Sunday, August 31, 2008

Regulation vs. Prohibition and the Greyhound Protection Act

In general, I’m not excited to say the least about legislative measures to protect animals. Most of those measures seek to regulate existing practices—such as raising and killing chickens or pigs for food—and in doing so often have the undesirable effect of perpetuating or even promoting the activity. They do not address the underlying problem of the property status of animals. They consist of rules that are watered down, full of loopholes, and poorly enforced. When consumers believe that regulations result in animals being treated better, there is less incentive for them to stop eating meat, dairy, or eggs, or to cease using animals for clothing, or to discontinue their patronage of dog or horse races. Regulatory or animal welfare measures backed by major animal protection organizations, along with the availability of products such as “humanely” raised meat and “free-range” eggs, provide people with an easy way out; a convenient way to avoid confronting the underling moral issues of animal exploitation and the need to significantly change their own behavior.

However, a distinction should be made between legislative measures (including ballot propositions and initiatives) that merely regulate practices, and those that prohibit or abolish a category of animal use.

Recently one of my vegan/animal advocate friends brought to my attention an initiative on the November 2008 ballot in the US commonwealth of Massachusetts, known as the Greyhound Protection Act, that will ban dog racing. Rather than seeking to regulate how the dog racing industry operates with respect to its treatment of the animals—which conveys the message that the practice is acceptable if done with certain restrictions and minimum requirements—this measure will outright prohibit dog racing in Massachusetts after 2010.

My friend made the point in his posting to a local vegetarian society website message board, that this is something that both abolitionists and welfarists can get behind. I agree. While it doesn’t take the place of vegan/abolition education, this is an effort that can coexist alongside it. I have supported it through a donation to GREY2K USA, one of the sponsoring organizations. The other groups sponsoring this initiative are the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Rescue League of Boston, and the Humane Society of the United States.

If this measure passes, it remains to be seen to what degree it may raise awareness about our use of animals for food, which is by far where most of the cruelty and exploitation of nonhuman animals takes place. But at least it will end the barbaric practice of dog racing in Massachusetts and pave a path for similar bans in other states and jurisdictions.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Beijing Restaurants Take Dogs off the Menu During the Olympic Games

The 112 officially designated Olympic restaurants have been ordered by the Beijing Catering Trade Association to not serve dog flesh during the month of August. Other restaurants in Beijing have been admonished to do the same, in an apparent public relations scheme directed at foreign tourists, athletes, and journalists, who will be visiting for the 2008 summer games.

The impact of this move on local residents will be minor if not insignificant, as the several-thousand-years-old cultural tradition of dog eating has declined in popularity in recent decades, more than replaced by an alarming increase in the consumption of animals more familiar to western diners, such as chickens, pigs, and cows.

Like South Korea, which banned dogs from menus during the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Chinese officials are trying to avoid negative publicity from Westerners who might consider dog eating to be barbaric and backwards, while they’re attempting to present a modern forward-looking face to the world. The measure is a reaction to Western speciesist thinking in which it’s considered acceptable to eat some types of animals (like pigs and turkeys), but downright horrific to eat other types (dogs). This attitude is based on our cultural tradition of viewing certain animal species as food, and others as cute and cuddly companions.

However, looking at the situation more objectively, dogs and pigs—along with humans—all share the capacity for emotion, and the desire to avoid pain, suffering, and death. They all have unique personalities and exhibit self-awareness and curiosity. In other words, other than the fact that some of them are not human, all of them essentially conform to the definition of “person.” From a moral standpoint, eating dogs is no better or worse than eating cows, chickens, pigs, or fish. That seeing dogs listed on restaurant menus in Beijing may offend or upset foreign visitors, says more about Western speciesism than China’s comparative level of civilization and modernity.

Even if this ban covered all of China, and was permanent rather than temporary, I would not support it. Anyone who considers themselves to be supportive of animal rights, who favors this or similar measures, ought to stop and reconsider. In much the same way that banning capital punishment for white people would fuel racism and strengthen the concept of white supremacy, this ban does little other than to reinforce speciesism and the concept of dogs as “special.” It has no practical effect, as restaurant patrons who might have ordered dog flesh will most likely substitute some other species of animal on the menu. Nor does it represent incremental progress, as there is no intention of making the ban permanent, expanding it to other parts of China, or broadening it to include other animal species, milk, eggs, and other uses of animals. In this instance like so many others that abolitionists are critical of, the idea that exploiting animals is wrong, is not lost; it’s not even addressed.