Holiday traditions are very closely related to the cultures in which they occur, so can seem very strange to outsiders. Fireworks, which we use to celebrate Independence Day in America, are pretty common around the world. But what about the American tradition of having children hunt for brightly colored eggs at Easter but not eating them? This might make absolutely no sense to somebody from a poor country where all food is precious.
Likewise, La Tomatina, which takes place every August in Buñol, Spain, probably seems strange to Americans. This is an event in which people dress up in white and then engage in what is basically a citywide food fight with tomatoes.
The “normalness” of a custom is all a matter of perspective. The more alien it is to what you’re used to, the less comprehensible it becomes. To Westerners, especially in North America and Europe, there is probably no custom more incomprehensible — and reprehensible — than the annual Yulin Dog Meat festival which, unfortunately, is exactly what it sounds like.
The good news is that this year in particular, the festival received a lot of negative attention from around the world, and even officials in the city of Yulin have distanced themselves from the event, claiming that there are no dog meat festivals sponsored by any government organization.
It’s not just the rest of the world that is appalled by the festival. Increasingly, the people of China are raising objections, with at least one activist traveling to the area every year to buy dogs with the intention of saving their lives and giving them homes. In the last several decades, pet ownership in China has skyrocketed, and they are learning what Westerners have known for a long time: Our special relationship with dogs makes the idea of putting them on our dinner plates revolting.
However, it’s all a matter of perspective. If you’re in the U.S., how did you celebrate the Fourth of July? Chances are, it involved a barbecue and meat from cows, chickens, pigs, or all three — Americans eat hot dogs, not dogs. In the U.S. in 2014, 31.9 million cattle were slaughtered for food, probably more than a quarter million alone just for this long weekend. In Yulin in 2015, they killed and ate about 10,000 dogs.
I’m not condoning the dog meat festival. Far from it and, in fact, I’m working along with other animal rights defenders to try to stop it and all other festivals like it. But these numbers should give us some perspective. Yes, of course, eating beef and chicken and pork in the U.S. is considered normal, but let me give you one more number.
That’s the number of dogs that are killed every year in the U.S., and they aren’t being killed for food. They’re being killed because they’re unwanted. That’s a hundred and twenty times as many dogs as are killed for the festival in Yulin, and that is every single year.
Things have been improving slowly, with that number decreasing, but it’s still 1.2 million dogs too many — nearly 3,300 killed every single day. So, while the world is rightfully outraged about a dog meat festival — a Change.org petition opposing it has gathered a near-record 4.3 million signatures to date — we should see a hundred and twenty times that number protesting the senseless slaughter of abandoned dogs in shelters.
And those numbers are just in the U.S. In some countries, unwanted dogs are killed by their owners or terribly abused and left to die, and there was enormous outrage before the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, when Russian officials ordered the shooting of stray dogs to get them off of the streets.
But it’s not all bad news. In Germany, spay and neuter awareness programs and public education have worked so well that there are plenty of spaces in shelters, so they have actually been taking in unwanted dogs from other countries.
So it’s not an impossible dream, and if we can borrow some of the outrage over the Yulin festival and channel it, we can achieve it by taking the steps necessary to reduce the population of unwanted dogs through humane education, spay and neuter awareness, and helping people to understand how to have balanced, well-behaved dogs.
Inhumane treatment of animals is still inhumane no matter where it occurs or how it’s done, whether it’s for someone’s dinner in China or because someone didn’t want a dog in America.
We can change that if we work together. Dogs can’t speak for themselves, but we can speak for them, no matter where they are in the world.
Stay calm, and save the 1.2 million!