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Friday, July 8, 2016, 00:29

Human compassion for animals lacks consistency

By Paul Stapleton

Two seemingly unrelated events last week triggered some thoughts about dogs and their relationship with humans, as well as our treatment of animals in general. One was the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, while the other was a stroll I took in Mid-Levels.

Human compassion for animals lacks consistency The former is an annual event in the southwest Chinese region of Guangxi held around the summer solstice. The local belief there, as in many parts of Southeast Asia, is that eating dog meat relieves the summer heat. Whether or not this is simply in the minds of the consumers, up to 15,000 dogs get slaughtered each year at the festival, reportedly often in less than humanitarian ways.

The festival may have remained little known outside of Guangxi, or at least China, had it not been for some foreign celebrities and even a United States senator condemning the event in the strongest of terms. Their beef is about the inhumane treatment of dogs, but surely the subtext of this indignation is that dogs, unlike some of the other animals we eat, hold a special place in the hearts of many people.

And this brings me to my walk in Mid-Levels where I came across numerous dogs, most of which were on a leash being walked by what appeared to be maids. And this caused me to imagine the contrast in the lives of Mid-Levels dogs and their Yulin festival counterparts.

Mid-Levels dogs generally live in spacious, air-conditioned apartments where they are treated as full family members by their human owners. Some even have a sibling living with them to keep them company. Once or twice a day they are taken for walks during which time they often encounter their canine friends. These walks help their psychological well-being which would otherwise decline if they stayed inside day after day. It also gives them exercise, an important activity for maintaining their health because they generally eat what would be considered a gourmet canine diet. And herein lies a disturbing hypocrisy.

Dogs, like their wolf ancestors, are basically carnivores and most commercial dog food has some form of meat or fish, typically beef or chicken, as its principal ingredient. In other words, it is largely the flesh of other animals that is eaten by pet dogs to stay alive and healthy. So far so normal.

However, because virtually all commercial meat these days originates on brutally efficient factory farms, there is a very high likelihood that the principal ingredients composing most dog food these days comes from animals that were once living in conditions that were as inhumane as the dogs that ended up at the Yulin festival. Without going into detail, the lives of factory cows, pigs and chicken are singularly miserable and short. In a word, they live “a dog’s life”.

With this backdrop, we return to the condemnation of the Yulin festival. Dog lovers from around the world, and for that matter around China, have spoken out against the festival. Indeed, one of Hong Kong’s own legislators, Michael Tien Puk-sun, has spearheaded a petition to end the festival.

The hypocrisy of those who prioritize the lives of one animal over another is poignant. In effect, they are condemning a festival where the organizers are doing nothing worse than the millions of people who eat the meat of factory farmed animals and thus tacitly go along with the inhumane treatment of animals.

If people are to spend efforts preventing the suffering of animals, they would do far better to focus on improving the wretched lot of the tens of billions of cows, pigs and chickens that collectively make the suffering of a few thousand dogs look laughably minuscule.

The author is an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong.

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