From bear bile farming to dog meat festivals, de-clawing, and inhumane slaughter, Amanda Whitfort examines whether China’s new laws will better protect the nation’s animals.
On 2 July 2016, a long-anticipated amendment to China’s most important law protecting animals, the Wildlife Protection Law, was approved by the National People’s Congress. Since its promulgation in 1989, the law has been the subject of criticism by animal protection scholars, most seriously because it explicitly promotes the use of wildlife for human benefit. This has led to widespread farming of wild animals, including tigers and Asiatic black bears, both of which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. It has also permitted cruel practices such as the de-fanging, drugging and de-clawing of wild animals for performances and photographs with customers in zoos.
On paper, the amendments to the law appear to provide some improvements: promoting conservation of wildlife habitats, and specifying that the purpose of breeding is for species protection, not profit. However, tiger and bear farms have long claimed they promote conservation, while the sale of products containing tiger bones, bear bile, and other derivatives is widespread. The bear bile industry alone is worth US$1.6 billion, and the amended law does not prohibit the continued sale of wild animal derivatives for human consumption.
It also does not address the problem of cruel animal performances. In 2011 the Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development introduced an administrative ban (which is widely flouted) on live animal performances in zoos, but the amended national law continues to legitimise wild animal performances and provides the animals with no protection from cruelty. It will also not provide any cruelty protections for animals farmed and slaughtered for the fur trade, despite China being the world’s largest producer and processor of fur.
On a more positive note, the amended law does, for the first time, introduce animal welfare standards for wild animals in breeding facilities. Article 26 of the new law requires that wildlife in breeding facilities (but not those kept in any other form of captivity) be provided with necessary movement, space, and conditions of living, breeding, health and sanitation, in accordance with their behaviours.
The law also specifically prohibits mistreatment of animals in breeding facilities. On paper, this appears significant. Currently, China has no animal cruelty prevention laws, and the inclusion of a provision formally recognising that the maltreatment of animals is wrong is a vital step forward for animal protection.
What is critical, however, is that those enforcing the amended law confront the animal cruelty pervasive in captive wildlife breeding practices in China. The value of a captive tiger is much greater dead than alive, and tiger breeding facilities routinely mistreat animals no longer valuable in breeding, while they wait for them to die, when they can reap the profit from selling their body parts. On bile farms, bears are caged and confined in full metal jackets for years while their bile is milked from open wounds. The likelihood of government officials commencing action to prevent cruelty to wild animals confined in breeding facilities, while their captivity and use continues to be legitimised under the amended law, is low.
Meanwhile, a draft Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Law, which was presented to the National People’s Congress in 2010, has yet to be tabled for discussion. It is this law which would provide national protection for all animals in China, regardless of classification or use.
The question of whether China is ready for such a law has received widespread media attention, both domestically and internationally. Many have argued that animal protection cannot be pursued while human rights abuses continue. However, national surveys show that the majority of Chinese citizens support the introduction of legislative protection for animals.
In recent years, two major dog-eating festivals have been significantly affected by increasing public condemnation, with the Zhejiang festival being forced to shut down in 2011 and the Yulin festival no longer receiving official government support. Most of the 10 million dogs slaughtered each year for the dog meat trade are stolen pets; several highway rescues by concerned citizens, stopping trucks transporting dogs and cats to slaughter, have drawn large scale public support.
There is also increasing concern that China has no laws to ensure humane husbandry and slaughter practices, despite being the world’s largest livestock producer and consumer. Pressure to improve animal welfare, if only for the connected benefit of securing public health, has led the Chinese Veterinary Medical Association to begin drafting China’s first Code of Practice setting technical standards for livestock housing, feeding, and slaughter.
Much hope was pinned on the amendment to the Wildlife Protection Law as a sign the current Chinese leaders had recognised the local and international importance of introducing laws to control animal use. While the amendments are, on the whole, extremely disappointing, the formal recognition, at law, that animal mistreatment is wrong, represents an important step forward for China. How that recognition will be implemented remains to be seen.