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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Live Animals

Air Date: Week of

The Spanish named the city of San Francisco after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron Saint of animals. But, today animal rights activists say San Francisco is the site of terrible cruelty to animals where Asian markets routinely torture, starve and abuse the frogs, turtles, fish and birds they sell for food. Now protesters are leading an effort to ban the sale of live animals in food markets. They are opposed by Chinatown merchants who say they are already feeling targeted by anti-immigrant state and federal legislation, and vow not to give up age old customs governing something as fundamental as the way they eat. Fritz Faerber has our story.


CURWOOD: The Spanish may have named the city of San Francisco after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. But today, animal rights activists say San Francisco is the site of terrible cruelty to animals. Asian markets, they say, routinely torture, starve, and abuse the frogs, turtles, fishes, and birds they sell for food. So the protesters are leading an effort to ban these sales. They are opposed by Chinatown merchants who say they are already feeling targeted by anti-immigrant state and Federal legislation, and vow not to give up age-old customs governing something as fundamental as the way they eat. Fritz Faerber has our story.

(Packaging sounds; voices; squawking)

FAERBER: At Ming Kee Gamebirds an employee pulls a squawking squab out of a cage, sticks it in a paper bag with air holes, staples it shut, and hands it to a customer. The small, cramped store in the middle of San Francisco's bustling Chinatown sells several hundred birds a day to shoppers like Mike Higashi, who has bought live birds for food since his childhood in Japan. A couple times a week he picks up a bird, takes it home, shoots it, and eats it.

HIGASHI: I mean I think of this one as, like, a vegetable. Like a lettuce, a tomato. You took the knife or a scissor out and you cut them up, and then you bring the table. I mean, I consider it food.

FAERBER: This is nothing like your typical supermarket. The faint sounds and pungent sounds of the animals fill the air. On one side of a glass wall, chickens, partridges, squabs, and other birds fill a row of cages stacked several feet high. On the other side, shoppers line up to pick out dinner. Mitalla Kung, daughter of the shop's owner, says it's customary for her mostly Chinese clientele to buy the freshest meat. She's a bit puzzled by the fact that stores like this could bother some of her San Francisco neighbors.

KUNG: I think that they object so strongly is because they've never seen live animals or actually live poultry sold. So for them to come in here and see it for the first time, it's new to them, and they don't take the time to try and understand it. So they just think it's wrong.

FAERBER: But innocence can be in the eyes of the beholder. Selling live animals for food has long seemed a barbaric practice to many here. And last fall, San Francisco's Animal Control Commission responded to these concerns by recommending that the city's Board of Supervisors ban all sales of live poultry, mammals, and amphibians. Animal rights activists like Eric Mills of the local organization Action for Animals say live animal sales can often be a nasty business.

MILLS: You see, on a routine basis, turtles with their shells being hacked off while they're fully conscious; frogs, 6 and 8 at a time, put in a bag while the butcher blindly clubs them with a meat cleaver. Then, those who are not killed are skinned alive. Turtles and frogs with no water whatsoever piled 5 and 6 deep, the ones on the bottom suffocating to death. I've seen fish cut in half and sold a fillet at a time.

FAERBER: Mr. Mills says a society has a right to decide that some activities just aren't acceptable, even if they're considered ordinary elsewhere.

MILLS: These things may be cultural in other parts of the world, but there are certain things you give up when you come to this country to gain a lot. Certain cultural practices which are traditional throughout the world, like dog fighting, cock fighting, female genital mutilation, all illegal here. This is not China. This is the United States, and these are US citizens now.

FAERBER: But in a city that prides itself on multiculturalism and tolerance, politicians are skittish about being caught between animal rights activists, and the economically powerful Asian community, that makes up nearly a fifth of the voters. The Board has taken no action on the recommendation by the Animal Welfare Commission, which is chaired by Richard Schulke.

SCHULKE: It's an issue they just don't want to deal with. It's funny because I work here in City Hall. Quite often I'll see one of the local politicians and they will practically run from me.

FAERBER: Mr. Schulke says he supports a ban because he believes that animals sold as food are often mistreated. He also cites deplorable sanitary and health conditions and worries about endangered or protected species being sold. Supporters of the market say they're more humane than factory farms. But Mr. Schulke says there's an important difference.

SCHULKE: The larger poultry and the factory farming is at least overseen pretty stringently by Federal regulators or USDA, things like that, which is not done at all in the local live animal markets.

FAERBER: But Chinese merchants say their practices are only seen as offensive because most Americans are accustomed to buying their meat butchered, skinned, and shrink-wrapped, without ever seeing the animal it came from. And they accuse the Commission of hypocrisy for not targeting fish markets and restaurants, where other ethnic groups buy live crab, lobster, and fish.

(Metal cLangeing)

FAERBER: Back at Ming Kee Gamebirds, a worker cleans the cages and makes sure the birds have food and water. Mitella Kung points out that supermarket poultry is often pumped full of steroids and other chemicals, has been frozen, or has been sitting on the shelf for days. Her customers slaughter their own birds and know the meat is fresh. She says this is part of Chinese culture, and suggests that people who oppose it are being ethno-centric.

KUNG: Who are they to say that we cannot do it because we feel that it's right? This is America. America is not only one culture. It's based on, you know, every single culture put together. That's what makes America beautiful, because we can act upon our culture. And it's for other people from other cultures to come and learn.

FAERBER: Members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors are urging the Asian merchants and animal rights activists to sit down and reach some accommodation. But neither side seems interested. The animal rights activists are taking 12 Chinatown markets to court, seeking an injunction to stop selling live food. They are also considering introducing a city-wide ballot initiative banning the practice. For Living on Earth, I'm Fritz Faerber in San Francisco.



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