Dog Meat: Yulin's Horror... Or Ours?

06/17/2015 02:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016
Wayne Hsiung

Every summer, throngs of people gather in Southern China for a festival where the people drink, make merry, and above all, eat. The tradition, which celebrates the summer solstice, is not unlike the annual Fourth of July barbecue in the United States. But one small difference has led the Yulin Festival to be the subject not of celebration, but of international scorn (led by celebrities such as Ricky Gervais).

The animals being eaten at this festival are dogs.

Dogs and cats, sometimes stolen from their guardians and still wearing collars, are stuffed six each into cages so small that they cannot stand up or turn around. They are shipped great distances in unbearable heat, without food or water. Then, of course, there is the slaughter process itself, which includes beatings, throat-slitting, and even boiling dogs alive.

Last month, at an animal advocacy conference near Beijing, I met with activists fighting the dog meat trade. The stories I heard of the few pups rescued from this bloody trade brought me to tears, as I imagined one of my own two dogs, Lisa and Natalie, facing such an abominable fate.

Yet, while the images from Yulin are indeed horrifying, I can't help but compare them to another unbearable sight I have personally witnessed: animal agriculture in the United States.

For 10 years, I have been entering farming facilities in the dead of night, at times rescuing a small handful of animals. I have seen cows (like Yulin's dogs) stuffed into transport trucks so tightly that they cannot stand or turn around. I have seen birds (like Yulin's dogs) covered in filth, dying of dehydration, starvation, and disease. The scale and intensity of the violence endured by these animals (like Yulin's dogs) is hard to believe. And, yet the slaughter of billions of these animals in U.S. food production -- unlike Yulin's dogs -- barely registers as a public concern.

This disparate reaction undermines efforts to stop abuses both in the United States and China. The Chinese who slaughter dogs and cats for food see Western outrage as a relic of colonialism. After all, as one dog vendor put it, the Indians hold cows as sacred as we hold dogs. Many people around the world have pigs, who are even more intelligent than dogs, as companions. And prominent scientists at Cambridge recently declared that animals, including not just dogs but all mammals and birds, are conscious in the same fashion as human beings.

Why, then, are people in the United States specifically condemning the dog killers of Yulin?

We in the United States, in turn, use the supposed barbarism of the Chinese to enhance our sense of moral superiority and insulate domestic practices from critique. In a psychological process that two Stanford professors call "moral credentialing," our condemnation of the Chinese absolves us from addressing the violence against animals here at home. It satisfies our collective desire to be seen as a compassionate, animal-loving nation, all while we proceed to undertake massive violence against even more animals than the Chinese. This hypocrisy undermines attempts by Chinese people, like me, to build common cause with animal activists in China. The result is that animals in both nations suffer.

There is a better way forward.

Rather than simply condemn Yulin from afar, we should vigorously support local Chinese efforts, by groups such as VShine Animal Protection Group and Duo Duo Animal Welfare Project, to end the violence in Yulin. But to be effective allies against the dog slaughter, we must look just as critically at our own behavior. After all, to this day, millions of dogs and cats are killed for the crime of being homeless in the States. Moreover, Americans consume more than twice as much meat per person as the typical Chinese, subjecting billions of animals to unimaginable torment in the process. We must remove the plank in our own eye to effectively clean the speck from China's.

Thankfully, this is exactly what is happening. Investigations, such as one by a group I co-founded, Direct Action Everywhere, of a Whole Foods egg farm this January, are opening the public's eyes to the violence hidden behind closed doors. Prominent voices from both the right and the left are questioning systemic brutality against animals here in the States. And, according to a Gallup poll released in May, one third of the public now agrees that animals should have "the same rights as people."

Simultaneously, the Chinese are beginning to take action, including recently banning another dog meat festival, the Jinhua Hutou Dog Meat Festival. These efforts are happening despite attempts by industry to disguise what is an inherently violent trade -- for example, requiring that all dog slaughter in Yulin happen at night, outside of the public eye. Rising global agitation for animals, in the face of attempts by industry to suppress the flow of video footage, portend a movement for animals that is on the cusp of exploding.

That should give us hope for the dogs of Yulin. But it should also push us to keep challenging what is happening to animals here at home, so we can one day create a world where every animal -- cat and dog, cow and hen -- is free from violence.