From Yulin to Costco: A Story of (Dog) Meat (Animal Rights Series)
I’m inside of a dog meat farm on the outskirts of Yulin, China, chatting with a dog farmer. He thinks I’m here to buy some of his dogs as a present for a quirky girlfriend. He’s telling me about the quality of his farm (in fact, it’s a dilapidated complex filled with holes and leaky roofs); the high welfare of his animals (notwithstanding the severe skin conditions that afflict virtually all the dogs); and the hearty taste of dog meat.
But there’s something curious about this dog farm. The concrete pens are larger than I would expect for 30 pound animals. And the troughs used for food are massive — much larger than the dogs themselves. I ask the man about this.
“Well, I’m not actually a dog farmer. I’m a pig farmer, but it’s too hard to raise pigs now.”
“I can’t make as much money selling pigs as I used to. And the costs are very high. Pigs eat so much. Dogs, I can give them anything to eat, and they don’t eat so much.”
It hits me. This man has started to kill and sell dogs as food because of… American pig farming. Pig farming in China, which historically had been the province of small time farmers like him, has only recently faced competition from Big Ag concerns in the West. And they are taking over. Smithfield, America’s largest pork producer, is now a Chinese company. Hormel recently announced that it will be selling Spam in the Far East. And that has forced little guys like this farmer to shift to new products where American companies cannot compete.
Indeed, this may explain the origins of the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, a festival of violence that leaves 10,000 dogs and cats dead at the end of the summer solstice. While the dog meat traders like to pretend it’s a centuries-long tradition, it has, in fact, only been around for a decade or so — the product of a concerted marketing effort by farmers and traders who are trying to make do in a food system that, due to Western pressure, has become brutally competitive.
Economic pressure from industrial farming is the first reason our holiday BBQs in the West are linked to dog meat in the East.
But the dog meat traders’ response to the international campaign against Yulin shows the second reason: cultural hypocrisy. One hundred and fifty years ago, there was another powerful Western campaign that attempted to regulate what the Chinese put into their bodies. It was called the Opium War, and thousands of Chinese lives were lost (compared to just 69 Europeans). The largest nation on earth was brought to heel because Western powers wanted Chinese children to be addicted to their opium. European powers in this era, in short, were perhaps the largest and most violent drug cartel in history.
Virtually everyone you talk to in Yulin, dog meat trader or otherwise, sees the Western campaign against dog meat in a similar light. Many of them express disgust over the trade itself. They say they are against cruelty to animals and that they would prefer to have a food system where animals were treated humanely. (These lines will sound familiar to animal rights advocates, who hear them all the time when campaigning against animal abuse in our own food system.) What the people of Yulin cannot stand is the hypocrisy of foreign activists, who condemn them for torturing dogs while continuing to eat pigs. The campaigns, they say, are clearly motivated by hatred for China — in short, racism.
“Well, people in the United States eat animals, too, so why are they angry at us? Why they should control what we put in our bodies?”
This cultural hypocrisy is a huge part of what keeps the dog meat trade alive. It gives the dog meat traders their strongest rhetorical weapon, and it prevents even those Chinese outraged by abuse of animals, such as my family, from creating change for dogs. They are seen as traitors who have been turned by Western bribes.
If, on the other hand, the dog meat campaigns were embedded in a larger movement for all animals, including the species commonly killed and eaten in the United States, the rhetoric of racism and imperialism that fuels the Chinese backlash would immediately disappear.
But there is a third and deeper reason animal agriculture in the United States can be linked to dog meat. The exact way of thinking that allows dog meat traders to ignore the cries of suffering dogs is what allows American consumers to ignore the cries of suffering pigs. This is “speciesism” — the arbitrary elevation of human beings over non-human animals simply because they are born a different species — and its consequences are brutal.
Pigs, after all, are more cognitively sophisticated than dogs (or small human children), and express curiosity, form deep social bonds, and relish the opportunity to run and play. Yet because their lives are seen as inferior, they are held in pens so small that, for 6 months, they can hardly stand up, turn around, or even move their heads. (Indeed, in cruelty, the dog meat farmers of Yulin have nothing on the animal farmers of America.)
This denial of animal consciousness — contrary to the overwhelming scientific consensus — lies at the root of violence against animals, and it is a denial that Americans are complicit in as much as the Chinese. And until we effectively challenge speciesism, the lives of animals, whether dogs in China or pigs in the United States, will always be under threat. Human institutions, after all, have a terrible record of treating those deemed “lesser than” with decency.
The better path forward involves not just kindness but political agitation for all animals. The animal lovers of the world must not just fight ad hoc campaigns, and watch as speciesism works its magic to bring the demons we thought we had slain back to life. (Foie gras, which was recently reinstated in California, is one such example.) We must come together and create a real social justice movement for animals, one that uses the same tactics and strategies and has the same unyielding urgency as successful movements of the past.
If we do this, we can save not only animals like Oliver, a puppy I carried out of the pits of Yulin, but also piglets such as Miley, a sick baby animal I rescued from the stalls of a Costco supplier. And who wouldn’t want a world where all the baby animals of this world can live in peace?