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Guangzhou bans eating snakes--ban helps cats


GUANGZHOU--Guangzhou bureau of forestry director Guo Qinghe suppressed human consumption of cat meat during the first weekend of November 2007 by announcing on local television his intent to enforce a four-year-old Guangzhou city ordinance against eating snakes. "It is illegal for companies, restaurants and individuals to sell live snakes, snake meat, and related foods," Guo said, not mentioning cats, but in case there was any doubt about what he meant, Zheng Caixiong of the official government newspaper China Daily spelled it out.

"The popular Cantonese dish longhudou or 'dragon duels with tiger' has been banned," wrote Zheng Caixiong. "The delicacy derives its name from snake and cat meat. Apart from having their snakes and snake products confiscated, those caught flouting the ban will be fined between 10,000 yuan ($1,300) and 100,000 yuan ($13,000)."The minimum fine was set at approximately 1,000 times the current restaurant price of longhudou, according to information e-mailed to ANIMAL PEOPLE by Anhui Medical University professor of epidemiology and social medicine Zu Shuxian.

"The Guangzhou city government banned the sale of snake and snake-related dishes in the wake of the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2003," Zheng Caixiong reminded, "following revelations that the corona virus might have come from snakes, civet cats and other wild animals used in Cantonese dishes. Many restaurants subsequently resumed serving longhudou when the health threat receded. Demand for the dish peaks between September and December," Zheng Caixiong said, "when snakes take on more flesh for the cold."

Longhudou has been served in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, since circa 1350. Guangdong is the only part of China where cats are often consumed. Published estimates forwarded by Zu Shuxian project the sale for consumption of from 3,000 to 10,000 cats per market day, from the end of October through the end of March, for an annual total of about five million.

The longhudou ban did not totally halt cat consumption. "I suspect that another popular dish--Dragon (snake), Tiger (cat), Phoenix (chicken) soup--will still be sold, minus the Dragon," e-mailed Animals Asia Foundation founder Jill Robinson. Guo acted at a time when snake consumption has not been controversial, but less than a week before Guangzhou hosted the 2nd China Companion Animal Symposium, organized by the Animals Asia Foundation, funded by the Humane Society International division of the Humane Society of the U.S., and attended by representatives of 39 humane societies from around China.

Guo also acted as China moves toward trying to eliminate potential embarrassments during the run-up toward the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and after three and a half years of unprecedented activism against cat consumption appeared to demonstrate broad public support for a ban, even in Guangzhou and other nearby cities.

A dramatic series of cat rescues began in Shenzen on June 17, 2006, when Shenzhen Cat Net web site founder, identified by China Daily only as "Isobel," carried a white rose to the newly opened Fang Company Cat Meatball Restaurant. Starting with "more than 10" supporters, according to China Daily, including Gao Haiyun, Miss Shenzhen for 2005, "Isobel" had about 40 cat-lovers with her when she reached the restaurant, backed by "a large crowd including children," China Daily reported. Storming the restaurant, they extracted a pledge from the owner that he would not sell cat meat any more.

In early 2007, recounted Zhang Kun of China Daily, "a truck packed with cats was stopped in Suzhou, where two crates of cats were rescued. A train car was found to be loaded with live cats in the Shanghai South Railway Station, but left despite protests from local animal protectors."

Then, in July, "cat lovers in suburban Shanghai's Xinzhuang area stopped a truck carrying 840 cats to diners in Guangdong Province," Zhang Kun wrote. Activists as far away as Beijing teamed up to relay the cats to safety, provide veterinary care, and place them in adoptive homes.

The rescues began about two years after the formation of the Chinese Cats Protection Network, now called the Chinese Companion Animal Protection Network. Expanded to 26 member societies, CCAPN in January 2006 began organizing well-publicized protests against dog and cat eating, starting in Guangzhou, following up in four other cities "with very optimal response from public," according to Jia Meng of the Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics at the University of Queensland School of Veterinary Science in Gatton, Australia.

Why did Guo reiterate the existing prohibition on eating snakes if the real intent was to ban cat consumption?

Observers of Chinese politics often note that Chinese official pronouncements tend to avoid any hint of being made in response to pressure, either from outside China or from within. To appear to act under pressure, in classic Confuscian political thinking, is to show the possibility of governmental weakness, perhaps leading to disobedience.

However, Confuscian political theory also calls for introducing change by taking the path of least resistance, seeking to bring about voluntary conformity to the new norm before attempting to compel it. This is typically done by invoking recollection of an existing law, custom, or tradition.

Does Guo's action hint that Guangzhou may soon introduce an actual ban on eating cats? Only time will tell, but of note is that the Chinese federal government and Beijing municipal governments have in recent years been markedly more tolerant of animal advocacy and even of protests such as the Shenzhen. Suzhou, and Shanghai cat rescues, than of activism in other causes.

The China Companion Animal Symposium attendees on November 11 unanimously approved resolutions against cat-eating, dog-eating, killing dogs and cats for fur, and the sporadic mass round-ups and massacres of unlicensed and free-roaming dogs that many Chinese cities conduct--often in response to rabies outbreaks--instead of maintaining standing animal control departments. The China Companion Animal Symposium attendees also urged the Chinese government to improve access to dog and cat vaccination and sterilization, and to veterinary drugs, and asked universities to add companion animal medicine to their veterinary curriculums.

Dog rabies

But the conference resolutions, though covered by Chinese media, were up-staged in reportage distributed by the official Xinhua news service by a press conference held in Beijing by the national Ministry of Health. Without directly criticizing municipal dog purges, Ministry of Health spokesperson spokesman Mao Qun'an pointed toward a surge in canine rabies cases in recent years, and recommended strategic changes.

"When medical experts judge that an epidemic has become very severe and constitutes a threat to many people, killing dogs is an important measure to safeguard health and contain the epidemic," Mao Qun'an said. "But this measure should be adopted in a prudent way," avoiding harm to healthy pets.

"Most rabies cases occur in rural areas," Mao Qun'an noted, citing the Bijie area in northwest Guizhou province, Guigang in the southeast of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and Nanchong in northeast Sichuan province as the three largest cities with significant rabies outbreaks.

The most afflicted provinces, Mao Qun'an said, are the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Guizhou, Sichuan, Hunan, and
Guangdong--all among the southern provinces where dogs are commonly eaten and are often raised in factory farm conditions. Dogs raised for consumption are not required to be vaccinated.

Mao Qu'an said that rabies had killed 8,403 people in China in 2004-2006, accounting for 30.1% of the total deaths in China from infectious diseases, and that rabies occurred in 910 counties in 23 provinces in 2007, up from 98 counties in 1996. Through October, 2,717 human rabies cases had been reported in 2007, 2.4% more than in 2006.

Guangdong, the longtime hub of dog-eating as well as cat-eating, has historically sought to suppress keeping pet dogs. This has been in part to protect the dog meat industry from rabies outbreaks, and may also have been to avoid having dogs become generally perceived as pets rather than food. The Guangdong pet dog licensing fees until September 2007 were the highest in China: 10,000 yuan for initial registration, plus an annual management fee of 6,000 yuan.

In September, however, Guang-dong reduced the fees 90%, to 1,000 yuan for initial registration plus an annual management fee of 600 yuan. "Blind people who need guide dogs are exempt," wrote Liang Qiwen of China Daily. "Widows, widowers or elderly people with little financial support can request a reduction or exemption. People who have infertile dogs will be allowed to pay half the fees," a strong incentive for dog sterilization.

"The old fees had little effect in controlling the number of pet dogs," Liang Qiwen observed. "In fact many people continued to keep dogs secretly, ignoring the fees."

Of the officially estimated 100,000 pet dogs in Guangzhou, Liang Qiwen wrote, "only 842 were registered by the end of last year. Many people do not have their dogs inoculated against diseases because they are afraid of being fined for not registering them."

"We are changing the old policy of controlling pet dogs in the hope that the new one will be more effective," said Guangzhou mayor Zhang Guangning. --Merritt Clifton