Written by Shantanu Kishwar
Disclaimer: This article contains explicit images that may not be suitable for all audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.
The Yulin Dog Festival begins tomorrow. The festival marks the summer solstice, being celebrated from the 21st to the 30th of June in the town of Yulin in Southern China.
Officially known as the Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, it is relatively small and, as the name suggests, is marked by the consumption of dog meat and lychees. Celebrated in Yulin alone, the festival is a recent affair, dating back only to 2009. This year, as was the case for previous years, I have seen umpteen protests on social media calling for its ban.
In general, the consumption of dog meat has been a popular practice in the country and other parts of Asia for millennia. Eating this is believed to help generate warmth in the body in the winter months, ward of diseases, and even improve sexual performance. The ten days of the festival see approximately 10000 dogs (and some cats) slaughtered and consumed.
Undressing the Hypocrisy
Before proceeding, one thing should be made abundantly clear: neither does this article support the festival nor the slaughtering of dogs in any which way. This is simply an attempt to rationally examine an emotionally charged issue. A great deal of the outrage that condemns Yulin’s festival is selective in nature and ignores the more globally prevalent slaughter and consumption of other animals such as chicken, pigs, sheep, etc. Even vegetarianism comes with its own set of animal abuse that cannot be ignored — those that consume dairy are party to the ill-treatment of cattle for milk, and those that consume eggs are complicit in the ills of poultry farming.
Outrage against the festival has increased over the years, ranging (most popularly) from online petitions and condemnation circulated on social media to the rescue of dogs in the days leading up to the festival. While this may be justified and defensible, it also reeks of ethnocentrism and narrow-mindedness.
Our Executive Director, Dr. John Sessa is in China right now, on a #VanderpumpDogs international Rescue Mission during the Yulin Dog Meat Festival. Stay tuned as we take you along our journey as we visit shelters and provide medicine, supplies and support! pic.twitter.com/ar8ARGXk8V
— Vanderpump Dogs (@VanderpumpDogs) June 18, 2018
Fundamentally, the disgust of many of these petitioners is rooted in an arbitrary division of animals into ‘food’ and ‘friendly’. Chickens? Food. Dogs? Friendly. Goats? Food. Cats? Friendly. And the list goes on. This is what animal rights activists refer to as ‘speciesism’, where particular species are treated better or worse than others based on arbitrary distinctions. What is ignored by those that abide by these distinctions is that they are culture-specific; universalising them violates the very ethos of liberal thought.
Livestock and poultry face a terrible fate in the factory farms where they are born, live and die. Yet, for the same reason that their slaughter and consumption is ignored, poultry and livestock’s cries for help fall on deaf ears.
The further criticism that many dogs killed in the festival are stolen pets is fair, although it is noteworthy that the violation of animal rights of the dogs is not being protested as much as the property right of their human ‘owners’. Evidence might also be found to prove the supposed benefits of dog consumption wrong, but there is also a great deal of evidence that argues the negative effects of all meat consumption, and of meat from factory farms in particular.
The Indian Activist’s Dilemma
Understanding the outrage against the Yulin Dog Festival is even more complicated for Indians. Dog meat in India is consumed by small populations in the Northeast, who often find themselves socially ostracised and embroiled in legal battles for doing so. Although large segments of India’s population is vegetarian, there has been a massive growth in meat consumption in recent decades. As per a sample registration system (SRS) survey released in 2014, 71% of Indians over the age of 15 were non-vegetarian; trends predicted a rise in this number. This demand is once again sourced from factory-farming of animals who have no hope of living a life with ‘rights’.
Invoking the animal rights of dogs and cats loses its value when put in the context of current controversies regarding beef consumption. Many who protest the concept of dog-meat consumption also protested restrictions imposed on the cattle trade in 2017 and the consequent ‘beef ban’, despite the fact that cows are not only friendly but are also considered to be sacred to millions across the country. In this context, not allowing for the consumption of beef is considered ‘illiberal’ and small-minded, but amidst political agendas, the same animal rights of cows are forgotten.
Principles must apply universally; just as condoning the consumption of chicken while condemning beef is hypocritical, so is demanding the right to slaughter cows but not dogs. Also to be considered is the lack of similar anger over the killing of thousands of goats across the country at the recently concluded Bakr-id every year, due to the same arbitrary distinction between food and friendly.
To denounce the Yulin dog festival in isolation and dog eating in general as barbaric seems logical and humanitarian, but it is also reminiscent of the civilised vs savage discourse that ‘justified’ colonialism. It masks a false sense of moral superiority, especially when put in the context of the hypocrisy that accompanies these demands. Selectively condemning dog eating is an invocation of animal rights as per the convenience of one’s personal whims and politics.