfare” was stricken from the final versions of laws related to stock breeding and wildlife protection.
Part of the problem is terminology. The concept of treating animals kindly has roots in traditional Chinese culture, whether in the Confucian precepts of benevolence and compassion, Buddhist calls for the protection of life, or Taoist notions of the oneness of man and nature. Yet the idea of “animal welfare” feels strange to many Chinese, who often think of it as an imported concept or associate the word “welfare” with social welfare.
This creates the misperception that advocating for animal welfare means opposing the consumption and use of animal products, or putting the needs of animals above those of humans. But there’s no contradiction between advocating animal welfare and protecting human welfare — in fact, the two often complement and promote each other.
At the heart of animal welfare is the kind treatment of animals, including livestock. It’s about doing one’s best to avoid and reduce unnecessary animal suffering, keeping them both physically and mentally healthy, and providing them with clean drinking water, sufficient food, appropriate living space, and the freedom to express normal behavior.
Since the 1960s, many countries have sought to prevent animal abuse and improve the living conditions of animals affected by human activity or living under human care by passing laws protecting or guaranteeing animal welfare. At present, more than 100 countries and regions have enacted legislation to this effect. China’s Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan have also passed animal welfare or anti-animal abuse legislation, including provisions variously outlawing the consumption of cats and dogs, making it illegal to abandon pets, and establishing penalties for animal abuse.
There are some similar rules on the Chinese mainland, such as regulations related to animal experiments, livestock breeding, and local rules on pet management. However, these generally lack defined consequences, meaning violators often go unpunished.
This is despite the fact that many of the major challenges facing humanity today, including those related to public health, environmental protection, climate change, and scientific research, involve animals. Take food safety, for example. The rates of animal disease and mortality are significantly higher on farms where animals are kept in crowded, dirty, and cramped spaces. In response, factory farmers may provide their animals with large quantities of antibiotics and hormones, which in turn pose hidden dangers to the health of consumers.
As for slaughtering, humane methods not only greatly alleviate the suffering of animals, but also effectively reduce the amount of epinephrine released by animals in extreme fear or stress.
Safeguarding animal welfare can even reduce and prevent the risk of animal-to-human disease transmission. The COVID-19 pandemic should push humans to reflect on their encroachment into animal habitats. Since the 1980s, the number of recorded emerging infectious diseases has grown rapidly. And more than 70% of those classified as zoonotic diseases — diseases originating in fauna — have been traced to wild animals. Without doing anything to address the underlying risks of habitat encroachment, it will be very difficult to effectively reduce the danger posed by these diseases in the future.
There are signs Chinese are becoming more open to and accepting of animal welfare. For example, a bear bile company became the target of public outrage after its plans to go public were reported, and some regions have issued stringent new rules banning or restricting cat and dog consumption. Even attitudes toward tourist activities like riding elephants in Thailand have undergone a marked shift in recent years.
Improving animal welfare is a slow process. It usually begins with education, then understanding, and finally lawmaking. The first two are crucial, but real enforcement still requires legal mechanisms. Passing animal welfare legislation is both a general global trend and the responsibility of every major country.
Translator: David Ball; editor: Cai Yiwen.
(Header image: A woman feeds dogs at an anmial protection center in Xining, Qinghai province, May 20, 2020. Ma Mingyan/CNS/VCG)