August 9, 2006
Chinese officials killed 50,000 dogs the other day. Just walked along the streets and lured them out of their homes and bushes and doghouses using whistles and firecrackers and then clubbed them to death with giant sticks, right there in the residential streets, tossed the bodies into big dump trucks and drove on.
It was a horrific scene, seemingly unimaginable in our "enlightened" age, a fully sanctioned slaughter ordered up by the local Chinese government in response to the recent deaths of three local people from rabies. Without some sort of action, more people could die, the government deduced. Solution: Kill all the dogs.
Problem solved, right? Well, not quite.
Now another Shanghai prefecture has ordered the slaughter of all its dogs, too, in response to the rabies-related deaths of 16 people in the past eight months. This particular region has an estimated 500,000 dogs. No word yet on how it plans to kill them all, but the strolling-and-clubbing thing might be the only way, given how even Chinese citizens tend to be slightly uncooperative when it comes to giving up their pets for government massacre in front of their eyes.
Chinese authorities fear a rabies epidemic. Already in China, upward of 2,000 people die a year from rabies (only 3 percent of China's dogs are vaccinated). It's a worsening problem. It is not, by most estimates, as potentially lethal as the bird flu epidemic, but it's still highly dangerous. Given how they say it's far too late (and far too expensive) to vaccinate all the dogs, the clearest way to stop the epidemic is, well, to kill all the dogs. Isn't it?
There is nowhere to look for the right answer. How do you process this? How can you file such an unspeakably brutal and seemingly heartless approach? Maybe you are shaking your head in disbelief. Maybe you can't process it at all, but you must admit, it brings up a number of powerful -- and deeply revealing -- notions of just who we think we are.
Start with the birds. Recent bird flu outbreaks prompted the slaughter of chickens all over Asia. In 1997, Hong Kong slaughtered 1.2 million chickens to try to stop the first big outbreak, but it was only the tip of the bloody iceberg. Asia (and to a lesser degree, Africa and India) have since slit the throats of hundreds of millions of birds to stop what some scientists see as the most deadly potential epidemic of this age.
So, the obvious question: Was the poultry slaughter any less horrible than what's now happening to the dogs? More justifiable because of the potential for human loss? Maybe so. Or maybe it's simply because we love fuzzy cute dogs more than ugly dumb chickens.
It is difficult to parse. Obviously, dogs are much less valued in China as pets, as creatures with soul, than they are in the United States. It is an ugly cultural divide we cannot easily traverse.
By most estimates, China has a decidedly ruthless perspective on the animal kingdom. For one thing, a billion people with an enormous underclass of poverty translates into one of the most truly bizarre food marketplaces in the world, one that would certainly make most Americans quite sick. Or instantly vegetarian.
As my knowledgeable traveler friends tell me (and many food shows and travel documentaries indicate), there is nothing else on this planet quite like a Chinese "wet market" for experiencing the full, glistening, slimy array of the animal kingdom, all manner of parts and organs and skins and droppings and other ghastly unmentionables -- not to mention insects and sea creatures and freakishly colored squishy things few people seem to be able to clearly identify -- that can be eaten by humans.
They eat everything. No animal is off limits, no body part impossible to skewer or steam or peel or eat raw while still warm from the body.
And there are plenty of tales of what constitutes a food delicacy in China that may seem terribly weird or cruel to us. But overall, you can also argue that it's a very efficient and thorough system. Nothing is wasted.
But wait. Is America really that much more evolved? Do we not kill millions of ill-bred, hormone-injected, mistreated animals every single day in giant industrial slaughterhouses to feed our gluttonous and largely toxic fast-food cravings? You bet we do.
As for dogs, well, we love them to death: Our nation's overrun animal shelters kill an estimated 3 million to 4 million dogs and cats per year because of overbreeding and puppy mills and ignorance of spaying and neutering. They're not even suspected of being rabid. They are no threat whatsoever.
You have to ask: Are we much better at our treatment of animals simply because we've learned to hide it better? Most of us will never come anywhere near one of those gruesome industrial feedlots in, say, rural Kansas or Oklahoma, where they cram tens of thousands of cattle into concrete pens, and the air is so thick with fetid gases and feces and smokestack spewings that you can smell the stench 100 miles away.
But hey, at least we don't club our dogs in the streets in broad daylight. We're not, you know, monsters.
To be fair, many in China were outraged by the initial dog slaughter. The brutality, the primitive approach, are simply unspeakable, even for a country known for its dispassionate attitude toward the animal world. Then again, many said the mass slaughter was entirely appropriate. After all, 2,000 people died in one year. Of course, 100,000 also died from government-sanctioned smoking addictions. But, you know, oh well.
The wise ones say you can measure the wisdom and spiritual consciousness of a culture by how it treats its animals. But it's a strange maxim. It is a guideline that is nearly impossible to properly navigate in the modern world, no matter what the culture, simply because there are so many gross contradictions, from respectful and tender to ruthless and abusive.
And it's not just China. And it's not merely animals. It is nothing new, this mass-slaughter idea, emerging from somewhere deep within our darkest and most mindless souls: Got a bad case of something? Problem with some sort of unwanted infestation? Mad cows? Killer bees? Dogs? Chickens? Gays? Jews? Kurds? Tibetans? Rwandans? Sudanese? Pagans? Witches? Communists? Indians? Serbs? Palestinians? Terrorists? That's easy: Kill 'em all.
The method is, apparently, in our blood. We do it all the time.
We know this much: There appears to be a line somewhere. We all seem to sense it, though no one can quite put a finger on it. We know this line speaks to us as a supposedly enlightened species, as the creatures with the most advanced brains and (presumably) most nimble and sophisticated souls.
But if we're honest, it makes us all a little uneasy, a little uncomfortable as the line often seems to demarcate not how enlightened we are but how far we truly seem to be from any sort of true evolution or advancement of spirit. Because so far, the best we as a species seem to have come up with is this: Do not kill innocent things in broad daylight with large sticks.
The rest is, to say the least, still more than a little murky.
Mark Morford's column appears Wednesdays and Fridays in Datebook and on SFGate.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org