BEIJING, July 25 -- In May this year, television viewers watching Hainan based Travel Star TV were surprised to see the presenter suddenly announce a little experiment.
Curious about whether cats 'always land on their feet,' the camera suddenly swung up the side of a building to where a cat was dangling from the arms of an assistant.
Releasing the hapless feline, the camera follows it on its descent before tailing off near the ground, apparently, as producers later reassured angry viewers, so as not to show the airbag thoughtfully prepared to cushion the cat's fall.
In the past this kind of stunt would have been shrugged off as a tasteless example of daytime television.
Now it was a call to arms. Chat rooms for animal lovers were abuzz with indignation, the television company was inundated with complaints and even animal NGOs had to man the phones as disgusted viewers called anyone who might be able to help.
"Ten years ago the term 'animal welfare' was not even known," explains Dr. Zhang Li, China head of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw).
A decade later and China's cities are going animal crazy. Rising incomes and increased leisure time have spurred a new generation of pet owners, a market that's growing at 15 percent a year, according to Euromonitor.
When once owning a pet was considered politically unsound, now a proliferation of animal friendly magazines with names like Pet Pie cover the newsstands.
Mainstream media coverage of animal abuse stories indicate that our furry friends are no longer mere objects of crude entertainment.
Emblematic of this is the rise in dog ownership. Despite a hefty annual license fee and strict regulations on permissible size, 450,000 dogs are now registered in Beijing and in Shanghai there are over 100,000.
The China Animal Agriculture Association's National Kennel Club estimates there are 150 million pet dogs in China, reflecting "the psychological benefits to be derived from having a pet companion," says Jeff He, press officer of Ifaw.
Running animal shelters for stray dogs and captured birds of prey, Ifaw is one of many animal NGOs now operating in China. Another such group, Luckycats, has a network of 500 volunteers and has re-housed over 800 abandoned cats. In Sichuan Province, Animals Asia Foundation, a Hong Kong based NGO dedicated to rescuing bears from farms where their liver bile is extracted for medicinal purposes, says that interest and donations from mainland Chinese continue to rise.
However, as evidenced by the Travel Star TV skit, activists confirm that while interest in and respect for animals is increasing, the nascent animal welfare movement still faces challenges in promoting their ideal of an animal friendly nation.
Last year, when the Daxing district government in Beijing announced plans for a Spanish style bullring, there was a public outpouring of complaints. "I think the local government felt that because the bullring came from the West it would suggest modernity," says Li Xiaoxi a local animal welfare activist. "But they did not fully understand what a bullring was nor do they appreciate how animals have feelings too. Such things are simply not suitable for modern China."
When the Daxing government ditched the idea fearing a backlash of bad publicity in the run up to the Olympics, their counterparts in Shanghai sensed an opportunity to boast a China first and went ahead with their own festival by flying in bulls from Mexico and professional matadors from Spain, much to the chagrin of animal lovers.
And while pet ownership is increasing, so too are the numbers of strays, as would be owners quickly discover their new toy is not as docile as they had first thought. "People buy a cute looking kitten for less than YY10, but when it needs an operation or simply becomes too much trouble, they get rid of it," says Luckycats founder Zeng Li.
At 77-years-old, Ding Shiying's central Beijing home now houses over 140 cats. A perennial cat lover, Old Ding has become a refuge for cats nobody else wants. "This one can't walk," she says, pointing at an old tabby lying on its side, "and that one had its eyes poked out by children," she added while gesturing across a sea of fur. Most of them, she says, are simply left outside her door during the night by inept owners.
For some, solving the animal rights issue lies with education. "Legislation without understanding is meaningless," says Zhang, referring to last year's abortive attempt by the government to pass an animal welfare bill. "Instead, we work with children to foster their understanding as to what an animal is... That it is something with special needs and emotions."
However, with growing pet ownership and rise in zoo openings, education in itself may not be enough. When in 2001 Tsinghua University student Liu Hanying decided to carry out an experiment and threw acid on several black bears at Beijing's zoo to see if they could sense danger, the zoo naturally wanted to press charges. The only problem was, there was nothing they could charge him with. In the end, an attempt to get the student on damaging public property was thrown out after the judge ruled that bears, being living creatures, could not be described as property. Likewise, when a friend of Zhang's tried to take her neighbor to court for poisoning her dog, she quickly found there was nothing on the statute books she could sue her neighbor for.
Placed before the Chinese government last summer, a proposed law by the Beijing Agricultural Bureau on farm sanitation and animal welfare was the closest China has come to legislation on the rights of animals. Including procedures for the 'humane' killing of farm animals it was quickly shot down by critics who dismissed it as a piece of Western pseudo scientific thinking. "Animal welfare is irrational and anti-scientific... it is too metaphysical," believes Zhao Nanyuan. Tsinghua University professor and self-proclaimed anti animal welfare activist, Zhao publicly led the campaign against last year's bill. Observing the behavior of animal welfare groups in the West - like People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals who have committed acts of violence in the name of animal liberation - Zhao fears China is on a slippery slope. "Animal welfare groups oppose the use of animals in scientific experiments. Because of my belief in science I have to oppose any move towards this kind of situation."
Also, says Zhao, a sense of perspective needs to be maintained. "When China is still grappling with the concept of human rights, talking about animal rights is ridiculous." However, since the proposed law was scrapped, a reported outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Hebei province, Xinjiang and Beijing has confirmed the fears of those pushing for stricter regulations on looking after animals.
Still in it's tentative first phases, the move is another indication of how attitudes towards the use of animals are changing. In the meantime, Zhang Li of Ifaw appears confident that China will develop a coherent animal welfare system.
"We are still at the very beginning of an animal welfare movement. Animal welfare is based the development of culture and I believe China is slowly developing this culture." Enditem
(Source: China Daily/Beijing Weekend)